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Signing Michael Vick in free agency was a head-scratching move for a team that spent a high draft pick on Geno Smith 10 months earlier. All signs point to a faux QB competition and a decision-making group simply trying not to get fired

By Andy Benoit
March 27, 2014

Some have lamented that, as one headline put it, “[Michael] Vick’s arrival in New York takes impatience with a young quarterback to a new level.” Rex Ryan might disagree. He recently told reporters, "Geno Smith, regardless of who's here at quarterback or who the competition is, is going to be hard to beat out…. [Last year] he grew by leaps and bounds.”

Then why sign Vick for so much money? Teams generally don’t give $4 million to backups.

Most likely, the Jets will talk about a quarterback competition over the next few months, feign one in training camp and then name Vick the starter sometime around the third preseason game. Smith, the 39th overall pick and 16-game starter in 2013, will be on the bench. (And, given Vick’s track record with injuries, he’s sure to come off it.)

The Jets would not even have looked into signing Vick if they didn’t harbor genuine discomfort about Smith. The question is, What’s driving that discomfort?

Keep in mind, nobody knows Smith’s abilities better than Rex Ryan, offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg and, by extension, general manager John Idzik. Last year they saw the same wild inconsistency from him that everyone else saw. At times, Smith would display admirable pocket poise, arm strength, athleticism and an encouraging ability to process the basic principles of play designs in order to execute downfield. But like a lot of rookies, he could not immediately take the next step, which is to process the play design in conjunction with reading the defense. So he’d fall into valleys of struggles, evidenced most plainly by his barrages of turnovers (25 on the season).

What Ryan, Mornhinweg and Idzik know that outsiders don’t is why Smith wasn’t taking the next step. Ryan has lauded the 23-year-old’s progress as a rookie, but in reality, Ryan and Mornhinweg took things off Smith’s plate as last season wore on. The Jets became more of a run-based offense, relying less on their deep-dropping, progression-read passes.

Under Rex Ryan's tutelage, Geno Smith started all 16 games in an 8-8 rookie campaign. (Ron Antonelli/Getty Images) Under Rex Ryan's tutelage, Geno Smith started all 16 games in an 8-8 rookie campaign. (Ron Antonelli/Getty Images)

Perhaps some of this was due to the decrepitude of a so-so receiving corps that, really, was unsettled all season. (Jeremy Kerley missed four games, Santonio Holmes missed five and tight end Kellen Winslow was suspended for four.) But undoubtedly, some of it was due to the coaches trying to work around Smith’s shortcomings. At one point, remember, there was even consideration regarding playing Matt Simms.

And then there’s the possibility that the Vick signing is a product of the coaches and front office strengthening their own illusion of job security. Woody Johnson has evolved into a meddling owner (his prerogative). That’s the biggest reason why handfuls of candidates turned down the Jets GM job before Idzik was finally hired. In January, Ryan (and by extension, his coaching staff) got a new contract, but according to the New York Daily News, it is only guaranteed through 2015. Ryan is still a coach on thin ice.

When the front office has an owner constantly peering over its shoulders and the coaching staff has job security in name only—and both are working with a roster that’s weak at wide receiver, tight end, outside linebacker, cornerback and safety—the objective is to simply not get fired. That means doing whatever it takes to go 8-8. This is purely human nature and, arguably, still congruent with the most common objective in pro football: to win right now. Callow, mistake-prone quarterbacks are anathema to jittery leaders who can’t afford to cast their eyes on the future.

The Jets feel that Vick gives them a better chance to win now. Athletically, he’s not as explosive as he was in his MVP-caliber 2010 season with the Eagles, but he’s still a huge threat. But Vick isn’t as big as Smith, and while a more accurate passer than Smith at this point, he remains scattershot. Still, having played for Mornhinweg in Philly, Vick has a sharper understanding of the West Coast-oriented system that New York wants to run. That makes Vick a less stressful option to a stressed leadership staff.

In an indirect way, Vick was signed for his field-reading skills and game-management ability. Those, of course, have always been his weaknesses. Vick is a sandlot player whose weaknesses get masked by his still-extraordinary playmaking prowess. When unmasked, you see the inconsistent ball placement, impatience and propensity for injury when trying to make something happen.

Michael Vick and Marty Mornhinweg previously worked together in Philly. (Bill Kostroun/AP) Michael Vick and Marty Mornhinweg previously worked together in Philly. (Bill Kostroun/AP)

Typically, Vick’s style can’t simply be plugged into a system. It creates less structure, which is hard to build offense around. To most teams, this significantly compromises his value as a backup or bridge starter.

Not surprisingly, the open market left Vick unsigned for a week and a half. In contrast, it took only 24 hours for Josh McCown, the other unsigned mid-30s quarterback who straddles the line between backup and starter, to get a two-year deal with Tampa Bay. Physically, McCown is less gifted than Vick, but he can create or maintain structure for an offense as a traditional dropback, multi-read passer with improvisational skills that are used but not relied on.

Mornhinweg learned to embrace Vick’s lack of structure in Philadelphia, and presumably he’s decided he can live with it in New York. (It helps that his other option, Smith, presents even less structure.)

Still, this change illuminates alarming problems in the Jets organization. Either the front office and coaches believe they missed badly on their 2013 early second-round pick, or they feel compelled to go with a safer but inconsistent veteran who offers no long-term dividends because owner Woody Johnson can’t see past January 2015. (Not that Vick makes the team a serious contender for the playoffs.)

Vick will be unsigned in 2015. Most likely, the Jets will wind up conducting another quarterback competition—like the one they’re having this year and the one they had last year. If Ryan and his staff are still around, they’ll be dealing with an even hotter seat. And so their focus will affix even more on winning right away with a QB-less club that isn’t built to win right away.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is how a franchise roots itself in mediocrity.


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