Should You Expect A Better Geno Smith In 2015?

SQ's AFC East preview gets to the heart of the matter for the New York Jets in 2015: "Will Geno Smith finally make the leap?" The answer to this question will affect the Jets' organizational strategy and the landscape of that division for the next few seasons, at least. Can you expect a better Geno Smith in 2015?

Less than a year ago, Football Perspective published a piece entitled "How Long Does It Take Great Quarterbacks to Break Out?"  This miniature study examined the best 42 QBs to enter the league since 1970 and determined, to paraphrase, that it only takes two years. Through two years, the piece said, only four of the 42 great quarterbacks produced below average passing numbers. Importantly, these four also were drafted by bad teams.

So what about Geno Smith? He's started in the NFL for two years, and his numbers are decidedly below average. Pro-Football Reference has him ranked 31 of 34 and 37 of 38 in ANY/A (adjusted net yards per pass attempt) for 2014 and 2013, respectively. He's been in the bottom five of the entire league for traditional quarterback rating and QBR both seasons. And worse yet, he's had one of the five highest interception percentages each year. His advanced stats are plainly atrocious, but they don't necessarily mean Smith is the problem. He could be like the four exceptions (Bradshaw, Aikman, Testaverde, Brees), with his teammates dragging him down. 

Either of these realities hurts me as a Jet fan. But one lets Gang Green hope for better days with an improving starter (bad team), and the other forces the Jets to get a new quarterback (bad Smith). Which is it? And let's hope it's not both.

The Football Perspective piece judges team quality by record. For example, Drew Brees posted below average numbers his first two years, but this under-performance can be attributed to the 1-15 Chargers who drafted him. The Jets were 6-10 when they drafted Smith, went 8-8 his rookie year, and then plummeted to 4-12. On face, the records don't bode well for Smith. A decline from .500 football to four wins largely falls on the quarterback's shoulders, at least in the minds of fans and most analysts. We can go beyond the wins and losses, however. To determine if the team or Smith is the problem, let's isolate the factors most directly impacting quarterback play: offensive line and wide receiver performance.

In 2013, the Jet offensive line ranked 27th in the league. Its adjusted sack rate, at 8.4%, was considerably higher than the league average. In 2014, the performance was also poor, if slightly better. Ranked 25th, the offensive line permitted the sixth-most tackles for a loss. In both years, the Jets had the 13th most sacks and 12th most QB hits allowed. Of all the Jet offensive linemen, only Center Nick Mangold finished 2014 with a positive grade from Pro Football Focus. All in all, these numbers amount to one not-so-shocking point of summary: the O-line, an incredibly important asset for a quarterback, was one of the worst in the NFL in 2013 and 2014. 

As for the receiver corps, the Jets again left a lot to be desired. Bleacher Report ranks the New York wideouts 25th in the league, even with the addition of Brandon Marshall. Last year, only Eric Decker finished among the top forty receivers, pulling down 74 receptions for almost 1,000 yards at a catch rate of 64.9%. The second best receiver on the team was Jeremy Kerley, who caught only 38 passes for 1 TD. In 2013, Kerley led the team in receiving yards at 523, while a waning Santonio Holmes had 456. It's fair to say that the NYJ receiver corps gave Smith very little to work with during his first two years. 

Before any conclusions can be drawn about Smith and the Jets from these disappointing numbers, we have to take a look at one more thing: the hope at the end of 2014. In the last four games, after an abysmal 35.7 quarterback rating the week before, Smith earned an 87.4, 88.2, 83.9, and a very impressive 158.3. These performances represented more patience from Smith and strong efforts from the O-line. The Jets rushed for over 100 yards in these games, while Smith only threw two picks. Under these circumstances, the Jets had a serviceable quarterback. 

Going into the 2015 season, Jet fans have to confront a bittersweet reality: the players around Smith have been very bad, and Smith himself was, at best, below-average. That's bitter, but the sweetness comes in the form of hope. Despite the rule of thumb provided by Football Perspective's study, it is not fair or wise to write Smith off yet. As proven by the statistics, the Jets were too bad in 2013 and 2014 to give him a fair shake.

2015 will provide Smith with better weapons and, ideally, an offensive line that prevents pressure. With these two weaknesses improved, Smith will finally have the tools to succeed; one should expect solid play (a la the last four games of 2014). If the O-line continues to permit pressure, though, the Jets will find themselves losing and unable to evaluate their most important asset, the quarterback.

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