Brandon Marshall has been the Jets' most productive player on the field this season. As it turns out, he may be the most important player off it, too. Especially if the heartfelt conversation he had with Geno Smith turns out to be a harbinger for the quarterback's re-emergence after the sucker punch to his jaw last summer threatened to derail his career.
With the Jets now reeling after back-to-back road losses to the Patriots and the Raiders, it was Marshall providing the kind of veteran leadership and perspective that this team will need. Especially now that the quarterback situation has been thrown for yet another loop.
Ryan Fitzpatrick's freakish thumb injury he suffered on the Jets' first possession in Sunday's 34-20 loss has opened the door for Smith to become the starter for the first time since IK Enemkpali belted him in the locker room over a $600 plane ticket. Depending on what happens to Fitzpatrick's left (non-throwing) thumb, Smith may be the quarterback for the foreseeable future.
Although there may be some doubt for Jets fans who had become frustrated by Smith's ineffectiveness in his first two seasons, Marshall offered some heartfelt reassurance to the young quarterback after the Jets were battered by the resurgent Raiders.
Smith made his share of ill-advised plays, no question. Especially the decision not to go out of bounds after a 29-yard scramble around right end early in the fourth quarter. Smith needlessly took on cornerback David Amerson instead of running out of bounds, and paid for it by taking a shot to the left shoulder. Smith feels he'll be well enough to play next week at home against the Jaguars, but there are further medical evaluations to come.
A terrible choice, no question. He should have known better.
And there were two head-scratching decisions to take sacks later in the quarter, instead of throwing the ball out of bounds to not only stop the clock, but to keep the Jets in more manageable situations.
"That was just poor play on my part," Smith said. "I should have thrown the ball away, given us a better shot, maybe go for it on fourth down. I just think it was a boneheaded play. I should have thrown the ball away."
But the mistakes couldn't stop Marshall from focusing more on what Smith did right. A wide receiver simply blowing smoke in an attempt to make the best of a bad situation? Perhaps. But Marshall, who himself battled through ankle and toe injuries, seemed sincere in his assessment of why Smith can prosper now that his second chance has arrived.
"When Geno settled down, I thought he played amazing," said Marshall, who led the Jets with nine catches for 108 yards. "I thought he played with a lot of grit. Like I told him, I'm really proud of him. It's been a long offseason for him, listening to all the noise. It was a tough camp for him, for the obvious reasons."
But Marshall believes the experience will benefit Smith in terms of how the quarterback reacted after the punch.
"I'm just so proud of the kid," Marshall said. "There's a lot of people that would fold. They wouldn't even have been in the mind-set that he was in, to come in and do what he was able to do, because it would have been, 'Woe is me.' It took some work, but he's right where he needs to be."
We'll soon find out. After back-to-back losses, the Jets' schedule softens up considerably over the next month, with home games against Jacksonville, Buffalo and Miami, and a road game in Houston. Depending on Fitzpatrick's health, Smith could be the starter for all of them. That includes a Thursday night prime-time game Nov. 12 against the Bills, when Rex Ryan makes his return to MetLife Stadium.
And guess who will be there, too: Enemkpali, who was claimed on waivers by Ryan the day he punched Smith. Talk about a drama-filled way for Smith to get back at his former teammate.
"Every chance I get to step on the field is a way for me to prove my worth," said Smith, who was 27-for-42 for 265 yards, two TD passes and one interception. "We've got a lot to play for, a lot of veteran guys that really care about each other."
Now he needs to earn that rematch by taking advantage of his second chance.
Smith can do himself some favors by applying the lessons he has learned from Fitzpatrick, a savvy veteran who makes up for any physical limitations he might have with a terrific grasp of the game and an unflappable personality.
"I took a lot away from him, his calm demeanor, the way he leads the team, the way he goes about his business," Smith said. "You can learn a lot from a veteran like Ryan. I'm watching, I'm learning, I'm studying."
His second chance is here, and Smith is hoping for a better result. His go-to wide receiver is confident that will be the case.
"The good thing is we got a lot of reps in the offseason," Marshall said. "There are still some things we have to work on, but Geno is more than capable."
We'll soon find out. The Jets' season -- and Smith's career -- might depend on it.