New York Jets rookie quarterback Geno Smith enjoyed the best performance of his young NFL career on Monday night against the Atlanta Falcons in a 30-28 win that pushed them to 3-2 on the season. Smith completed 16 of 20 passes for 199 yards and three touchdowns, but his ascent to a higher plateau may have started right after his disastrous performance against the Tennessee Titans eight days before. Smith threw two picks and just one touchdown on 34 attempts, and also lost two fumbles, as the Titans smashed the Jets, 38-13.
After that disastrous game, Smith did something that reflected a maturity and sense of responsibility that belied some of the negative scouting reports about him when he came out of college: He went to his defense and blamed himself for the debacle.
“I felt I owed the defense an apology,” Smith told the media a week ago Monday, via ESPN's Jane McManus. “They worked their butts off to be one of the best in the league, and they pride themselves on not giving up points, but whenever you turn the ball over and they lead to scores ... and they bailed us out time and time again so far. But whenever you turn it over that many times it’s hard or those guys to go out there and do their jobs when it’s a short field. Just wanted to talk to those guys and let them know I was aware of my mistakes and I wanted to clean them up and I will clean them up.”
He cleaned them up against the Falcons, and the effects of that talk with his teammates could resonate longer than a three-score game.
“It’s just taking ownership to your mistakes and manning up,” Smith concluded. “I think guys respect that more than anything.”
The narrative was nice, but head coach Rex Ryan and offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg had enough good things to say about backup Matt Simms to make one wonder if the Jets were considering a change. And though fellow backup Brady Quinn claimed to understand Smith's struggles, having gone through his own in his career, he also mentioned he knew the playbook and was ready to go if need be.
To his credit, Smith understood the transitory nature of the position, and said as much last week.
"In this league, if you don’t get it done, there’s a guy — they’ll find a guy. I’m not particularly worried about what anyone else is doing other than being myself and taking care of my job. I know if I take care of the ball, if I put us in good situations, we’ll have a good chance. That’s all I really focus on.”
Smith became the second rookie in history to throw for three touchdowns on Monday Night Football -- the other first-year player to achieve that was a kid by the name of Dan Marino. That's impressive enough, but the weight of his words impressed those who have been around the game far longer.
"Key words for Geno Smith -- my fault, my team," ESPN's Ray Lewis said in the postgame wrap-up. "He owned it. I played a long time, and I don't know that many quarterbacks who own when they make those types of mistakes. When you're a young guy, and you take that responsibility, and come on the road -- 'I will correct my mistakes' -- these are the things he said. 'We won as a team.' Those things show that they believe in way more than just talent with Geno Smith. There's some essence there with this kid. He's special."
ESPN's Steve Young agreed.
"It brings richness to the win. Because of how he handled it, it's richer thing. Everybody now can put a stake in the ground. The whole team now, off of this game, stake in the ground for Geno Smith. 'He's our guy,' and I think that's going to do a lot." Of course, none of this would mean anything if Smith didn't have the talent to work through his mistakes. But he's proven that he can do it, just as he's proven than he was better than the alleged experts who questioned everything from his college completion percentage to his body language. There's still a long gap between Geno Smith and true, consistent NFL greatness, but he bridged a lot of that gap in the last week. On and off the field.