FLORHAM PARK, N.J. - Geno Smith showed up at Radio City Music Hall with only one suit, expecting to be the first quarterback taken off the board in late April. But his fall from the first round on Day 1 of the NFL draft proved to be a blessing in disguise, he now believes.
Time has a way of altering perspective, and after an up-and-down rookie season, Smith has a newfound appreciation for all the bumps along the way.
"It couldn't have happened in a better way," Smith said of being selected 39th overall by the Jets. "Not only did it give me that fuel that I needed to go out and to be that hard-working guy every single day, but I landed in a great spot, with a great team, a great organization, and I have a bright future here."
Smith's most humbling moments -- his second-round selection and his multiple benchings -- turned out to be the best motivational tools. Despite some shaky performances, he provided enough flashes of brilliance to give his teammates a bright outlook for next season.
"I haven't seen any indication to say otherwise," receiver David Nelson said when asked if Smith is the unquestioned starter going into 2014. "I think this team believes in Geno and I think the way he's played the last four weeks speaks for itself."
Smith -- who started in place of injured veteran Mark Sanchez (shoulder surgery) -- completed 55.8 percent of his passes (247-for-443) and threw for 3,046 yards and 12 touchdowns. He also rushed for 366 yards and six touchdowns on 72 carries. But turnovers were his Achilles' heel -- and often the difference between wins and losses for the team.
Smith, who had 25 turnovers, finished fourth in interceptions (21) behind Eli Manning (27), Joe Flacco (22) and Carson Palmer (22). But Smith capped the season without any turnovers in back-to-back wins over the Browns and Dolphins.
"He worked his tail off to get better each week, and that's all we can ask," Rex Ryan said during his weekly ESPN radio spot Monday. "The last month of the season, you started seeing a big change in him."
Asked if Smith is the Jets' long-term answer at quarterback, Ryan said: "One thing I know for sure is, we'll find out. He'll be given that opportunity . . . That doesn't mean there won't be competition. But [I'm] very pleased with him. If he can continue to make those strides . . . I think he can be a great quarterback in this league."
And Smith's teammates agree.
"When Geno is on it . . . we can't lose," said kick returner / wide receiver Josh Cribbs, who suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in the Jets' Week 13 loss to Miami.
Smith -- who was benched three times, including at halftime of an eventual 23-3 loss to the Dolphins on Dec. 1 -- now credits his lowest moments for some of his biggest comebacks. He ranked 36th in total QBR from Weeks 1-13 but was second overall from Weeks 14-17, according to ESPN.com.
Smith said he now understands the coaching staff's decision to bench him and believes he's better for it. "It just lit a fire under me and it gave me that competitive edge that was always there, but I think may have needed to be pulled to the forefront," he said. "And it's something I have to work toward -- not letting that ever happen again."
Despite the strides he's taken, Smith already is preparing to fight for his starting job next season.
"As long as I'm in this league, I expect to be competing," he said. "I'm not looking at it as what I did this year going into next year. I have to put the work in in the offseason. I have to prove myself every single day in practice in order to be the starter."