FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Geno Smith got the ball Wednesday, the nod over the competition, the keys to the franchise, everything a rookie quarterback could ask for. Everything except an assurance that he's much more than a high-profile temp.
Rex Ryan's New York Jets don't guarantee anything anymore, not even a starter's job from Week 1 to Week 2. So there were Coach Rex and owner Woody Johnson and GM John Idzik at their training facility, tripping over themselves to declare not that their draft pick will be the man against Darrelle Revis's Tampa Bay Bucs on Sunday, but that he won't necessarily be the man against the Bradys and Belichicks four nights later.
It was a weird scene for a notoriously weird organization, even if the Jets' earnest PR guy, Bruce Speight, made a smart move by shoving all the clowns out of the Volkswagen on the same afternoon rather than letting them stumble out the door and into the cameras one painful day at a time.
Their code words for the day were competition and ongoing, meaning that Mark Sanchez -- injured on a Rex Ryan whim -- might emerge from the crypt just yet.
But the Jets' indecision on decision day doesn't represent the biggest hurdle Geno Smith has to clear from here to a place of firm job security. It's the team around him. A team of playmakers who aren't very good at, you know, making plays.
"I fear another David Carr-type of situation for Geno," said one NFL source with ties to the Jets' front office. That would be the same David Carr who was made the first pick of the 2002 draft by the expansion Houston Texans, and who was sacked 76 times in going 4-12 in his first year.
"You don't want your young quarterback to get shell-shocked," the source continued, "and just like with Sanchez last year, I don't see where the Jets put any help around their guy."
Mike Tannenbaum isn't around anymore to blame for that, but ol' Rex and ol' Woody are still in place, joined by an executive, Idzik, who deserves two or three years to build a team but who, let's face it, hasn't exactly looked like Chris Davis on his first swings in the box.
The Jets have 5-11 written all over them. They are a shell of the team the rookie Sanchez was handed in 2009, when Ryan/Tannenbaum fielded the NFL's best defense and offensive line, and a serviceable set of skill-position players who could bail out the kid quarterback when necessary.
Smith only wishes he had Sanchez's problems of four years ago, when Ryan roared on arrival and sounded like a head coach about to make lame ducks of everyone on the schedule. Now Rex is the emasculated one, a sad, deflated figure just trying to stay employed. This Rex wouldn't dare challenge Tom Coughlin to a race to the MetLife Super Bowl.
"I had a bad year last year," Ryan said. Vegas oddsmakers expect him to make it two in a row.
And if Geno Smith is the one to save him, the quarterback will have to be better at his job than his bosses are at theirs. Smith will also have to be better than 7-6 as a senior at West Virginia, better than that five-game losing streak, even better than his second-round landing spot in the draft.
Smith doesn't appear to be lacking for confidence, anyway. At his locker Wednesday, when asked if he could meet the standard established last year by newbies the likes of Robert Griffin III, Andrew Luck, and Russell Wilson, Smith said, "I want to exceed those expectations. I'm not the type of guy who's going to sit here and shy away from any competition."
All in all, Smith turned in a much better performance at his locker than he did against the New York Giants, who pressured him into three interceptions and an unforced error in the end zone. Smith was playing on a bum ankle while making his rookie mistakes in that one, and his flunked preseason test turned out to be a bigger disaster for Sanchez, the four-year starter thrown out there with the fourth-quarter scrubs.
Did Smith win his gold medal on a disqualification? "It doesn't matter," he said. "What's important is the opportunity that I have, and it's a great one."
Smith set a good tone, and projected an encouraging vibe, in his first meeting with the news media as the Jets' starter. He spoke of embracing all challenges before him, and of fulfilling a boyhood dream to play in the NFL. But Smith was quick to say he wasn't doing any end zone dances. "I'm not here to celebrate," he said.
The quarterback batted away a suggestion that his playmakers were third rate, talking up Stephen Hill, the remains of Santonio Holmes, Jeremy Kerley and Clyde Gates as if they were fantasy football's finest. That's OK; a leader has to stick up for the lesser lights around him.
But what if Geno Smith turns out to be a lesser light himself?
"You don't have to carry the team on your back," Ryan told him.
Someone, somewhere, is going to have to carry these Jets, and it sure won't be Sanchez in Week 1. Scheduled to meet the media after Smith, the four-year starter entered the locker room with towels wrapped around his waist and shoulders, spotted the tangle of cameras and notebooks waiting for him, and motioned for Speight, the PR guy, to walk with him back out of the room. Session canceled.
It was another odd scene on a day when the Jets finally announced the obvious -- that Smith would be the one to face Revis and Tampa -- in a Ryan interview posted on the team's website, ending a covert operation not seen since the Jets ruled Tim Tebow's Wildcat package classified information. (How did that one work out?)
Later on, Woody Johnson would declare Sanchez's roster spot safe for the season, and Idzik would leave no doubt that Sanchez has a chance to reclaim his first-string standing. "Of course he does," the GM said.
So Smith left the building with nothing more than a temporary hold on what Johnson called "maybe the hardest job in sports." Is he good enough and tough enough to keep it tucked away for 16 weeks?
"It looks like he's a gunslinger," Revis said of the tape he's seen.
Once upon a time, a rookie named Troy Aikman survived an 0-11 record in a 1-15 season, and a rookie named Peyton Manning survived his own 3-13. If Geno Smith is to endure similar pain and punishment on his way to becoming a big-time star, he'll need to be a lot better at the game of pro football than the men who employ him.