FLORHAM PARK, N.J. - Rex Ryan can laugh about it now, but this time last year, he was a little uneasy watching rookie quarterback Geno Smith. One thought ran through Ryan's mind as the Jets' regular-season opener against the Bucs began.
"Come on, running game,'' Ryan said, half-jokingly, after Wednesday's practice.
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The Jets won, but barely. Trailing 7-5, Smith was sacked at his 5-yard line and fumbled. On the next play, the Bucs scored, but eventually, Smith led the Jets back. In the final minute, he connected with Kellen Winslow on a 25-yard pass. Smith then scrambled 10 yards out of bounds with two seconds left, resulting in a penalty for a late hit that set up Nick Folk's 48-yard field goal for an 18-17 win.
"At the end of the day, he still makes a great run that helps us win the game. So that's encouraging,'' Ryan said of Smith, who completed 24 of 38 passes for 256 yards, with a touchdown and an interception. "But there is obviously a much greater sense of confidence that I have in him.
"I always thought that this guy could play in the league, but I feel much better about it now.''
So does Smith, but he was in no mood to revisit the past.
"I don't want to talk about last year,'' said Smith, who was in total business mode. "I'm focused on what we have ahead of us, which is the Oakland Raiders. We're preparing for a tough team and we're getting ready to go out and play a hard game.''
Smith and his teammates have talked at length about his growth and burgeoning confidence. But the time for talk is over, evidently, and Smith is eager to get the games that count underway.
"Last year doesn't matter,'' he said, dodging a question about his comfort level compared to 2013. "This year, I'm a lot more comfortable with the guys around me. It's a result of working hard and the preparation we've been putting in.
"Every guy's trusting one another, and that's a good sign for our football team.''
So what's his mindset like compared to last season?
"My mind-set from a year ago doesn't matter,'' Smith said. "I'm not focused on what happened last year. It's gone and it's far behind me.''
His main objective for 2014?
"To win,'' he said. "That's it.''
Although he believes he's made tremendous strides, Smith would rather let his play speak for him.
"We'll see,'' he said, when asked what his biggest improvement has been. "You can say a bunch of things have improved, but you've got 16 games to go out there and prove it.''
Raiders rookie quarterback Derek Carr is walking the same path Smith took last year, and he'll be starting Sunday at MetLife Stadium against Ryan's defense. But only time will tell how quickly Carr, the 36th overall pick, is able to navigate the NFL learning curve.
Smith, the 39th pick last year, said he "of course'' can relate to what Carr is going through.
"I don't know how he is feeling, but I know it's going to be a tough matchup for all of us,'' Smith said. "Whether you're a rookie or veteran, you're going to have to go out there and do your job. Execution is the name of the game.''