FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- With one vicious punch, a backup linebacker named IK Enemkpali dramatically changed the New York Jets' season and perhaps the future of the franchise. He recorded his first NFL sack, taking out starting quarterback Geno Smith on Tuesday morning because of a dispute over $600 -- a Jet-on-Jet crime of mind-boggling proportions. Enemkpali broke Smith's jaw in two places and he may have shattered Smith's chances of becoming the franchise's long-term answer at quarterback.
Smith's surgically repaired jaw will heal in six to 10 weeks, according to the Jets, but we may have seen the last of him as the Jets' starter. It's Ryan Fitzpatrick's team now, and there's no guarantee Smith will ever return to his old gig. Todd Bowles made that clear, offering no promises to Smith. As the coach said, "If the other guy is playing well and the boat is going right and there are no waves, and everything is going and we're 4, 5, 6, 7-0, yeah, you're not coming back to start."
Technically, Smith can't lose a job he never had. He still hadn't been named the opening-day starter even though it was heading in that direction. Even if he returns to the lineup at some point in the season, it's fair to wonder if he'd be able to do enough in a small window to win the confidence of the new regime. The new bosses, Bowles and Mike Maccagnan, don't want The Geno Question to linger into 2016. This is the year to commit or get off the pot, and now there are major questions about how the mentally fragile Smith will respond.
And how his teammates will respond to him.
No player deserves to get "sucker punched," which is how Bowles described the stunning altercation before the morning walk-through, but Smith's involvement in "something very childish" (once again, Bowles' words) raises red flags about him. The starting quarterback is the face of the franchise, the leader of the organization. He's supposed to be above this garbage. This never happened to Chad Pennington or Vinny Testaverde or Boomer Esiason, but it happens to Smith.
There was the missed meeting (remember the night at the movies?) and the profane outburst toward a fan last season, and the airline altercation the year before that. Separately, they're minor transgressions, but connect the dots and a picture has emerged. Bowles admitted he was upset by Smith's involvement in Tuesday's incident.
"Yeah, it takes two to tango," he said. "One to throw a punch, but two to tango."
That's one dance the starting quarterback should avoid.
Bowles made the right move by firing Enemkpali almost immediately, sending a strong message to the team. That kind of behavior is inexcusable. Smith wasn't punished by the coach, but he will be judged by a jury of his peers -- the 52 other men in the locker room. Darrelle Revis, one of four players who spoke about the incident, was none too pleased that Smith put himself in harm's way by not peacefully resolving the dispute with Enemkpali.
"This is somebody we were counting on," Revis said, adding, "Geno and IK should've handled themselves as men."
That might sound harsh because Smith is the guy with the broken jaw, but it's hard to fathom how two grown men would let a mere $600 alter a season and potentially ruin careers. It was a classic "Same Old Jets" moment. The seasons change and the leadership changes, the franchise remains a punch line -- quite literally, in this case.
They're on some kind of run, aren't they? Sheldon Richardson was suspended for flunking a drug test and later arrested for mistaking the highways around St. Louis as the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Antonio Allen blew out his Achilles tendon on a freak play in practice. Dee Milliner busted a wrist on a routine play. And now we have this, Enemkpali busting his quarterback's jaw.
Welcome to the madness, Todd. The soft-spoken coach who rarely curses now works for a cursed franchise.
Enemkpali joins Marvin Austin and Brandon Short in a small, but growing fraternity: guys who injured Jets' quarterbacks in the preseason. Thing is, Austin and Short were playing for the New York Giants when they wiped out Mark Sanchez (2013) and Pennington (2003), respectively, in preseason games. Enemkpali was on Smith's team, for crying out loud.
"I was always told it's OK to kick your enemies' asses," Jets offensive lineman Willie Colon said. "You don't kick your brother's ass."
Truth be told, the Jets probably will be better in the short term with Fitzpatrick, who will be a grownup in the huddle. He's experienced and knows the offense better than any player on the team, but we all know he's not the future. Smith, despite his uneven first two seasons, began camp with a chance to be the future. He was excited about it. He was in a chipper mood last Saturday night at MetLife Stadium, proud of the way he turned the boos that rained down on him during a relatively meaningless practice into cheers.
And, to think, he thought the fan base was his biggest challenge.