Stop us if you’ve heard this story before. A talented quarterback gets to the NFL, occasionally teases us with his skillset, but can’t quite seem to put his game together. This is the story of many NFL quarterbacks, and through his first two years in the league, it’s been the story of Geno Smith.
Smith has shown flashes of good quarterback play. While these instances have been few and far between, they have surfaced, which means the potential exists. So what does Geno have to do to put his game together? And what can the Jets do to help him along?
A year ago, it looked like Geno was ready to make the jump. He had a very good preseason and showed glimpses of a developing quarterback through his first 2 games. Then, the turnover bug struck him hard, just like it did when he was a rookie. He was benched twice in the first 8 games of the season and eventually lost the starting job to Michael Vick.
Decision-making, which was one of Geno’s biggest issues in his first year, became a major issue for him yet again. He often tried to make too many big plays, especially late in the down, instead of taking what the defense gave him and managing the game. This is one area he’ll need to improve if he wants to keep the starting job this season.
There are plenty of other issues that Smith must overcome as well, including his footwork on his drops. Smith’s feet are too sloppy. He takes false steps after receiving the snap and is too slow setting up. There is no urgency when he drops back. At first glance, this may seem like a small thing. However, it leads to Smith not being ready to throw on time. Windows that otherwise would be open are closed by the time he’s ready to release the ball.
The below play is a good example. This play called for Smith to catch, rock, and throw. But Geno caught the snap, took two steps, hopped, and then stepped again into his throw. The ball should have been out right here, and his receiver should have caught the ball just inside the numbers.
That’s a huge window, especially in the NFL. But Geno was a few ticks too slow because he was late setting up. By the time he released the ball, his receiver was too far out of his cut, and Smith ended up firing the pass behind him.
In addition to being late, it appeared as though Smith kept this ball a little too far to the outside because he was aware of the underneath linebacker to that side. Had he gotten rid of the ball on time, though, that linebacker would not have been a factor.
Ultimately, this was an incompletion on what should have been an easy 8-10 yards. These are the seemingly mundane throws that keep an offense on the field and on schedule. Yet these are the throws the Smith has had trouble consistently hitting.
Decision-making, footwork, and mechanics are all aspects of Smith’s game that can be improved. Doing so would go a long way in refining his somewhat erratic accuracy. Still, there are other aspects of Smith’s game that are not so easy to improve, including awareness, the processing of information, and the ability to anticipate throws. Historically, these are aspects of playing the position where if you don’t already have these skills, they are especially difficult to acquire.
As we illustrated, footwork was one reason Smith has been late with so many of his throws. But too often, the reason has been his inability to read and decipher the defense on time. The fact that his receivers are already looking back at him when he releases the ball on almost all of his throws indicates that he is still struggling to see the field and quickly process information. The inability to do so makes it difficult for him to quickly react to the defense and anticipate where defenders will be. This all leads to late throws. And when throws are late, this gives defenders more time to react, leading to more incompletions and turnovers. It also means fewer opportunities for receivers to make plays after the catch.
The inability to quickly read the defense doesn’t just translate to fewer opportunities for Geno’s receivers, though. It also has to do with protection, and this has to be a concern for the Jets. Take this Week 14 play against the Vikings, for instance. Here, the defense was showing blitz. The Jets identified number 50 as the “mike” linebacker in what was a man protection. You can see the center pointing at him before the play
Generally, in a man protection the 5 offensive linemen are responsible for the 4 down linemen and the linebacker identified as the “mike.” But because the Vikings were threatening here with two linebackers in both A-gaps, and because you cannot allow immediate inside pressure, the Jets identified the 5 rushers closest to the quarterback as the designated 4-down linemen and “mike” linebacker. The offensive line was then responsible for these 5 players.
The tight end was responsible for the defensive end over him. And because the running back was releasing into the flat on this play, this meant the Jets had only 6 men protecting. If the safety (number 22) blitzed, no one could pick him up. This meant that Geno Smith was responsible for him and would have to throw hot if he came.
Sure enough, the Vikings brought their safety off the edge. Geno didn’t even peek his way. He had no idea.
Once again, he dropped back with no urgency. He tried to decipher his route combination to the left as if he thought the protection could account for the blitz. He didn’t even look to his running back who was hot here. Unfortunately for Geno, his tight end mistakenly came off the defensive end rushing inside and picked up the safety rushing off the edge.
This gave Geno even less time to get rid of the ball. Still, the greater point here is that the defense had a 2 on 1 backside that the protection could not pick up, and Smith was completely unaware of it. The result was a 3rd-down sack that knocked the Jets out of field-goal range.
So what can the Jets do to help Smith? To us, it’s similar to what we think the Bears can do with Jay Cutler, which we wrote about a few months ago. The Jets need to take some of the decision-making and information processing out of Smith’s hands so he is free to let his talent take over. Utilizing more play-action will go a long way in accomplishing this because play-action passes usually involve simpler reads that attack a smaller area of the field. This can help eliminate some of the early-down decision-making that sometimes forces an overwhelmed or inexperienced quarterback to hesitate.
Getting Smith on the move with sprint-outs and bootlegs would be another good idea. Cutting off half of the field simplifies things for a quarterback, and getting him out of the pocket gives him the option to play it safe by either running the ball or throwing it out of bounds.
Calling more screens and plays with half-field reads should help as well. The Jets need to build up Geno’s confidence by getting more completions under his belt and keeping the offense on schedule. Letting him get the ball out of his hands so his receivers can make plays instead of asking him to make too many big-time throws will be critical to his performance, because we’ve seen how erratic he can be when he is trying to make great plays.
The good news for Smith is that he finally has some legitimate weapons around him. A deep running back corps should provide him with a steady running game that can alleviate some of the pressure (and help move the defense on play-action). Having a receiver like Brandon Marshall will also help Geno tremendously. Marshall will open up 1-on-1’s for other receivers, and when he’s left in single coverage, Smith will have a bonafide number-1 receiver who can make plays and bail him out of trouble.
The encouraging thing for the Jets is that Geno played much better at the end of last season after he was benched. He showed that he can be more than just a competent quarterback, completing 65% of his passes with 6 touchdowns, only 2 interceptions, and a 105.3 rating in his final 4 games. The Jets should give him one last chance to prove he can be this type of quarterback for more than a 4-game stretch. If he fails in 2015 with the group he now has around him, then the Jets know for sure that they once again need to start looking in another direction for their quarterback of the future.