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Geno Smith Wasn’t Better Than His Backup

In the most surreal bit of sports news to hit Tuesday’s wires, Geno Smith, the incumbent starting quarterback for the New York Jets, is going to miss six to 10 weeks with an injury. And it wasn’t just any kind of injury; it was the kind you get when a teammate punches you and breaks your jaw.

According to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, now-cut linebacker IK Enemkpali slugged Smith because he failed to reimburse Enemkpali for a $600 plane ticket. Jets fans — at least, Jets fans in the FiveThirtyEight office — rejoiced. But coming into the preseason, this Jets team showed at least a vague sense of promise. Are the Jets really better off without Smith?

Last year, New York went 4-12 (3-10 under Smith) with one of the NFL’s worst passing offenses, and Smith was pretty bad for the second straight season. In fact, his career has gotten off to one of the worst starts of any QB since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger. Although Hall of Famers Troy Aikman and Terry Bradshaw kicked off their careers with equally bad passing efficiency numbers, it’s far more likely that Smith is a talent on par with, say, Kyle Boller than that he’s harboring hidden star potential.

And while Smith will be 25 this season, an age at which QBs still show a decent amount of improvement, the typical aging curve wouldn’t even carry Smith to league-average status at his peak.

Meanwhile, the Jets’ backup quarterback isn’t a bad one. Longtime Buffalo Bills starter Ryan Fitzpatrick occupied the seat behind Smith and — statistically speaking — he’s probably a better QB than the man slated for the huddle, at least in the short term. Over the past two seasons (when he was with the Houston Texans and the Tennessee Titans), Fitzpatrick’s Total QBR1 of 54.1 was better than Smith’s 41.2 mark during that span, and Fitzpatrick’s cumulative ProFootballFocus grade of +11.3 vastly outpaced Smith’s total of -37.3. By the numbers, the Jets are better off with the glass-jawed Smith out of the game, holding a clipboard on the sidelines.

Of course, these kinds of assessments always come with the caveat that individual football statistics are obscured by countless interactions, coaching decisions and other contextual factors. And the Jets did add a good receiver over the offseason, Brandon Marshall, so it’s possible Smith would have improved significantly in 2015 had he not run afoul of Enemkpali’s fist. But Jets fans shouldn’t worry too much about what might have been: The team’s offense will probably be better with Fitzpatrick under center than it would have been with Smith.

Footnotes

  1. ESPN’s play-by-play-based measurement of quarterbacking performance, which grades on a 0-100 scale.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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