Heavily criticized prior to the draft for his attitude, Smith was thrust into a starting role when Mark Sanchez was lost to a season-ending shoulder injury. The rookie's problem was trying to be perfect, resulting in robotic play and too much conservatism, as Seth Walder of the NY Daily News reports:
"I think I'd kind of gotten to this zone where I just tried to be way too perfect," Smith said. "That's almost impossible to do at any level, especially as a rookie. There were times where I was so caught up in running the play and executing it to perfection, that I didn't allow my natural ability to take over at times."
That "natural ability" shined through when Smith was pegged to be the first quarterback selected in the 2013 draft. He fell on draft day before being selected by the Jets in the second round, and has swung from extremes -- posting passer ratings of 80-plus on four occasions, while being unable to crack 50 in another four games:
"You're not a robot out there, and at times I was playing like a robot. I was dropping back, five (step) hitch and throwing it," Smith said. "I know that's the way it's drawn up in the game plan and the way it's supposed to be run, but everything isn't ideal on the field. Sometimes you have to improvise, so I think that's what Marty was speaking of."
Smith's Week 14 performance against the Oakland Raiders was an example of a more relaxed and natural quarterback. He wasn't always perfect, but completed 64-percent of his passes while averaging 8.8 yards per attempt. Smith was also dangerous on the ground, scrambling for 50 yards, including an 8-yard touchdown in the third quarter.
Learning to improvise is nothing new for quarterbacks playing in the Meadowlands. Eli Manning of the New York Giants isn't typically hailed for being the perfect pocket passer, but a master at managing clutch situations and finding receivers on broken plays. Coincidentally both Manning and Smith lead the NFL with 20 interceptions apiece, something the rookie will need to limit if he hopes to develop into a franchise quarterback.
The Jets have three more games to close out the 2013 season, starting in Carolina on Sunday. New York has not been mathematically eliminated from the playoffs yet, but Smith's development is far more important to the team's long-term success than securing a wild card. Teammate Jeremy Kerley believes Smith has the tools to take the next step:
"Whatever he did this past week, hopefully it will carry on for his career," Kerley said. "He'll be a great quarterback."