Corey Griffin, TheJetsBlog.comLet’s get one thing out of the way: There’s no such thing as a fair quarterback competition. Not in the NFL, not in college, not even in high school.
The Seahawks may not have expected Russell Wilson to beat out Matt Flynn, but they wanted the third-round pick to win out over the backup-turned-maybe-starter. He was cheaper, just as talented and, more importantly, he was Pete Carroll and John Schneider’s “guy.”
Never underestimate the “our guy” factor in professional sports. Besides being a clichéd buzz word, it’s a real thing. General managers and coaches want their hand-picked players to succeed. While Flynn and Wilson were both tabbed by Seattle’s braintrust to “compete” (another important buzz word we’ll get to), it looks a lot better in the public eye and on the salary cap when that guy is the one you drafted 75th overall.
It is from this idea that we revisit the Mark Sanchez vs. Geno Smith battle from last summer and look toward this year’s “competition” between Smith and Michael Vick.
Despite being the better player last summer, Sanchez was fighting a losing battle. There were too many ghosts in his shadow and too many dollar signs in his future for No. 6 to ever have a real shot at starting the majority of the 2013 season. Combine that with a new GM, who drafted his own flawed-but-talented signal caller in the second round, and you have the most see-through “competition” since Sanchez beat out Kellen Clemens in 2009.
It was an ironic twist in Sanchez’s brief NFL career. Four years prior, all Sanchez had to do was show up and stay healthy and the job was his. While Smith limped through training camp and the preseason – literally and figuratively – Sanchez at least appeared competent running Marty Mornhinweg’s offense. If he had stayed healthy, he may even have “won” the job in the eyes of the pundits. But Idzik and the Jets were careful to keep the narrative on the competition and not on who was leading or trailing. This wasn’t about Sanchez having a shot; it was about making it look like he did. Geno was always going to be the starter, but they couldn’t hand it to him – not with all the pre- and post-draft skepticism.
Mark Sanchez was the fall guy, the Verbal Kint to Geno Smith’s Keyser Soze. And John Idzik kept spooning the word competition into the minds and ears of Jets fans like it was written on the bottom of a coffee mug.
In a neutral world, Sanchez probably should’ve started, much like Clemens should’ve started in 2009.
But the NFL isn’t neutral. There are power struggles and egos and multi-million-dollar contracts that are dropped at the same time a player’s name slips to No. 2 on the depth chart. Geno was Idzik’s guy and, just as importantly, he was the choice of the fans, who had mostly moved on from the idea of Mark Sanchez taking another meaningful snap in New York. So much so that they seemed delighted by the prospect of Sanchez’s shoulder being so hurt he couldn’t pretend to be a threat to Geno’s status.
Now, Sanchez is 90 miles down the Jersey Turnpike and Mike Vick is the man meant to “compete” with Geno. The differences between Vick and Sanchez are numerous, one of which being that Vick is a better quarterback who last August appeared on track for a renaissance season under Chip Kelly. However, in this case, Vick will play the role Sanchez knows all too well. Like Sanchez and Clemens before him, Vick is a show pony.
Vick will be trotted out for John Q. Jets Fan and Idzik and Rex will tell you they’re there to “compete.” The best quarterback will win, they say. But this is Geno’s job. Just ask his offensive coordinator.
Unless the last four weeks of the 2013 season were simply a blip on the radar and Smith is truly abhorrent this summer, Vick will spend 2014 as a mentor and one of the better backup quarterbacks in the NFL. He’ll be a sounding board and an in-case-of-emergency-break-glass insurance policy.
The one thing Michael Vick won’t be this summer is on even standing with Geno Smith. Not in today’s NFL with slotted rookie deals and the shiny promise of a young, charismatic quarterback coming off an improved finish to his rookie season.
It’s the same story all over again.
Corey works for NBCSports.com as an editor and can be reached at @cgriffin415 on Twitter or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.