CORTLAND, N. Y. – New York Jets coach Rex Ryan stood at the lectern here on Thursday afternoon and looked out at the rows of journalists, waiting for word that the cameras were rolling.
"Is it working?" he asked.
Then he made a quip as only he can: "That's something that could be asked of me. Still working?"
The room broke up in laughter, and so did Ryan.
"I don't know if there was a whole lot of confidence last year at this time."
There sure wasn't. The most notable move Ryan made all year was to keep Mark Sanchez in a meaningless exhibition game until he got injured. That caused the coach's hot seat to blaze all season, and Ryan barely saved his job with an emotional end-of-season win over the hated Miami Dolphins to boost his team to 8-8. Now Ryan has the bluster to say this version of the Jets is "a zillion miles ahead of where we were last year." In fact, he said this group is further along at this point in the summer than any other team he's had in New York.
(Here's more on the scene with Ryan:)
The first day of training camp is usually time for unbridled hope, and Ryan is notorious for talking a better game than his team delivers. Yet there is something different about this year for the Jets: the possibility that the quarterback situation is a source of strength rather than a petri dish of toxicity.
Two years ago, it was Sanchez and Tim Tebow. Last year, it was Sanchez and rookie Geno Smith. Both tandems failed. Ryan is known as a defensive coach, and the Jets are a good defensive team, but quarterback battles have stolen all the storylines and corroded two straight seasons. It felt like every Jets offensive player who touched the ball turned to stone. There have been plenty of optimistic lines about two quarterbacks pushing each other to be better, but Tebow and Sanchez both got worse and worse. Smith was not much better, if at all. And now here comes Michael Vick, looking for one more chance to shine after an 11-season odyssey in the league.
It would seem this season will be like the ones before: filled with more drama than direction.
Believe it or not, though, Rex's recipe could be right this time.
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Some of the reasons have little to do with Smith, the supposed starter, and Vick, the veteran backup. Specifically, the supporting cast is a lot better. Whoever throws for the Jets will have a better receiving option than Sanchez ever had: new acquisition Eric Decker. The former Bronco had nearly as many touchdown catches by himself over the past two seasons (24) as all of the Jets combined (27). Yes, a lot of those scores came from Peyton Manning, but Decker did pretty well with Tebow throwing to him, too.
Smith used Decker often in drills Thursday. On two occasions, a Jets fan yelled, "Show us, something, Geno!" before a snap, and each time Smith zinged one to Decker for a completion. The receiver made the quarterback look good.
"Decker runs great routes," Vick beamed after practice. "He knows how to get open."
Also new this season: Chris Johnson, the speedy rusher who ran for 2,000 yards as a Tennessee Titan in 2009. Whether he can even run for 1,000 yards at age 29 is not guaranteed – he had 1,077 last season – but he is something else Sanchez and Tebow lacked: a threatening halfback.
And although it certainly won't sell many tabloid papers in Manhattan, the offensive line should be deeper. Brian Winters had a strong finish to 2013 at left guard, a position that has not been good for a while.
So while the case could be made the Jets' starting quarterback was bound to fail under any circumstances in 2012 and 2013, it could be argued this year that whomever wins the top job will be positioned to succeed. At the very least, Smith or Vick will have more help.
And they will likely have more help from each other. Vick is a bit of a coach on the field. On Thursday, a young receiver stopped his route and one of Vick's throws fell untouched. "That's on me," he told the group, even though it was clear the kid screwed up. Vick could make this situation precarious for Smith, who had a whopping 21 interceptions as a rookie, but it won't be through subterfuge. The 11-year veteran has said all the right things to take the pressure off the younger player. And Smith has said all the right things about Vick.
"I'm looking up to this guy," Smith said. "I'm learning from this guy. He's an 11-year veteran – something I hope to be."
Winning this starting job will help with that, and Smith has a cushion. He got most of the reps on Thursday, having the first-team pass-catchers at his disposal, and he threw the ball well. The position is his to lose, and Vick will not undermine him. Nor will clamor from the fans, at least at first. The Jets crazies seem to like Smith, as there were more cheers for him than for Vick. While past quarterback battles seemed a set-up for chaos, this one seems set for stability. That could all change on Week 1, but again, Smith will have more help than Sanchez or Tebow did. He will have more margin for error.
Things always go wrong with Jets quarterbacks. It's hard to remember a time when the position was secure. But now there is the possibility of something unimaginable in past years: calm.
"Is it working?" Ryan asked with a grin. Yes. Maybe this time it is.