Geno Smith knew he’d get another chance. He just didn’t know if it would be with this team, in this uniform.
But after all those months of being relegated to the sideline and riding the bench behind fan-favorite Ryan Fitzpatrick, the time has come for him to lead the Jets offense once more.
“I did believe I’d get another shot in general,” Smith told Newsday after Thursday’s practice. “I don’t know about here or anywhere. I didn’t know where. It honestly wasn’t even important where it was. It was just a matter of, whenever I got my opportunity, I needed to be ready.”
The fourth-year quarterback has gone from discarded castoff to potential savior, as Jets fans cling to the hope that 2016 will not be a lost season after all. And on Sunday, it’ll be the embattled Smith leading the Jets against the banged-up Baltimore Ravens (3-3) in his first start since 2014.
“Going out there and playing Sunday, it’s a wonderful opportunity,” Smith said. “But it’s about every guy in this locker room and trying to get a victory for us. Not me, but for all of us.”
The news of Fitzpatrick’s benching on Wednesday came as little surprise considering the state of the Jets (1-5). Their vaunted defense does not scare anyone; their offense is a mere shell of the potent weapon it was a year ago; and Fitzpatrick’s erratic play left them scuffling en route to a four-game losing streak.
With each passing game, their playoff hopes have withered too. So has the collective patience of Jets Nation.
“We hadn’t put any points up and we’re trying to get a spark somewhere so I made the change,” coach Todd Bowles said. “ . . . And we have some things in place where we think another quarterback will probably, right now, be beneficial.”
It’s been 22 months since Smith owned the job outright. There was no looking over his shoulder back then, nor was there a question of who was the current face of the franchise. The team, the offense, all of it belonged to him back on Dec. 28, 2014, when he threw for 358 yards, three touchdowns and had a perfect 158.3 passer rating in a 37-24 road-win over Miami in their season finale. The Jets finished 4-12.
Less than eight months later, Smith’s jaw was cracked in two places during a locker room altercation with then-teammate IK Enemkpali and the Jets then had moved on to a new quarterback: his backup, Fitzpatrick.
In an exclusive interview with Newsday on Nov. 10, 2015, Smith refuted reports that the altercation with Enemkpali stemmed from his refusal to pay off a $600 debt. “I didn’t owe him. No,” he said at the time. “That’s the biggest misconception in America.”
It would take another 14 months before Smith would be entrusted with the offense again — not because of the organization’s overwhelming faith in him, but because Fitzpatrick had simply given Bowles no choice. His league-leading 11 interceptions could no longer be ignored, nor could Chan Gailey’s anemic offense.
Now it’s on Smith, 26, to prove that he’s progressed in the pocket and that he’s matured in the huddle.
He downplayed the significance of his first start in nearly two years and instead highlighted the importance of getting the team “back on track.
“It’s not just going to be me,” Smith said. “It’s going to take the [offensive] line to protect, it’s going to take the backs to run the ball well and the line to finish blocks, it’s going to take our wideouts to make big plays, the defense has gotta go out there and make stops. And so it’s got to be a complete team game and we’ve got to go out there together and do it.
“We could talk about me all day, but honestly, on Sunday, it’s about all of us. And we’ve got to come together right now in a tough time like this and figure it out.”
Off-the-field incidents, including “The Punch,” kept Smith’s name in the headlines for all the wrong reasons. But the coaching staff and his teammates made a point last season to point out that he was maturing as a quarterback and as a leader.
“I’ve only been in this market for two years, and I know how tough it is,” receiver Brandon Marshall said. “You take a kid that’s 22 years old and he’s the starting quarterback in the National Football League and you have grown men crushing him, just talking bad, taking it too far. That’s not professional. That’s not right.
“A lot of these guys talking about guys like Geno in the media are grown men, guys that can be his father. Just imagine if that was your kid in that situation, a guy that was trying his best, but maybe messing up here and there. So, I commend him for being able to pick himself up when he has made mistakes and I’m excited that he has an opportunity to prove himself.”
Smith — who acknowledged that the altercation with Enemkpali “kind of took a shot at my character. And I understand it.” — insisted he’s no longer thinking about the past or the disappointing setbacks along the way.
“From the outside perspective looking in, yeah, it can be a tough deal,” said the 2013 second-round pick. “But I had a lot of fun last year, I have a great family, a great supporting cast. And so when you have great people in your life, it tends to eliminate some of those hardships, I guess. I’m just focused on the future. I think the future’s bright and I really look forward to it.”
Smith was poised to take the reins of the offense in training camp, but that was before Fitzpatrick returned having signed a one-year, $12 million deal on July 27. Smith told reporters he was “kind of [ticked] off” by his demotion, adding: “That just adds fuel to the fire, but not in a negative way.”
This summer, he also likened the preseason schedule as his “audition” for the Jets — and the other 31 NFL teams. But on Thursday, Smith stressed that he’s only concerned about the moment at hand.
“I mean, I said that in the offseason and you know, I’m not retracting those statements, but I’m not focused on any of that,” he said. “What I said back then is what I said. And it is what is it. I’m not really focused on that part of it. I just want to go out there and play the game and be sharp in my reads and just take care of what needs to be taken care of.”
The good news for the Jets is that he provides a much stronger arm and better escapability in the pocket than Fitzpatrick. But the key for Smith — who had 34 interceptions and 41 total turnovers in his first two seasons — will be protecting the football.
And true test comes Sunday — in an actual game played in front of a fans who, at one point, had grown tired of seeing him.
“You can’t really talk about what you’re going to be. You have to go out there and prove it,” said Smith, who went 11-18 as a starter. “I’m not a different person, I’m the same guy. I’ve just got to make smarter decisions.”
April 26, 2013
Jets take Geno Smith 39th overall to compete with incumbent Mark Sanchez.
Aug. 24, 2013
Benched after throwing 3 picks against Giants but Sanchez suffers season-ending injury.
Oct. 7, 2013
Throws 3 TDs as Jets upset Falcons on Monday Night Football.
An “inappropriate” photo of Smith circulates on the web.
Jan. 17, 2014
Smith deboards a plane before takeoff at LAX after a verbal exchange with a flight attendant.
Sept. 28, 2014
Following a 24-17 loss to the Lions at MetLife Stadium, Smith is caught on camera yelling an expletive at a fan.
Oct. 4, 2014
After missing a team meeting the night before the Jets-Chargers game, he gets the start anyway but is benched for Michael Vick during the Jets’ 31-0 loss.
Oct. 26, 2014
Benched again after throwing 3 picks in a six-play span, exiting with a 0.0 QB rating.
Dec. 28, 2014
Comples 20 of 25 passes for 358 yards and perfect QB rating of 158.3 against Dolphins.
Aug. 11, 2015
Suffers broken jaw during a locker-room altercation with then-teammate IK Enemkpali. Ryan Fitzpatrick is named the starter.
July 27, 2016
After spending the entire offseason as the presumptive starter, Smith is back to being the backup after Fitzpatrick and the Jets agree to a new deal.
Oct. 17, 2016
Replaces Fitzpatrick with eight minutes to left in an eventual 28-3 loss in Arizona.
Oct. 19, 2016
Smith is named the Jets starter for the foreseeable future after Fitzpatrick’s 1-5 start and an NFL-leading 11 interceptions.