Geno Smith can prove his mettle Monday

ATLANTA -- Peyton Manning, playing the quarterback position at age 37 as well as it's ever been played, started out like Geno Smith. Worse, actually. Manning threw more interceptions in his first four games -- 11 -- than any rookie quarterback over the past 35 years.

When that was mentioned to Smith the other day, he showed no emotion, not even a small smile. He wasn’t aware of the Manning stat, but the New York Jets rookie -- always so serious -- passed on the opportunity to piggyback on Manning’s early struggles as an alibi for his eight interceptions.

Smith always says the right thing. Now he has to start doing the right thing. The clock is starting to tick.

The first quarter of the season already is done, and there are still many questions about Smith. He can sling it with anyone, that much is obvious, but his decision-making is suspect and his ability to handle adversity within games is hit-or-miss. There are times (pick a screen pass, any screen pass) when you wonder whether he has the instincts to play the position.

He's the mystery leader of a mystery offense, which hopes to start finding some answers Monday night at the Atlanta Falcons.

"[I] don't quite know where we are because we have a quarterback that's on a learning curve now and he's learning an awful lot," offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg said. "We're still building our identity."

Smith has 12 games to prove to John Idzik that a general manager crush on Teddy Bridgewater or Johnny Manziel won't be necessary, and he can start his personal campaign on the national stage. On Monday, Smith will face a mediocre defense but under difficult circumstances -- road game, loud dome, desperate opponent.

In other words, he can do this if he keeps his wits about him.

Smith already is developing a reputation for being a lousy road quarterback (0-2 record, 53.0 passer rating), so this is a wonderful opportunity to break the trend. He has to maintain his composure, and that has been a problem in his previous road starts.

In Week 2, Smith played a clean game for three quarters against the New England Patriots, but he unraveled with his first interception. Two others quickly followed.

A week ago, he was intercepted on the second play of the game by the Tennessee Titans -- bad read, bad throw -- and you could tell right there that Smith was dealing with a serious case of the yips. Three turnovers later, including the behind-the-butt fumble, he was so down on himself that he actually apologized to defensive teammates in the locker room.

Being a franchise quarterback should mean never having to say you're sorry.

"I'm frustrated after a loss," said Smith, whose turnover total has ballooned to 11. "[I'm] disappointed in the way I took care of the ball. At this point in my career, I've got to look at every single thing, good or bad, as a learning experience and just move on from it."

Monday night will be a test of Smith's mettle because, based on the Falcons' track record, he won't get off to a good start. Defensive issues notwithstanding, the Falcons have outscored opponents 34-0 in the first quarter, shutting out the likes of Drew Brees and Tom Brady -- for 15 minutes, anyway.

If Atlanta can temporarily frustrate two of the best in the sport, what will happen to Smith? The Falcons are a bad fourth-quarter team, but Smith has to keep his team in the game to make the fourth quarter relevant -- unlike last week.

The Falcons have a smart defensive coordinator in Mike Nolan who won't hesitate to send extra pressure at Smith, but even smart coaches look dumb when they don't have the talent. Right now, the Falcons are making every quarterback look like Brees and Brady.

Opponents' passer rating: 101.5.

Smith won't have Santonio Holmes (hamstring), but he still has enough around him to make it a 60-minute game. If he duplicates last week's performance, it would be a red flag, intensifying the "We want Matt Simms" chorus from an impatient fan base.

Relax. Let's see whether Smith can work his way out of this. It can happen, you know.

"I'm not trying to compare scenarios or his career to mine," he said, referring to Manning's days as an interception machine. "I'm just out there trying to focus on myself and eliminate those turnovers. I don't want to have eight at this point, but it's already said and done, so I've got to move on from it and just get better."