FLORHAM PARK, N.J. — Geno Smith is the new face of the franchise for the New York Jets.
Well, at least for the opening game of the season.
Beyond that, we’ll see.
The rookie quarterback will start for the Jets in the opener at home Sunday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The team finally confirmed Wednesday what had been expected since Mark Sanchez injured his right shoulder in a preseason game against the Giants on Aug. 24.
“They’ll try to rattle my cage,” Smith said of the Buccaneers. “I expect those guys to come out fired up and they want to make a statement. They’ve got a rookie quarterback and they’ll want to hit me and get me off my game, but I expect those things. And I look forward to it.”
But, will Greg Schiano’s defense be able to unnerve him?
“No,” Smith said with a confident smile.
Smith, who had an up-and-down preseason, was the team’s second-round draft pick out of West Virginia after he was projected by many to be selected early in the opening round. After Smith threw three interceptions and took a safety in three-plus quarters against the Giants, it was widely assumed Sanchez had won the job. But Rex Ryan chose to put Sanchez in the game in the fourth quarter — and he suffered the injury that could sideline him several weeks.
“We realize that a rookie quarterback and all that, that’s certainly a challenge,” Ryan said. “I think our guys are ready to rally behind Geno, and the big thing we’ve told Geno is, ‘You just have to be part of the solution.’”
Despite announcing Smith as the starter for this week, Ryan wouldn’t commit to him as the long-term guy under center. It was an approach that was echoed by both owner Woody Johnson and general manager John Idzik.
“We’ll always put the best player we can on the field on Sunday, and that will continue,” Johnson said. “The competition’s ongoing.”
With Smith stepping into the starter’s role, it makes Sanchez’s status with the team unclear. Ryan has still never declared a winner to the competition — and he might not ever do so. If Smith can be solid during Sanchez’s absence, he could make it hard for Ryan to pull him. And, by never saying whether Smith or Sanchez had won the job, Ryan would never technically have benched the anointed starter.
While many look at the move as the team moving forward with a new quarterback, Idzik was asked if, when healthy, Sanchez has a chance to be the Jets’ starter again.
“Yes, of course he does,” Idzik said.
The Jets also have the inexperienced Matt Simms, who had a terrific preseason, and recently signed journeyman Brady Quinn. But with Sanchez not ready to play Sunday, the choice for Ryan, Idzik and offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg was easy for this week.
“We’ll go through some ups and downs, I guarantee you that,” Mornhinweg told the team’s website. “Knowing Geno, hopefully there will be more ups than there are downs.”
Smith was off to a great start in training camp, going several practices without throwing an interception and outperforming Sanchez on some days. But Smith sprained his right ankle in the third quarter of the Jets’ preseason opener at Detroit and didn’t play in the second game against Jacksonville because of the injury. He started against the Giants, with the general thought being he could potentially secure the starting job with a solid performance.
Instead, Smith showed his inexperience during a miserable performance — hurt in part by his ailing ankle — that appeared to tip the tightly contested competition in Sanchez’s favor.
“I’ve been preparing my butt off,” Smith said. “And that’s something that’s going to continue to improve.”
But the quarterback situation changed when Sanchez took a crunching hit to the shoulder from the Giants’ Marvin Austin. The Jets have said only that Sanchez — the starter since his rookie season in 2009 — was day to day with simply a “shoulder injury.” The fact he hasn’t practiced since, and the Jets signing Quinn on Monday were signs that Sanchez’s injury was more serious than the team was initially letting on. But placing Sanchez on injured reserve doesn’t appear to be an option at the moment.
“We’re not looking at that,” Idzik said.
Smith said his ankle is “steadily improving,” and is “a ways away” from where it was in training camp, when he wasn’t able to fully drive the ball as he planted his foot.
Sanchez was once considered the future of the franchise, a terrific talent with GQ looks, and consecutive trips to the AFC title game in his first two years drew natural comparisons to Joe Namath. But Sanchez struggled over the next few seasons, including an NFL-leading 52 turnovers the last two years, and failed to develop into the elite passer the Jets had hoped.
Ryan benched Sanchez for a game last season and it appeared his days in New York were numbered. His contract, however, and the $8.25 million in guarantees for this year made him unmovable. Still some have speculated that the Jets could simply cut Sanchez and move forward entirely with Smith.
“Mark is going to be on the team,” Johnson said. “I don’t think there’s a question.”
It appeared in spring that the Jets would let Sanchez compete with veteran David Garrard for the starting job. During the draft in April, the Jets went for defense with their two first-round picks, selecting cornerback Dee Milliner and defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson. But when their pick came up in the second round and Smith was still available, they jumped at the chance to take him.
In May, knee trouble caused Garrard to retire, leaving the competition between Sanchez and Smith.
A few months later, Smith has the opportunity — starting Sunday against Tampa Bay — to try to prove he might be the type of franchise-changing quarterback the Jets have been looking for.
“I’d like to be,” Smith said. “That’s a tough question, but honestly, I’d love to be the franchise quarterback here. I think that’s the reason they brought me here.”