Jets players back Geno Smith

FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Eight months ago, Geno Smith was the face of the NFL draft -- a long face.

Amid media reports that painted him as a diva, Smith -- projected as a top-10 pick -- tumbled out of the first round. That infamous slide, the quarterback said Monday, provided motivation for his rookie season with the New York Jets.

"It couldn't have happened in a better way," said Smith, who finished an up-and-down year with an encouraging December. "Not only did it give me that fuel that I needed to go out and be that hard-working guy every single day, but I landed in a great spot."

The Jets took a chance in the second round. After a dreadful midseason slump, Smith provided optimism for the offseason, helping them to a 3-1 mark over the final quarter.

As they packed up after an 8-8 season, the Jets offered strong support for Smith, who likely will go into training camp as the No. 1 quarterback.

"I think this team believes in Geno," wide receiver David Nelson said. "I think the way he played over the last four weeks speaks for itself."

Wide receiver Josh Cribbs said Smith "has all the factors of a championship quarterback. Now it's just a matter of honing that in."

Smith started every game, although the organization never formally anointed him as the starter. Now it's just a matter of semantics. Barring something unforeseen, the plan is to stick with Smith.

Smith finished as the lowest-rated passer in the league (66.5), but he raised his play down the stretch. His rating over the last four games was 83.6, as he went the last two games without a turnover. He had 25 in the first 14 games.

If his draft-day snub was the fuel, Smith's Week 13 benching was the refueling. He was pulled at halftime of a 23-3 loss to the Miami Dolphins, nearly costing him his job. Coach Rex Ryan decided to stick with him, not a popular choice at the time.

"I think it just lit a fire under me," Smith said of the temporary benching. "It gave me that competitive edge that was always there, but maybe needed to be pulled to the forefront."

That was a turning point for Smith, who threw only two interceptions over the last four games (116 pass attempts). He said the vote of confidence from the coaching staff, at a time when his confidence could've shattered, was huge for him.

"I just wanted to repay those guys for the confidence they had in me, and I'd like to think I did so," he said.

The quarterback situation appears to be in better shape than a year ago. The Jets ended the 2012 season with a demoted Mark Sanchez, Tim Tebow and Greg McElroy. Sanchez was the presumptive starter for 2013 after a training-camp competition, but he suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in the preseason.

Enter Smith.

"He was up and down a little bit, but there's no teacher like experience," general manager John Idzik said after Sunday's 20-7 win over the Dolphins. "I think that showed through the season. He was very poised, he was very resilient and he made big plays. I think it was a marvelous season for him to learn from."

The Jets have four quarterbacks on the roster, although Sanchez is a likely salary-cap casualty and No. 3 David Garrard is a free agent. The Jets probably will bring in a veteran to push Smith and Matt Simms, but they're not going to abandon Smith after investing a full season to his development.

Smith sidestepped the question when asked if he expects to be named the starter, saying he always expects to be competing in the league.

Asked to compare Smith and Sanchez, one team source said, "It's not even close. Geno can do so much more."

Smith's late-season rally, coupled with the return of Ryan, put the Jets in a good mood on "baggy" day. In his team meeting, Ryan told the players they fell short of their goal of making the playoffs but that their future is bright.

Smith is a big part of that future.

"He's going to have a tremendous career here," Nelson said.