FLORHAM PARK, N.J. - No sooner did the words come out of LaDainian Tomlinson's mouth than Geno Smith underscored exactly what the future Hall of Fame running back was talking about.
Tomlinson was standing on the sideline watching practice and offering his take on the Jets when Smith did what Tomlinson said he simply can't do.
"Overall, when you look at this team on paper, I think it looks like a pretty good doggone team," said Tomlinson, now an NFL Network analyst. "But the big question mark is Geno Smith. Can Geno take the next step? That's the question."
As if on cue, Smith made the kind of play that invariably leads to the answer: not yet. Smith hadn't thrown an interception in his previous nine practices, but when he threw the ball on an out pattern to the right sideline, the pass was picked off by cornerback Marcus Williams, who had nothing but wide-open space in front of him for the return.
A few minutes later, it was another pick-6 to the other side of the field by Darrelle Revis.
It's those kinds of mistakes that prompt the skepticism from Tomlinson, who played for the Jets in 2010-11 and saw Mark Sanchez make his share of bad plays. But Tomlinson also saw him play well enough to help the Jets to the AFC Championship Game after the 2010 season.
That team was constructed very similar to this one: strong defense, strong running game, questionable quarterback play.
"We felt like we had a chance, even with Mark," Tomlinson said. "We knew that if Mark made a couple of plays and didn't turn the ball over, that we would have a chance to win every game. And I'm sure these guys [on this year's team] have to be thinking the same thing: If they can just get Geno not to turn the football over and make a couple of plays every game, they'll have a good shot."
Easier said than done.
Smith has an abysmal touchdowns-to-interceptions ratio of 25-34, which is simply unacceptable. But if he can play the way he did in the final four games last year, when he had four touchdown passes and two interceptions and the Jets won three times, Tomlinson thinks they'll have a shot this year.
"Can Geno take the next step and play like he did the last four games of last year?" Tomlinson asked. "If he does, I think they've got an excellent shot at competing for the AFC East championship."
And make no mistake: The division is there for the taking, especially with the defending champion Patriots still uncertain about Tom Brady's fate related to his alleged role in the DeflateGate scandal.
But it's not only Brady's situation that makes Tomlinson think the door is open in the AFC East. It's the Patriots' loss of cornerbacks Revis and Brandon Browner, nose tackle Vince Wilfork and running backs Shane Vereen and Stevan Ridley.
"I think because of the guys that they lost in the secondary that they take a step back," Tomlinson said. "Think about it. When they have been really good and contended for a championship, they've always had a really good defense, particularly on the back end. And so not having that, it puts a lot more pressure on the offense to score more points, for Tom Brady to be that much more perfect."So it all comes down to No. 7. "The one thing that concerns me is having a new offensive coordinator [Chan Gailey]," Tomlinson said. "He had Marty [Mornhinweg] the first two years, and now you have a new coordinator and you have to learn new schemes and philosophy. But at the same time, the way he played the last four games [in 2014], maybe something clicked that said, 'I've got to take care of the football. If I don't, I'm not going to be playing.' "
The talent is there; it's a matter of adding the right decision-making to the equation. "I know what an NFL quarterback looks like when he throws the football, and that kid has an NFL arm," Tomlinson said. "He has the talent. He has the arm strength. He has a major NFL arm. It's about the decision-making, and I haven't seen enough in terms of that to make me believe he's turned the corner."
It's clearly a prove-it year for Smith, who needs to play the way he did the first two weeks of training camp -- not the way he played Monday in front of a soon-to-be Hall of Fame running back.