Geno Smith’s 2nd Year and the Future of the Jets

The Jets continue the second year of the Geno Smith era at 1-2, with plenty of highs and lows already in a small sample. I’m here to tell you this year will be a significant turning point for the franchise.

The Jets have been extremely fortunate to have Rex Ryan as a coach for the last few years. Ryan is a polarizing individual who has his fair share of supporters, but far more detractors who don’t like his loud, boisterous style (which hasn’t been as loud and boisterous over the last two years). Regardless, he represents a complete statistical anomaly, and in a good way.

Over the past 20 years, with the increase of passing and offense, the NFL has changed from a league where offense and defense are equally important to a point where defense is actually a bit less important.  Studies by Football Outsiders, a premier football analytics website, have found that good offenses tend to stay good for many years at a time, mostly because a great quarterback can power offenses for many seasons. Teams gifted with great offenses, like the Packers, Patriots, Colts (with Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck) and Saints have been very good to great for a long period of time. These teams typically haven’t had good defenses – or, at least, their offenses have been much better than their defenses.

When it comes to the other side of the ball, since there is no one player that dictates such a large influence in the eleven-man scheme, the great defenses typically only stay good for a year or two before key players move on for better contracts or the team is plagued by injuries. The great Steelers defense of four years ago is now a shell of its former self, as is the Ravens’. We are already seeing the sharp drop off from last year’s dominant Chiefs defense.

So, what does any of this have to do with the Jets and Rex? Rex Ryan-led defenses, starting from his time in Baltimore to the current day New York Jets, have never been worse than a “good” defense per DVOA (Defense-adjusted Value Over Average per Football Outsiders) data. Rex has lead the Jets for six years now, after being coordinator for the Ravens for five years, and his defenses have finished 6th, 1st, 5th, 2nd, 1st, 5th, 2nd, 9th, and 12th in defensive DVOA, with the first four years with the Ravens and remaining years with the Jets. Rex is a market inefficiency that has helped take teams with mediocre offenses – at best – to AFC Championship games, just one win from the Super Bowl. Believe it or not, Mark Sanchez was one Ben Roethlisberger scramble from a Super Bowl.

Since the Jets have a statistical anomaly for a defense, if they could have just an average offense each year, they’d have the potential for a great team. Unfortunately, the Jets did not have close to an average offense last year, and the problem stemmed mostly from a horrible year from first-year quarterback Geno Smith. Geno was able to mask how bad he really was by leading several memorable games and late-game drives to pull out wins, but don’t be fooled. Geno had the league’s 3rd-worst DYAR (Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement per Football Outsiders), with a -371. The only quarterbacks behind him were Terrelle Pryor and Brandon Weeden – pretty bad company. Through three games this season, Geno has progressed to only being the 6th worst quarterback, and still posting a -99 DYAR through 3 games.

Geno’s first game against the Raiders created confidence and optimism from Jets fans after his 80% completion percentage. However, while his box score stats were solid, his advanced DVOA and QBR stats told a slightly different story, where he was rated average at best, and more often, below average. Geno’s game against the Packers also made him look better than he really was, due to his fast start and the blown call that robbed him of a game-tying touchdown pass. However, once again, his poor play and turnovers were what gave the Packers new life and allowed Aaron Rodgers to get back on the field and make plays. Last night’s game against the Bears saw Geno with the 2nd-worst play of the week, based on sudden change in win probability, when he threw his pick six to start the game. Geno was erratic all night, and looked like he had regressed from his first two games of 2014.

Analysis by Grantland’s Bill Barnwell shows that for quarterback development in the last 10 years, if the QB doesn’t look like he is going to be the answer by the end of year 2, he will most likely never be the answer. While players who appear to be the answer after the end of year 2 can also become a problem in the future, (i.e. Byron Leftwich) the ones who do not look like solutions after two years are not answers. These quarterbacks are the Christian Ponders, Sam Bradfords, Joey Harringtons, and of course the Mark Sanchezes (did I spell that right?). Compared to the successful year 2 quarterbacks such as Cam Newton or Andrew Luck, Geno has some serious strides to make in the next 13 weeks to show promise for the Jets.

The biggest issue with the Geno dilemma is the long-term effects it will have on the Jets. If Geno makes slight progress, and leads the Jets to a 8-8 record or so, while remaining a below average starting quarterback, the Jets will be going down the Mark Sanchez route again, where a mediocre quarterback stunts the long-term future of the franchise.

If Geno succeeds and grows as a quarterback and becomes an average or better QB, the Jets could be set for their future with Rex continuing his defensive magic. However, if Geno’s poor play continues, the Jets should probably look to cut ties this offseason and take a risk on a first round quarterback such as Brett Hundley or Marcus Mariota. Taking another chance on a top prospect could finally cure the problems the Jets have had at quarterback ever since Chad Pennington was healthy. But, the other side of the coin on this potential switch is that GM John Idzik doesn’t seem to be a huge fan of Rex’s, and a 7-9 season or worse could see Rex terminated at the end of this year. The Jets would lose the competitive advantage they’ve had with his defense, which could potentially offset any gains at the quarterback position.

At the end of the day, the best-case scenario for the Jets is obviously for Geno to become a better quarterback. But if the Jets can reload with Mariota or Hundley, and somehow get Idzik to keep Rex Ryan around in the fold, they’d see a more likely shot at sustained competitiveness.

by Robert Garcia, Northwestern University