FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- Geno Smith makes the most important start of his young career Sunday against the Baltimore Ravens. He will face a proud, still-respectable defense on the road amid speculation about his job security, questions about his toughness (courtesy of Buffalo Bills defensive tackle Marcell Dareus) and a case of bad deja vu in his own locker room.
The New York Jets lived this in 2009, Mark Sanchez's rookie season. Sanchez’s turnover numbers through his first 10 starts are eerily similar to those of Smith, and there are a handful of holdovers who believe this season on the Geno-coaster is a rerun of the Sanchez soap opera.
"Unfortunately, yes," linebacker Calvin Pace said Wednesday. "I guess it’s to be expected when you’ve got a guy and it’s his first year doing it at this level. He’s going to have some ups and downs. ... Hopefully, he can lean on the running game this week and some guys make some plays for him. I don’t care about yards or what-not. It’s just tough to win games when you have turnovers."
Ah, yes, the turnovers. Smith has 16 interceptions and only eight touchdown passes. Let’s go back to 2009: Sanchez, hailed as the new face of the franchise, had 16 picks and 10 touchdowns at the same point in the season.
Interestingly, Smith wanted no part of a Sanchez comparison. When the question was raised Wednesday, he shook his head no before the reporter could finish.
"No, I’m not Mark," said Smith, almost bristling. "I don’t think it’s fair to compare his season to mine. It’s two different seasons, two different guys, two different players, two different styles, two different systems. I know you guys want to compare every single thing, but it doesn’t make a difference."
Sanchez was wildly inconsistent as a rookie, but his team won nine games, snuck into the playoffs and reached the AFC Championship Game. All things considered, Sanchez isn’t an unflattering comparison for Smith, at least not in the context of rookie seasons. Of course, Sanchez was blessed to be on a smart, veteran team with a shutdown defense. Smith doesn’t have any of that. For the Jets (5-5) to make the playoffs, the 2013 Smith has to be better than the 2009 Sanchez.
And that’s a major if.
The rookie is in a serious funk and, for the first time, there are rumblings about his job. They intensified Monday, when Rex Ryan hinted that backup Matt Simms could get some first-team reps this week in practice. On Wednesday, Ryan said he regretted the comment, saying he "opened a can of worms." It was a Parcells-ian move by Ryan, who sent a message to Smith via the media. Smith said he took his usual number of reps, but he has to be wondering -- and that’s not a bad thing. They will find out if he can handle the pressure.
Smith deserves to start this week, but he will finish on the bench (again) if he delivers another Buffalo-like performance. If that happens, and if Simms creates a spark in relief, there will be a full-blown quarterback controversy, folks.
Sunday could be a turning-point game in Smith’s career. Some of the pre-draft questions about him have emerged, and he has to fight them back. He doesn’t handle adversity well, especially early in games. On the first series in Buffalo, he was hit so hard by defensive tackle Marcell Dareus that he went to the bench for a play, trying to catch his breathe. When he returned, he was dreadful, committing four turnovers.
Afterward, Dareus hit him again, harder, telling The Associated Press, "First play of the game, I knew that we had him. We got a big lick on him and he kind of rolled around. We knew right there we were in his head. From then on, he looked crazy, looked scattered."
It was a brutally harsh evaluation. Asked if he agreed with that, an AFC personnel executive, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said of Smith: "He’s not a physical guy, you know what I mean?"
Naturally, Smith disputed Dareus' version of events.
"I know he’s going to say that, obviously, because they won and I didn’t play well," he told ESPNNewYork.com. "It was a good hit on his part, but it didn’t take me out of my game at all."
But it’s out there, and Smith admitted he’s a little bothered that some might get that impression of him.
"You want to build that perception that you’re a tough guy, that you can stand back there in the pocket and make the throws and take the hits and make the reads and be good," he said. "At the same time, I understand that’s part of the game. You’re going to get hit. I just didn’t play well."
Pace, one of the longest-tenured players on the team, said he likes Smith’s resilience, noting how he’s rebounded from some bad performances.
"He’ll bounce back," Pace said. "I believe in him."
That’s on Wednesday. Will they feel the same way late Sunday afternoon after three hours in the house of the defending Super Bowl champs?