FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — Though it was barely audible, Todd Bowles made his statement.
With questions mounting on whether Geno Smith finally had lost his backup position to Bryce Petty, Bowles said quietly — but with finality — that Smith would still be his go-to after Ryan Fitzpatrick during Saturday’s preseason game against the Giants.
After practice Wednesday, Bowles was asked if he knew who would be coming in second after Fitzpatrick, who is expected to play for most, if not all, of the first half for the Jets.
“Yeah, I do,” Bowles said, with a smile. Asked twice who that person was, he relented.
“Uh, Geno,” he said.
Bowles’ nod of approval for Smith is particularly notable because Petty had one of his strongest performances last week against Washington. Last year’s fourth-round pick completed 16 of 26 passes for 242 yards, two TDs and a pick while Smith faltered, going 6-for-13 for 47 yards and an interception. It also lends credence to the idea that the Jets will start the season with four quarterbacks — rookie Christian Hackenberg isn’t going anywhere and Petty has done what he can to earn his spot on the 53-man roster.
“You can just tell he’s growing overall,” quarterback coach Kevin Patullo said of Petty, adding that he’s making better, quicker decisions, a result of his mounting confidence.
“His whole picture is getting cleaner and stuff like that. Just as a whole, it’s all growing. He’s understanding more. His questions are better. What he sees in the film room is better, and you can tell it’s just translating to the field a little bit cleaner. He knows there’s still stuff he needs to work on, and they all do. He understands what’s good and bad and what he needs to focus on.”
But staying with Smith as the backup — at least for now — indicates the Jets value his experience and see signs of improvement. Smith has been plagued by bad decision-making in his three-year career, with a 4.1 interception percentage. In his last full season — before 2015 was derailed by a broken jaw, courtesy of IK Enemkpali’s punch — he had 13 picks in 14 games, which was nonetheless a vast improvement from his rookie year, when he threw 21 interceptions.
Patullo said Smith “understands more now what to do after the play, whether it’s a good play or bad play, he sees the picture better, which is good, He sees the picture cleanly. He’s been doing this longer now, so the more you do it, the more you understand and the more you see new, sometimes, defensive looks.”
And there’s no arguing that Smith knows how to roll with the changing tide. Once he had some measure of job security last summer, he was punched by his teammate. He was supplanted by Fitzpatrick and remained No. 2 even when he recovered. Then he worked as the team’s presumptive starter throughout this offseason, while Fitzpatrick and the Jets were in a stalemate over Fitzpatrick’s contract.
Appropriately, Smith’s view on his job is somewhat zen.
“Just go out there and execute, go out there and make the right reads and execute,” Smith said of his gameplan for Saturday. “It’s all the same for me, because every single rep counts, every single minute of practice or in the game counts, so you always have to have that mentality so things don’t change no matter what the situation is.”
Although Hackenberg hasn’t played in either preseason game, Patullo said he’s studying intently and right on target for where he should be. “He’s your typical rookie right now and they’re all swimming a little bit,” he said. “But he’s doing good, learning as fast as he can. He’s a hard-working kid, so that’s all we can ask for.”
Bowles said although it will be difficult, he’d like to see Hackenberg get a few snaps against the Giants, but it’s clear he still has a long way to go, and that most of his work will be coming in the film room. “We’re just trying to see where he’s at,’’ Patullo said, “what he knows.”