For an NFL quarterback, there's a fine line between aggressiveness and recklessness, and Geno Smith understands he crossed that line too often in last Monday night's 27-19 loss to the Bears at MetLife Stadium.
With the benefit of hindsight and careful film study, the Jets' quarterback knows he should never have tried to complete a screen pass to running back Chris Johnson on his second play from scrimmage. Had he done the smart thing and thrown the ball to the ground, Bears safety Ryan Mundy would never have had the chance to pick the ball off and return it for a touchdown.
Smith knows, too, that his first-down pass in the end zone to David Nelson late in the third was another poor decision. If you're going to make that pass, then throw it in the back of the end zone where only Nelson can get it; don't float it and make it a jump ball between Nelson and cornerback Kyle Fuller. Unfortunately for Smith, he did the latter, and Fuller picked it off.
"Obviously, I had two costly turnovers, and I'd rather do a better job with that," Smith said. "That is something that I have gotten better with, but it has to continue to be in the front of my mind, always protecting that football and taking care of my team."
It was Smith's first multi-interception game since he was in the midst of a midseason slump last year, when he threw two picks in a 19-3 loss in Baltimore. The previous week, he had three interceptions in a 37-14 loss in Buffalo.
With the Jets now at 1-2 and facing a series of opponents featuring big-time quarterbacks -- starting today with Matthew Stafford's Lions at MetLife Stadium -- Smith understands he has to get the problem corrected in a hurry.
"You don't want to start off 1-3 . . . so I expect us to come out and play well on Sunday," he said.
Smith has to be the one to set the tone, and the only way he does that is protect the football better than he did on Monday. Not an easy task against Detroit's much-improved defense; the Lions come off a 19-7 win over the Packers, holding All Pro quarterback Aaron Rodgers to just 162 passing yards and a first-quarter touchdown.
"This is an issue now. There is no question about that," Jets offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg said of Smith's turnovers. "Good quarterbacks take care of the ball. Now that's not to say that great quarterbacks are not going to have some bad games, but consistently take care of the football. We have discussed that and we emphasize it daily, and [Smith] simply has been too loose there and it's that simple. So that needs to be corrected, and Geno is a tough guy mentally now, so I suspect that he'll continue a little progression there and get better at that."
At his best, Smith is an efficient passer who can manage the offense well, use his legs to run the ball when the opportunity presents itself, and play off the Jets' impressive ground game by using the play-action pass to his advantage. But that formula doesn't work when Smith turns the ball over. We saw it consistently last year -- the Jets were 1-6 in games when Smith had two or more interceptions -- and we saw it again on Monday.
Just as the Jets were within one score the previous week in a 31-24 loss to the Packers, they were a touchdown and two-point conversion away from tying the Bears on Monday. But wide receiver Jeremy Kerley couldn't get both feet in bounds on Smith's late fourth-quarter throw, and the Jets' comeback attempt fizzled.
Smith understands there will be calls for Rex Ryan to go with veteran Michael Vick in the event Smith continues to struggle. For now, Ryan is standing by Smith, and there doesn't appear to be a groundswell of support within the Jets' locker room to go with Vick. Nor should there be; you don't spend an entire offseason with Smith as the starter, go through an entire training camp and then three weeks into the season suddenly change course.
The Jets have invested a second-round pick and 19 starts in Smith, so it's silly to simply throw that all away and hand the team over to a 34-year-old quarterback who has 13 games left to the season before he becomes a free agent. Vick still has plenty of football left in him, but let's not forget that he, too, has had turnover issues through most of his career. Consider: Since enjoying a career year with the Eagles in 2010 with just six interceptions in 12 games, he had 27 interceptions in his next 29 games.
That's not to say Ryan should go indefinitely with Smith, especially if the quarterback continues to turn the ball over. But don't forget that Smith emerged from last year's midseason slump and went 3-1 the final month of the season, throwing just two interceptions in that span.
Have a little patience, people.
"Sometimes you have to go through some bad stuff to become great," Mornhinweg said. "We're right in the middle of that process and that learning curve. We all want it now, but we just have to step back, look at the big picture and we are going to go through some ups and downs. [Smith] will have some fabulous games where he does the right thing. And look, even a great quarterback is going to have a [bad] play or two, but it is incomplete and it doesn't blow up. That is where we have to focus in on. That part of it, minimize the negative plays."
Mornhinweg's message: Give it some time.