In an era in which highly-drafted rookie quarterbacks are getting the clipboard-and-ballcap treatment far less often, it's not shocking that Geno Smith is getting the opening day start for the New York Jets on Sunday. The man he's replacing, a banged-up Mark Sanchez, did the same thing four years ago after the Jets picked him in the first round. The only quarterback taken higher than Smith this past April, E.J. Manuel, is also slated to start on Sunday just 400 miles away in Buffalo.
The kicker is, Smith and Manuel are coming in a year after one of the most incredible seasons by a group of rookie quarterbacks in NFL history. Washington's Robert Griffin III, Indianapolis' Andrew Luck and Seattle's Russell Wilson all led their teams to the playoffs, while Ryan Tannehill and Brandon Weeden claimed starting jobs and showed significant signs of promise in Miami and Cleveland, respectively. Ryan Lindley (Arizona), Nick Foles (Philadelphia) and Kirk Cousins (Washington, backing up Griffin) didn't win permanent starting gigs but also got playing time in 2012.
After watching all of those gifted rookies shine – and, in several cases, lead their teams to quick turnarounds in the standings – Jets fans can't be blamed if they hope for a dose of the same medicine. Smith could provide it after an extremely prolific collegiate career at West Virginia that included nearly 12,000 passing yards and 98 touchdown tosses, but he's not specifically trying to follow in the footsteps of Luck, Wilson or any of last year's rookie stars.
"Every situation is different and I'm pretty sure those guys wanted to do well just as I want to do well," he said, four days before his first NFL start. "They've all been faced with challenges and I expect the same. I'm just going to go out there and play football. I'm not worried about what anyone else did. I just take it play by play, day by day, and that's kind of my motto. It's something that I want to do and try to do every single time."
Smith was the 39th pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, somewhat surprisingly dropping to the second round, where he became too good for the Jets to pass up. New York had gone deep into the playoffs in each of Sanchez's first two seasons but had slipped to 8-8 in 2011 and 6-10 last year, with Sanchez seeing his passer rating drop to 66.9 in 2012. The two appeared to be in a fairly even battle for the starting job this summer, but the Jets hand may have been forced by a shoulder injury suffered by Sanchez late in the third preseason game. Either way, the job belongs to Smith now and he's pleased to have achieved that first important goal in his NFL career.
"I'm extremely proud, but, at the same time, it's something I've been working at – just preparing myself for this week," he said. "Got a big test coming up, a long season ahead of us, and I just want to continue to stay prepared. [It is] something I've been working extremely hard at. Still growing, still progressing as a player, and I want to get out there with a victory come Sunday."
To get that victory he'll have to overcome the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who are visiting MetLife Stadium on Sunday. The Buccaneers faced two of last year's rookie passers, Griffin and Foles, and lost to both of them, but they are opening 2013 with a significantly revamped defense. After finishing the 2012 season first against the run but last against the pass, the Buccaneers signed All-Pro safety Dashon Goldson, traded for All-Pro cornerback Darrelle Revis and used their highest draft pick on award-winning cornerback Johnthan Banks. Smith has been studying the Bucs' defense and he knows some of the specific challenges it will present him in his first NFL start.
"They're stout against the run," he said. "They've improved their secondary from last year with the acquiring of Darrelle and the safety, Goldson, two of the best players at their positions in the NFL. But we've got to go out there and play ball. They have a very fast, undersized linebacking corps; they run sideline to sideline, they were number one against the rush last year. But none of that stuff takes us away from what we want to do here and that's go out there and execute."
Revis, of course, came to the Buccaneers from those very Jets, which means Smith has to face the player widely considered to be the NFL's best cornerback rather than have him at his back. Smith's coach, Rex Ryan, says the Jets still have their "Revis Rules" in place, and the rookie quarterback intends to keep them in mind.
"We don't like to pay attention to jersey numbers or who a guy is, but, at the same time, you've got to be mindful of it," said Smith. "So I'll be watching for number 24 out there, Darrelle, [and] I'll be watching for the safety. That's something we do every single week, so it's not like anything is changing, but you still have to mindful of those players because they are great players.
"I've watched football and I know what [Revis] can do. He's not a guy that you want to test. Plays are tight because he can make plays on the ball that your average DB can't. He's not a guy that you would really want to test, but, like I said, if a [receiver] is behind him or if he gets beat, then you got to deliver the ball no matter who it is. But I wouldn't expect that from him because he's such a great player."
It remains to be seen how much improved the Buccaneer defense will be with Revis, Goldson and some other new parts in place. Still, no matter who the Jets drew for their season opener, the rookie Smith was going to be facing a new level of competition as he makes the jump from the NCAA to the NFL. So far, he believes that transition has gone smoothly.
"I wouldn't say it was too difficult," said Smith. "There is a challenge there, but every single challenge that I'm faced with I'll just take head on. That's what I've tried to do with this thing. So far it's been good to me. Like I said, I've been progressing, I've been steadily getting better, and I'm going to continue to grow and get better as a player. But to finally be named the starter – it means a lot to me to be a part of this organization, having teammates and coaches who have faith in me, and it also means that I got to go out there and produce and live up to what everyone expects of me. I look forward to it."