EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — David Garrard feeds Geno Smith a stream of what he calls “little life lessons” on the sideline during Jets games. The 35-year-old veteran hasn’t suited up for a game since rejoining the team in October following his brief retirement, but he’s riding the roller coaster as a mentor to the rookie quarterback.
He crouched next to Smith at one point last Sunday and told him, “Hey, this is a game where we’re going to have to put our pride to the side a little bit. Just keep feeding the horses.”
“Absolutely,” Smith replied.
We all know how this one turned out: The Jets pounded the ball for a season-high 198 rushing yards, Smith didn’t turn the ball over and the green team (literally and figuratively) earned a surprising 26-20 victory over the Drew Brees-led Saints. It was the Jets’ second signature win in three weeks—they knocked off the Patriots in overtime, 30-27, on Oct. 20—and it would have meant so much more had they not been embarrassed by an ugly 49-9 loss in Cincinnati two weeks ago.
So goes the Jets’ 2013 season. The team’s 5-4 record has been one of the NFL’s first-half surprises, even if it has followed an undeviating pattern of winning in odd weeks and losing in even ones.
“There are definitely some growing pains,” says receiver David Nelson, “especially when we have a starting quarterback that’s a rookie.”
That’s not to say the inconsistency is limited to one player, or even to one phase of the game. The same Jets defense that frustrated Brees into using three timeouts in the first quarter on Sunday allowed Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton to throw five touchdown passes. Rookie cornerback Dee Milliner, a first-round pick, has been benched twice this season, and the team’s top corner, Antonio Cromartie, has been erratic. Though Sheldon Richardson says that Ryan, the Jets’ defensive play-caller, “always puts us in the right positions,” the rookie defensive tackle admits, “sometimes we don’t execute.”
But Smith is viewed as the one who’s controlling the team’s yo-yoing. As he goes, so do the Jets. In odd weeks: Seven touchdowns, four interceptions, and an 89.4 passer rating in five wins. Even weeks: one TD, nine picks, and a 51.7 rating in four losses.
“He’s growing, so you’ve got to deal with it,” right guard Willie Colon says.
Dealing with it from all angles explains how this team is above .500 going into its bye week—the first even week in which they’re guaranteed not to lose. The group mentality is a bit like the old saying, “It takes a village to raise a child.” Garrard has become a proxy for Smith on the sideline, offering big-picture wisdom (trust the running game plan) and small-scale advice (retreat from pressure, throw the ball in front of your receivers). What’s a bit unusual for an NFL sideline is that offensive linemen Nick Mangold and Austin Howard often pull aside receivers and speak to them like a veteran quarterback would. Their message on Sunday: Keep holding your blocks, because we’re gashing the Saints on the ground.
Even some of the Jets’ defensive players have lent a guiding hand to the offense. During the Week 7 win over the Patriots, Smith threw an early pick-six to cornerback Logan Ryan on a pass intended for Nelson. Later in the game, Jets cornerback Kyle Wilson noticed that Nelson was still getting good separation from Ryan on a couple out routes and a go route, and he wanted to make sure Smith knew the opportunities were still there—that he shouldn’t shy away because of the pick-six. “Just tell Geno so he knows,” Wilson told Garrard. The message relayed, Smith found Nelson for key gains of 27 and 12 yards against Ryan in the third quarter and overtime that helped the Jets to a win.
Early in the Saints game, a Jets’ drive stalled at the New Orleans 3-yard line after Smith threw back-to-back incompletions on second and third downs, the second pass a throwaway. It was smart for Smith to play it safe, but that’s also a spot where it’s OK to tuck the ball and run. While Nick Folk was lining up for a 21-yard field goal, Cromartie approached Smith as he walked off the field. “Hey man, keep using those legs,” Cromartie told him. “They hate that.”
Two possessions later, Smith slashed into the end zone for a 3-yard touchdown run, an ankle-breaker against Saints defensive end Cam Jordan. It was a read play that Smith said offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg called at the suggestion of Mangold.
“This is a unique team,” Garrard says. “Everybody is very observant and trying to pull for one another.”
The Jets weren’t supposed to be this good, not with a roster that has 30 players who are 25 or younger. During the preseason, The MMQB joined most pundits in wondering, “Where are the offensive playmakers?” Against the Saints, the Jets were without receiver Santonio Holmes (hamstring); tight ends Jeff Cumberland (concussion) and Kellen Winslow (suspension); and running back Mike Goodson (injured reserve). Plus, starting wideout Jeremy Kerley left early with an elbow injury.
But the Jets have made it work. Bilal Powell and Chris Ivory have powered a running game that ranks 11th in the league (129 yards per game). The Jets added Nelson before Week 5, and he said the expectation for him was to be a consistent receiver to “seal the wound” at the position. Josh Cribbs signed before Week 7, hoping to give the team “momentum.” None of the Jets’ top four pass-catchers against the Saints were on the roster opening day: Greg Salas (two for 57), Zach Sudfeld (two for 46), Nelson (one for 19) and Cribbs (two for six).
“When it works, nobody has to say anything about it,” Cribbs says.
At the season’s midpoint, the Jets are just one victory shy of matching their 2012 win total. They’re firmly in the playoff hunt with the sixth-best record in the AFC, and the back end of their schedule features just one team, the 5-3 Panthers, that currently has a winning record. It would help, though, if they could figure out how to string together consecutive wins.
“You can see it definitely frustrates (Rex Ryan) a little bit, but I think he does a great job of managing it,” Nelson says. “In a game like the Cincinnati game, there were some frustrating moments, some guys were on the brink of losing their temper a couple times. With a rookie quarterback, and some rookies on the defense, we’ve got to continue to maintain our composure and use these as learning experiences.”
Few outside the Jets’ locker room expected them to be in the postseason conversation in November. Even fewer expected to hear a player, albeit a 22-year-old rookie, call the team “elite,” as Richardson did on Sunday. There’s a lot of football left to be played, but these Jets are proving that growing pains are OK, as long as there is growth.