CORTLAND, N.Y. - By all outward appearances, starting with the single-digit numbers on their uniforms, this appears to be a highly awkward arrangement. Geno Smith wears the No. 7 that Michael Vick has worn since high school, while Vick, the longtime starter in Atlanta and Philadelphia, and now Smith's understudy, looks out of place wearing No. 1.
But the two men already have developed a close relationship in their short time together, a seemingly counterintuitive arrangement, given that both men covet the job that only one will earn. It is more than likely that the 23-year-old Smith will beat out the 34-year-old Vick, but both are more than willing to help one another. That's especially true for the elder statesman of a quarterback group that also includes Matt Simms and rookie Tajh Boyd.
"Mike is a guy who's ready to teach, willing to give his knowledge," Smith said yesterday after the Jets' first training camp practice. "Every moment we're here, I'm looking up to this guy. He's been in the league for 11 years. I can only hope to be an 11-year veteran in this league. Mike's a guy who's willing to help, and it speaks volumes about his character."
This is clearly Smith's job to lose, as evidenced by the fact that he will get close to 75 percent of the practice reps with the first-team offense. Vick, who signed a one-year, $4-million contract in March, is the more complete quarterback at this point in his career. But he has come to understand, albeit somewhat grudgingly, that it will take an injury or a prolonged stretch of inefficiency from Smith for him to take over the offense.
Vick clearly prefers to play, yet is also keenly aware of the need to keep a harmonious relationship among the quarterbacks, lest the situation be poisoned by controversy. Vick doesn't like being the backup, nor does he want to be. And while he still considers himself an elite quarterback, he has come to accept, if not completely embrace, his role as a backup.
This is how you do it. This is how you earn the trust of your coaches and your teammates, how you set the stage for the time -- if the time comes -- when you do have to take over. You conduct yourself like a good teammate should, and you share what you know, even if it means it might not benefit you and might ultimately be to your detriment if it makes Smith better.
It's what the good ones do as they get older. It is what Vick did last year in Philadelphia when Nick Foles took over after Vick got hurt and played so well that the veteran couldn't get his job back.
"The example I set for all the quarterbacks is very important," Vick said. "I think it's very important that Geno does things, whatever it takes, to be successful. I've been there before. We're together. We spend a lot of time together. I try to offer as much advice as I can, trying to help him, support him for what he's got to face."
The best advice Vick can offer to Smith: Enjoy the sport at its core.
"I've always said it's a great game. It's fun to play in this league and the most important thing I want him to do is go out and have fun," Vick said. "That's what you've got to do. If you don't, it takes away from the game."
By all appearances in the offseason, and certainly on Day 1 of camp, Smith appears to be a much more comfortable quarterback, even with the knowledge that Vick is behind him. He is more definitive in the huddle. He's got a much better grasp of Marty Mornhinweg's complex West Coast system. And his teammates are noticing a more mature, more confident quarterback.
"I think Geno looked better than I've ever seen him," wide receiver David Nelson said. "Just the small stuff. He's making audibles at the line of scrimmage which even Week 13, 14 [last season] he wasn't doing. And I see that when he's in the huddle. I see that whenever he's calling plays. I see the way he has ownership and command over the offense."
Vick sees it, too, but rather than be threatened by it because it diminishes his chances to play, he embraces it in his younger teammate. The more Vick helps Smith, the better Smith gets, the more likely it is that Vick stays on the bench. But that's how a healthy quarterback room is supposed to operate.
If Vick does get his chance to play, it has to be for legitimate reasons, not because he sabotaged the relationship with the player ahead of him.