FLORHAM PARK, N.J. - If this were simply a case of throw-the-bum-out-and-see-what-the-kid-can-do, the decision for Rex Ryan would be easy: Anoint rookie Geno Smith over Mark Sanchez, and be done with it.
That's a scenario that would surely please Jets fans who have grown increasingly frustrated with Sanchez's regression over the last two seasons, and Rex would win the back pages in our what-have-you-done-for-me-lately town. But this is a far more complicated and nuanced decision that Ryan and the rest of the Jets' hierarchy face.
This will be the most important quarterback decision of Ryan's career, and his admittedly poor handling of his offense over the years may ultimately conspire against him in his bid to remain the coach beyond this season. But if he handles things the right way, then owner Woody Johnson and general manager John Idzik can at least think about Ryan as more than just a lame-duck coach.
Ryan wasn't giving hints yesterday about how he might deploy his quarterbacks in Saturday night's annual preseason game against the Giants, a game that is essentially a dress rehearsal for the regular season because the starters will play into the third quarter. But Ryan needs to see what Smith can do with the first-team offense over a prolonged period. Especially after Smith missed last Saturday night's game against the Jaguars because of a sprained ankle.
Sanchez played three quarters on Saturday and showed signs of promise, yet also signs of the problems that have come to symbolize his failures of the last two seasons. There was a six-play, 59-yard touchdown drive on the Jets' first possession, when he completed all three of his passes, including a 23-yard touchdown to tight end Jeff Cumberland.
And then there was the killer interception, this time to Kellen Winslow Jr. in the end zone, a pass he tried to force into coverage. The ball was picked off by Jaguars cornerback Marcus Trufant.
Sanchez hasn't done enough to win the job outright, so it's still up for grabs. That's why Ryan needs to see what Smith can do against a capable defense like the Giants. If he performs well, moves the Jets' offense and doesn't turn the ball over, then Ryan has another piece of evidence that Smith should get the chance to start the season as the No. 1 guy.
And if he struggles and shows that he's just not ready for the leap from West Virginia to the NFL, then there's no shame in having Sanchez be the caretaker for the offense and wait until the time is right for Smith. And if Sanchez can put a tourniquet on the gushing wound his career has turned into, then the Jets can at least have a functional offense capable of competing against the NFL's have-nots.
Smith didn't exactly make his case at practice Monday. In fact, he looked dreadful. On one play, he tried to hit Stephen Hill over the middle but was picked off by linebacker Demario Davis, who returned it for a touchdown. Three plays later, safety Antonio Allen almost picked off Smith again.
It's only practice, yes. But it's the continuation of a downward trend that started before Smith sprained his ankle against the Lions in the preseason opener. And don't forget, he started off strong during offseason workouts, only to tail off badly by the end of Official Team Activities and minicamp.
Smith has yet to show the kind of command that makes him a clear-cut choice at the moment. He may need more time to master the complexities of the game, and that might necessitate Sanchez remaining the starter.
In the meantime, the Jets need to see more of what Smith has to offer, and that's why he needs to go with the first-team offense on Saturday night.
If he commands the huddle, moves his team and doesn't turn the ball over, then Ryan may have found his starter. If not, then it'll be Sanchez by default.