Kerley may hold key to Geno's success

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. – A month after a dislocated elbow sidelined Jeremy Kerley, the Jets wide receiver will return Sunday against the Raiders, making for a complete and healthy offense for the first time since Week 4.

Jets coach Rex Ryan admits Kerley’s arrival, coupled with Santonio Holmes’ return to health after a hamstring injury, is a better scenario in which to judge rookie quarterback Geno Smith.

“We don’t make excuses or anything else but obviously having your top guys healthy, I think makes a huge difference,” Ryan said. “We had those conversations and to me it’s like, judge us moving forward. And look, you’re going to judge us anyway up to this point, and you should and I understand it. But let’s see how we close this thing out when our guys are healthy.”

Kerley said he expects to be at least 90 percent on Sunday, and has decided not to wear any padding on the elbow. That said, Kerley expects that opponents would target his vulnerable left side and his elbow will get hit.

“I know it’s going to happen,” Kerley said. “Pain is going to occur; might get hit, might fall on it wrong. Just looking to get over it as soon as it happens.”

The mood in the Jets locker room was light on Friday. The special-teams players had decorated their lockers with Christmas lights and erected a giant inflatable Santa Claus in the center of the room. The Jets are not eliminated from the playoff picture, but several players noted that, with all injured players healthy for this week, they have a fair shot after three straight losses.

“We’re all looking for something, some type of edge, some type of motivation and in some aspects we’re out of words,” offensive lineman Willie Colon said. “We understand that we’ve made this mess and the only way out of it is on us pulling together as a team and as a family and start winning games.”

There is a better chance with Kerley in the lineup. The slot receiver has been a safety valve for Smith this season, and backup quarterback David Garrard said it’s no coincidence that the team’s three-game losing streak was while Kerley was out.

“Those two guys are vital to our offense and they just make it easier for Geno,” Garrard said. “When you’re a young quarterback you need to have your weapons out there.”

There is a pretty high opinion of Kerley in the locker room. Despite the missed games, he leads the team in catches and yards with 28 for 347 this season.

“Kerley, to me he’s nothing but Wes Welker, that’s what he could be, really,” veteran tight end Kellen Winslow said. “Honestly. He’s definitely that talented, he’s got those point guard moves, option route runner, great route runner.”

Garrard agreed with that assessment and said that Kerley hasn’t reached his potential as a receiver because he hasn’t been the focus of an offense yet.

“He’s a young guy and I don’t think that in the systems he’s been in they’ve really utilized slot receivers,” Garrard said. “In the past it’s been ground and pound and try to throw outside routes and he gets lost in the shuffle. [Offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg] is a little different, and in his system he’s going to use somebody like Kerley, because early on in the season he was getting thrown to quite a bit.”

Part of the reason the Jets had a harder time of it without Kerley, Garrard said, was because of the way he worked the slot, drawing defenders to him.

“He’s that guy that works the middle,” Garrard said, “and usually when you work the middle you’re working linebackers and third corners. He’s usually going to have a pretty good day against those guys. The defense has to think about him, they have to have cover guys get on him because if you try to put your third or fourth corner on them he’ll make it a long day for them.”

With Kerley drawing more attention, Smith usually has a few more options. With three losses against him, and three benchings in recent weeks, a stable performance could slow the drumbeat of criticism. It’s something players like Winslow are mindful of.

“It comes down to making plays for Geno,” Winslow said. “They’re going to bring it so we’re going to have to get open. It’s going to be man coverage -- they’re going to blitz us. Stuff is going to happen a little faster, so we just have to get it.”

“We’re not out of it,” Colon said. “I think why we’re all disappointed is one point in time we had the keys to the car and we sat back three weeks and all those game that we’ve lost are more than winnable. We’re not talking the Pats or the Saints, we’re talking teams that are struggling and we dropped an egg.”

But it’s still not too late. The Jets can begin to dig out of the hole on Sunday, and they'll be equipped, theoretically, to do it.

“When we’re all firing, when we’re all doing our thing out there,” Kerley said, “it’s a beautiful thing.”