Now that Geno Smith is installed as the New York Jets' starting quarterback, ending a story line that generated about as much drama as "Keeping up with the Kardashians," the focus shifts to a different question. Now, of course, we wonder, "How much leash does he have?"
Maybe it's unfair to pose it, because we're putting Smith on the hot seat before the first regular-season snap, but, hey, this is a grown-man business and the Jets have a quarterback dynamic that's rare in these parts. For the first time in his coaching tenure, Rex Ryan has a viable backup, Michael Vick, whose presence is a good thing (nice depth) but a potentially complicated thing if Smith struggles.
If Ryan goes to the bullpen at some point, he knows Vick is capable of performing just as well as Smith, maybe better. When he made the annoucement Friday night, Ryan went out of his way to praise Vick, saying he's "blessed" to have "two outstanding quarterbacks." It was his way of giving props to a well-respected veteran who is headed to the bench, but it wasn't all coachspeak. Ryan really has confidence in Vick. This, he has said on multiple occasions, is the best quarterback situation he's ever had.
And the most delicate.
Ryan never thought about playing Kellen Clemens in 2009, and he never considered Mark Brunell in 2010 and 2011. Clemens' limitations were obvious and the graying Brunell was more of a big brother to Mark Sanchez than anything else. In 2012, Ryan was afraid to use Tim Tebow for a number of reasons, eventually benching Sanchez when it became painfully obvious he was done in New York -- and turning to the harmless Greg McElroy. Matt Simms was just as green as Smith last season, so he never was a serious option.
But now they have Vick, 34, still fast, still capable of slinging it 50 yards downfield and still comfortable in Marty Mornhinweg's offense after a year apart. You could make a strong argument that he's the best No. 2 quarterback in the league.
The onus falls on Ryan to manage the situation, balancing the pressure to win now (and preserve his job) with the organization's desire to develop Smith into a long-term answer at quarterback. Ryan wants that, too, because he failed with Sanchez and head coaches usually don't get a second chance, let alone a third. But, more than anything, Ryan needs wins.
"We think we can win with both quarterbacks," Ryan said.
It's ridiculous to put a timeline on Smith's life expectancy as the starter. Should he be benched if they start 1-3? How 'bout 0-2? Come on, let's be serious. The feeling here is that Ryan, with considerable input from GM John Idzik, won't make any knee-jerk decisions. If the offense is functioning and the team is losing, why bench Smith? It's abundantly clear the organization will do everything possible to see that he succeeds.
Ryan should take a page out of the Bill Parcells' coaching manual. This situation is somewhat similar to 1998, when Parcells announced before the season that Glenn Foley was his starter. He liked Foley's intangibles and remained committed to him even after signing Vinny Testaverde in June. The Jets started 0-2 with Foley, who got hurt and missed two starts. Testaverde led them back to 2-2, but he returned to the bench when Foley was healthy. Foley proceeded to soil his pants, and that's when Parcells knew it was time to make a permanent change. Testaverde won 10 of his next 11 starts, and you know the rest of the story.
Moral of the story: The head coach must know the pulse of the team and be able to get inside the head of his quarterbacks, knowing when to say "when." This is new territory for Ryan. Yes, he benched Sanchez in 2012, but he waited too long and the season was lost by then. Let's be honest, his track record with quarterbacks isn't great -- unless we're talking about his defense terrorizing one of them.
The coach who never had a hook has one now. We'll find how he likes to use it.