FLORHAM PARK, N.J.
It is a clumsy, uncomfortable dynamic inside the Jets’ locker room, where unsigned quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick’s locker still sits empty, as if the Jets are sending a not so subtle message that this is still his team, even if he isn’t here.
Across the room stands Geno Smith, the presumptive starter if negotiations with Fitzpatrick collapse under the weight of unrealistic financial demands. It is Smith’s fourth season at that locker, having endured a convulsive set of experiences that includes two mostly unspectacular years as a starter and another as a stunned observer after the punch-out by IK Enemkpali.
As the rest of the locker room waits for what certainly feels like an eventual reunion with Fitzpatrick, Smith insists the situation isn’t as awkward — or downright weird — as the circumstances would suggest.
“Honestly, it’s not,” Smith said calmly in front of his locker before Tuesday’s opening practice of a three-day minicamp. “I don’t come into the building thinking about [Fitzpatrick’s situation]. I don’t leave the building thinking about that. My only goal when I walk in this building is how can I get better today. How can this team improve? How can this offense improve? What did we do last week? What did we do in the last practice we need to improve on?”
It is a nuanced and mature outlook from a 25-year-old not known for being nuanced or mature through much of his career. But as he approaches perhaps his final season with the Jets, he can take advantage of the unique circumstances that make him the No. 1 quarterback.
Even if it appears only a matter of time before Fitzpatrick emerges with a new deal and a return engagement as the Jets’ starter.
Smith has looked mostly solid through the offseason workouts, appearing more comfortable in his second year under coordinator and quarterback whisperer Chan Gailey. Leading an offense with Brandon Marshall, Eric Decker and Matt Forte, the best set of skill players since he came to the Jets in 2013, Smith seems to have flourished.
But we’ve seen this before from Smith. He looks good at this time of year, but not so much when the regular season starts. And if by chance the Fitzpatrick situation doesn’t result in a new contract and his return as the starter, then it is natural to view Smith’s chances skeptically.
“I’m going to continue to put my best foot forward, continue to work hard, continue to do all the things I think I need to progress as well as helping this team progress at this juncture,” Smith said.
Has he needed to re-establish himself as a locker-room leader after absorbing last year’s sucker punch and subsequent demotion? Not necessarily, he insists.
“I don’t think I need to re-establish myself rather than to prove it every single day in practice, prove it to my coaches, teammates, whoever’s watching,” he said. “My goal is to compete every single day with everyone out there and try to contribute to the best of my ability.”
He speaks carefully now and is more than willing to drop some clichés, which speaks to Smith’s uncertain stature within the organization. But it wasn’t all that long ago he was viewed as the Jets’ quarterback of the future, a second-round pick out of West Virginia who had general manager John Idzik’s stamp of approval.
But with Idzik gone and Mike Maccagnan in his place, there is no allegiance to Smith, who immediately would become Fitzpatrick’s backup. And with Maccagnan’s own draft picks — fourth-rounder Bryce Petty in 2015 and second-rounder Christian Hackenberg this year — Smith is being squeezed from all sides.
His experience means there’s still a place for him on this year’s roster — with or without Fitzpatrick — but beyond that, there are no guarantees. That’s why it is day to day, practice to practice for Smith, who is consumed with learning Gailey’s playbook, not his uncomfortable position in the locker room.
And if Smith does turn out to be coach Todd Bowles’ guy, then so be it.
“Being in the system a year, he’s light years away from where he was last year,” Bowles said after practice. “As far as being confident, operating the system, learning the checks and running the offense, he’s night and day from where he was.”
Smith takes nothing for granted.
“It’s important to stay inside that playbook,” Smith said. “You can never be too good at it. You can never have a good enough grasp of it. I’m going to continue to work hard.”
For now, this is Smith’s team once again, and he’s delighted to occupy the No. 1 spot on the depth chart.
As long as it lasts, anyway.