FLORHAM PARK, New Jersey — Geno Smith made his first real gaffe of training camp, losing the football late in the New York Jets' fifth practice of the summer.
A mistake? Sure. An overall sign of progress? Definitely.
"It was his first turnover at camp," coach Todd Bowles said Tuesday. "You don't blow it out of proportion."
Except that for the mistake-prone Smith, it passes as news that he "finally" turned the ball over. Leger Douzable had a strip-sack — although there's no real contact on the quarterback in practice — when Smith held onto the ball too long and had it knocked out of his hand.
"I've just got to protect the ball better," Smith said. "That's about it."
So far, so good this summer.
He still has no interceptions and has shown a fairly good understanding of offensive coordinator Chan Gailey's system, one that has spread tendencies similar to the one Smith played in during his touchdown-filled college days at West Virginia.
During his first two seasons, Smith turned the ball over 41 times, including 34 interceptions. Reading defenses better, releasing the ball quicker and not locking in on his primary receiver were all items on his to-do list this season.
"I'm getting better every day, more comfortable with it every day," Smith said of playing in Gailey's offense.
It wasn't just Smith who made mistakes as the offense as a whole was a bit sloppy Tuesday, including rookie Bryce Petty throwing two interceptions. But all eyes are obviously on Smith, who has the starting job over veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick — and needs to be consistent and limit the turnovers to keep his spot atop the depth chart.
"You talk about it and you recognize it," Bowles said of Smith's turnover. "At the end of the day, he's got to let the ball fly. He just can't sit there and hold it."
Smith is likely the key to success for the Jets this season. The defense is expected to be stout with a line that is considered among the best in the NFL, to go along with a revamped secondary that includes cornerbacks Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie.
Add wide receiver Brandon Marshall to a solid receiving corps with Eric Decker and Jeremy Kerley, and it would seem that Smith is in a perfect position to be successful.
"Being that I've got a bunch of experience, good and bad, I think I've been able to see a lot and I've been able to learn from a lot," Smith said. "I feel a lot more comfortable in the pocket, and being back there, and standing back there, and seeing things. But the system is great. It allows us to play fast. It allows us to see the defense and get the ball out quick because we have so many answers."
And Smith hopes to be the answer to perhaps the Jets' biggest question of all: Sure, they've added a lot of talent — but do they have a reliable quarterback?
"I've watched him and I think it's very unfair that he's been pointed out as somebody who hasn't really been productive," said former wide receiver Laveranues Coles, who attended practice last weekend. "A lot of that has to do with the people they've had around him. You can't ask someone to make something happen without having anything. It's like going to get groceries. You can't tell me to make spaghetti and you don't get me any pasta. ...
"Now that he has the tools around him, if he doesn't produce now, then it's easy to make a fair assessment of where he belongs after this season."
Cromartie was with the Jets during Smith's rookie season, when the young quarterback was forced into the starting job when Mark Sanchez went down for the year in the preseason with a shoulder injury. After a year in Arizona — in Bowles' defense — Cromartie is back in New York, and sees a change in Smith.
"The biggest thing, I think, is he's carrying himself more as a pro, the way he comes out and tries to handle himself," Cromartie said. "I think you don't see those moments you saw his rookie year in camp or maybe last year where he would get slumped or he may get frustrated with certain things. He just lets that play go. If it happens, it happens and then he moves on to the next play.
"From that point, that's a growing step."
Smith had some issues last season that might have made some of his teammates waver in their assessment of him as the guy in charge on the field. His in-game mistakes derailed some of the Jets' games and led to a few benchings, and off-field incidents — missing a team meeting, cursing at a fan in the stands — affected his credibility as a leader.
That's all in the past for Smith, who has come back rejuvenated and refocused.
"I'm just growing as a person," he said. "I think as you get older, you get a better understanding, so with that, you know, I'm definitely more mature.
"I think if I wasn't, that would be a problem."