Rich Cimini | ESPN.com
“At times,” the rookie quarterback said Wednesday, “I was playing like a robot.”
Smith was a rock ’em, sock ’em failure during a three-game losing streak, throwing six interceptions and no touchdown passes, but he emerged from the funk last Sunday with a solid performance in a win over the Oakland Raiders. He credits the advice he received from offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg.
A few days before the game, Mornhinweg told Smith to loosen up, to let his natural instincts take over. He was being too methodical with his footwork and reads. Smith took that mindset into the game and, for a change, didn’t hurt the team with a spate of costly turnovers.
“I was just playing freely,” said Smith, who completed 16 of 25 passes for 219 yards, with a touchdown and his 20th interception. “It goes back to not thinking about all my past mistakes. I think I got into this zone where I just tried to be way too perfect, and that’s almost impossible to do at any level, especially as a rookie.”
Next up is perhaps Smith’s toughest assignment of the season — a road game against the Carolina Panthers (9-4), who own the NFL’s No. 2-ranked defense. The Jets (6-7), still clinging to playoff hopes, are 1-5 away from home, having been outscored by a 4-to-1 margin in their last three.
To prove last weekend was a turning point in his difficult rookie season, Smith needs another solid outing. His teammates hope he can replicate the poise he demonstrated against the Raiders.
“He had an aura about him,” wide receiver David Nelson said. “You could just feel it; he was in the zone.”
Smith responded well in no-huddle situations, which the Jets used more than usual to counteract the Raiders’ pre-snap movement and blitzes. Smith ran it in college at West Virginia, as well.
“He was like, ‘Just give me the play and let’s go,’ getting in a rhythm and not stopping and thinking,” Nelson said. “I don’t know how much we’re going to do it, but I definitely think the coaches saw something valuable in it.”
The play calling was conservative during Smith’s slump, as the coaches tried to reduce his turnovers by minimizing risk. The offense became predictable, going two games without a touchdown.
Rex Ryan admitted the approach was a mistake.
“Yeah, maybe so,” the coach said. “Maybe, when you look back on it, maybe I did a poor job of that, just stressing [no turnovers]. Maybe that took away from us a little bit. I’m obviously the guy responsible for that.”
The Jets incorporated wrinkles into last week’s game plan. Aside from the no-huddle, they called more rollouts and more read-option plays for Smith, encouraging him to run if he sensed trouble. He ended up rushing for 50 yards and a touchdown. The Jets are 4-0 when he scores a rushing touchdown.
“Sometimes,” Smith said, “you’ve got to improvise.”
- Longtime Jets beat writer for New York Daily News
- Syracuse University graduate