EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Geno Smith was demoted once during this wretched game with the Miami Dolphins, and again after it was finally over. The quarterback of the New York Jets always gets to conduct his postgame news conferences on an elevated stage, almost lording over his audience in a big room with bright lights.
Smith? He was stuck without a stage in his dark and grim locker room Sunday, surrounded at his stall by an unwieldy tangle of microphones, cameras and cell phones that closed in on him with bad intentions. Matt Simms, son of Phil, was announced by the Jets' PR staff as the man heading to the podium, leaving Smith to be blitzed one last time.
The kid didn't blink in this setting nearly as much as he did in the first half of Miami's 23-3 victory, a result that doomed the 5-7 Jets to the same playoff-free endgame that awaits the big brother Giants. Smith said more than once that he would support his second-half replacement, Simms, while also declaring his faith in his own skill.
"I have complete confidence in myself," Smith said. "It's been a tough three weeks, but I think I am the best option for this team."
The Jets have dropped their last three games by a combined score of 79-20, and Smith's run of futility predates the losing streak: He hasn't thrown a touchdown pass in his last 21 quarters of play. He was booed while going 4-for-10 for 29 yards and an interception against Miami, leaving Rex Ryan no choice but to sit him down at halftime and tell him the ball and the team were now in Simms' hands.
Once upon a time in these parts, Phil Simms navigated his way through more than one quarterback controversy. Simms-Hostetler, as in Jeff, saw something of a happy ending, as each man started a Super Bowl for Bill Parcells that culminated in an enduring Giants victory.
Simms-Smith is no Simms-Hostetler, not even close. Undrafted after a disappointing, bounce-around career in college, Matt is a nice kid with a nice arm who has a chance -- a chance -- to be a nice NFL backup.
Smith? He still has a chance -- a chance -- to be a credible NFL starter, and to honor the second-round pick made by John Idzik, whose first of two first-rounders, Dee Milliner, embarrassed himself again Sunday and got himself Geno'd by Rex after missing a tackle on a third-quarter touchdown.
That doesn't mean Ryan should start Smith against Oakland. In fact, it's fairly obvious that the same rookie who recorded victories over Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Matt Ryan could use a mental health break, a week off to watch and gather himself before using the final three games to show Idzik that he doesn't need to draft Johnny Football in the spring.
Of course, Smith doesn't want to play benchwarmer for the sake of Simms.
"Maybe down the line I can say there was something gained from it," he said, "but right now I don't see it."
Here's what Smith can plainly see, even if it wouldn't behoove him to admit it for public consumption: Brady and Peyton Manning would have trouble, big trouble, making plays with the receivers Idzik and Ryan have assembled around him.
No playmakers means no plays, and no chance for a floundering rookie quarterback to unscramble the thoughts zig-zagging through his head. Smith missed a wide-open David Nelson on his first third-down pass, and the afternoon only grew uglier from there.
The Dolphins outgained the Jets in the first half by a 265-39 count. Dannell Ellerbe, the linebacker who intercepted Smith, described the opposing quarterback as "rattled." Ryan and offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg apparently agreed with Ellerbe, and told the rookie with 19 interceptions and eight touchdowns to his name that he was done for the day.
"I didn't think they would do that," said Miami's Olivier Vernon. "But we knew we were getting in his head, and the game went in our favor."
If the Dolphins did get inside Smith's head, there would be no shame in that. Eli Manning, two-time Super Bowl MVP, was 1-6 in his rookie season, and his brother Peyton, maybe the greatest of all time, was 3-13 in his. Troy Aikman was 0-11 as a starter in his first year in Dallas, and John Elway got himself benched in Denver in the early hours of his legendary career.
This is hardly proof positive that Smith is heading to Canton on roller skates, as plenty of bad quarterbacks were beaten up and demoted as rookies, too. But at least Smith came up with a good answer when asked if the freshman failures of past greats offered him a measure of comfort.
"Quite frankly," he said, "what anyone did in the past does not reflect what I do on this field. So I'm not trying to find any reassurance in that."
Smith did look a little wounded as he spoke, and maybe this season wouldn't have been half as rough on him if Ryan didn't needlessly put the presumed starter, Mark Sanchez, in harm's way in a preseason game with the Giants. Lord knows Sanchez might not have lasted the season, but his presence would've bought Smith a little time on the pine to live and learn while the other guy was taking the hits.
But it's too late to turn back now. Upon learning of his second-string status, Smith told the new starter to get out there and give it the ol' college try.
"And he gave me all the confidence in the world," Simms said. "It's not easy for somebody like that to say that to another person who's going in to take your position, but he handled it like a man."
An encouraging sign on the most discouraging of days. Simms didn't exactly light it up in the second half, losing a fumble, throwing an interception in the end zone, and throwing another pass that should've been intercepted in the end zone, and yet the quarterbacking wasn't Ryan's greatest concern.
Milliner and the rest of his defensive backs were playing flag football out there, refusing to tackle anybody. The secondary has been dreadful all year, a clear indictment of a head coach who advertises himself as a defensive genius (not to mention a clear indictment of Idzik's decision to trade the Jets' best player, Darrelle Revis).
"I feel bad for our fans," Ryan said, "especially the people that were here in the stadium. They deserve better than that. It was an awful performance by us."
With the crowd's jeers still ringing in his ears, Ryan wouldn't say if he'd start Simms, Smith, or old schooler David Garrard against Oakland. He should go with Simms or Garrard, if only to give Smith the temporary timeout he so desperately needs. On his end, free from his crumbling pocket, Smith said that his confidence would remain "sky high," but that he would do "a lot of looking in the mirror" as part of a necessary self-test.
The kid is struggling like you wouldn't believe, but it's still too early to give up on him. Smith has shown a live arm and opportunistic feet this year, enough reason to believe he'll be fine if the Jets ever find him a playmaker who can actually, you know, make a play.