By Ernie Palladino
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The young man is growing up.
Geno Smith still has a ways to go, but against the Falcons he showed signs that perhaps this is not going to be a doomed Jets season under his rookie leadership.
He's still going to cost Rex Ryan some games, and perhaps even his job by season's end depending on how all this swings. But for the time being, one can look optimistically on the strong-armed kid, simply because he appeared to have learned one basic lesson in his five starts: When you take care of the ball, good things happen.
Smith didn't throw a single interception in front of a national Monday night audience which viewed his team's 30-28 comeback win. To boot, he led a 55-yard drive to set up Nick Folk's game-winning field goal.
The reward for all that was a 3-2 record, a share of second place in the AFC East with Miami and the potential that maybe, just maybe, the Jets' slapstick comedy show of the past has left town for good.
Of course, the season is only five games old. More than half a season remains for the Jets to find their old selves and give everybody a good laugh. But for now, they sport a wonderful defense that stood strong in the closing seconds of the first half to keep Matt Ryan, Tony Gonzalez and the rest of the offense out of the end zone, and a quarterback who, while still raw as a carrot, showed a strong arm and good judgment.
There are caveats here. Those always exist with rookies. That's part of being a rookie.
One involves the circumstances under which Smith put a whole bunch of his 20 passes on the money, enough to complete 16 of them for 199 yards and three touchdowns. It's great that he didn't throw an interception. But consider that he also had an hour-and-a-half to throw, as the solid offensive line kept Atlanta's already-anemic pass rush far away from the kid. He did get sacked four times, but to infer that the Falcons battered him in any way is far from the truth.
He did tend to lock onto his receivers, but with no real pass rush to harass him, he got away with it. That will happen sometimes, and for a single week that rookie gets the "next great thing" treatment.
Smith deserves that kind of treatment right now, at least until he does the "next dumb thing." That could come as soon as Sunday at 1 p.m. against Pittsburgh.
Bet that Mike Tomlin is going to rush his front and linebackers every chance he gets. And does anyone out there really think that Bill Belichick WON'T have a special little something lined up to dazzle and beguile Smith the following week?
By the time Smith gets through these two games, his head might be spinning as wildly as a Sahara sandstorm.
But this is now, and Smith should enjoy the adulation. For all the mistakes of the first four games, Smith's fifth-game gem afforded him his third game-winning drive of the season, his first on the road.
That's a nice way to start off a career.
It's not a complete one, though. He still has a lot to learn, but having a turnover-free game in enemy territory offers as good a start as any.
Who knows how this will all end up. The wide-receiver corps still stands some distance from the elite level. And that defense, so strong on that goal-line stand, still allowed the Falcons to come back and take the lead until that perfect two-minute drill.
Smith went 4-for-4 in that drive, and became the first rookie in the Super Bowl era to complete 80 percent of his passes and throw three touchdowns with no interceptions in the same game.
He still has a lot of learning to do. That will show up later in the season.
For now, though, Smith's arrow is definitely pointing up. And it has been a while since anyone could say that about a quarterback wearing Jets green.
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