The Jets will sink or swim with Geno Smith.
Regardless of whether anyone internally will admit it, the next nine games are an audition for him. After an erratic rookie season and an underwhelming seven games in Year 2, Smith isn't guaranteed to be the starting quarterback after this season.
It's up to him to prove he's worthy of the job.
Beating Buffalo (4-3) on Sunday won't be easy. Though the Bills have lost their two best running backs (C.J. Spiller, who is on injured reserve with a broken collarbone, and Fred Jackson, who will miss several weeks with a groin injury), the Bills have one of the best defensive front fours in the NFL and have registered a league-high 24 sacks.
They've also had their own issues at quarterback this season. But unlike Rex Ryan, Bills coach Doug Marrone chose to make a change, replacing 2013 first-round pick EJ Manuel with veteran journeyman Kyle Orton.
Marrone said it was "a tough decision'' but felt it was the right move for his team.
"It goes by performance,'' the Bronx-born Marrone, whose Bills are 2-1 since Orton took over, said during a Wednesday conference call. "And we were looking for more production and EJ has taken a step back and he's doing very well supporting Kyle any time he can or anything he can do to help.''
After back-to-back losses in Weeks 3 and 4, Marrone sat Manuel, who had a 58.0 completion percentage, five touchdown passes and three interceptions in four games. Though Orton's numbers (68.5 completion percentage, five touchdown passes, three interceptions) are similar, the Bills believe his veteran experience gives him an edge over Manuel, the 16th overall pick last year.
"I think it was a great opportunity . . . for EJ to take a step back, gather a lot of film, to see a veteran go in there and play or prepare the leadership . . . things like that,'' said Marrone, the former head coach at Syracuse. " . . . I've told him that I think it's going to pay dividends in the long run because I think that's what happens a lot.''
Meanwhile, the Jets have chosen to stay the course with Smith despite their offensive struggles and 1-6 record. Unlike Marrone, Ryan said he's never wavered about starting Smith each week.
"Whether the improvements are noticed by everybody or not, I've noticed the improvements that he's making,'' Ryan said.
He added that the only time he's thought the 24-year-old would benefit from being benched was at halftime against the Chargers with the Jets trailing 21-0. Michael Vick replaced Smith to start the third quarter and the Jets went on to a 31-0 loss.
Said Ryan, "Again, I think the arrow's going up. Yeah, huge task in front of him this week, but I'm confident in him.''
Asked to give specific examples of improvement he's seen from Smith, Ryan cited the offensive line's improved pass protection and Smith's poise in the pocket. Ryan also praised Smith for running with the football more in the Jets' most recent game, a loss to the Patriots.
The Jets secured another weapon for Smith last week -- the speedy but controversial Percy Harvin, whom they acquired from Seattle in exchange for a conditional draft pick. It's unclear how the Jets plan to use Harvin, but he's sure to have an impact on the offense starting Sunday.
Smith, however, wasn't in the mood to discuss Harvin's potential effect on his own evaluation process.
"Quite honestly, I'm only focused on going out there and trying to win this game this weekend,'' he said. "Nothing else matters.''