The New York Jets watched rookie quarterback Geno Smith struggle through the 2013 season, eventually finishing as the lowest-rated passer in the NFL. But things are changing, according to Jets wide receiver David Nelson.
What’s the difference between the Geno of last season and the 2014 version?
"His maturity. Not necessarily as a passer, but as a quarterback," Nelson told FOXSports.com in a telephone interview on Tuesday. "And I mean that by saying all of the above. It means walking into the huddle, commanding attention in the huddle, calling a play with authority, calling out blitzes with authority.
"He is taking authority over the offense and taking command over that group. When you see that, you see guys who want to play for him and you see a bunch of guys start to embrace him. You’re going to see a much more cohesive unit this year because of his maturity and because of his understanding of the offense and how the NFL works as a whole."
As Smith develops, Nelson has grown alongside. The fifth-year player joined the Jets just before Week 5 last season and was very much thrown into the fire thanks to the many injuries that hit the Jets’ receiving corps.
"I remember the first three weeks, it was chaos. Here I am coming in Week 4, learning a brand new offense with a brand new coaching staff and a brand new team. New city, new environment."
What’s more, the Jets had a Monday Night Football matchup against the Atlanta Falcons and Nelson had to play a major role with the team’s three starting wideouts out for the game.
"I didn’t get the time to know anybody. It was the craziest three-and-a-half weeks I’ve experienced as a professional," said Nelson, who spends his free time organizing relief efforts in impoverished nations as part of the "I’m ME!" charity that he started with his brothers.
But Nelson wouldn’t have it any other way.
"It’s one of the beautiful components about the NFL. It’s not for anybody. You have to be able to adjust and go with me. The train is moving and I had to jump on our get off. It’s an exclusive group of people and when guys come in, they expect you to perform."
And perform he did. After getting his bearings, Nelson got hot over the last month of the regular season and finished with 36 receptions for 423 yards and two touchdowns. The Jets rallied to an 8-8 record, just one win away from a playoff berth.
But now we’re in a new season and while Smith has been making strides, the Jets still brought in veteran quarterback Michael Vick on a free-agent deal. And while Smith still has a hold on the starting job, Vick’s presence in the locker room has definitely been felt.
"I honestly think his experiences off the field has been a huge component of what he brings to the locker room. He’s been through a lot and had to overcome a lot of real-life stuff and he applies that to his game on the football field. He doesn’t let the small stuff get to him," Nelson said.
Vick has even taken it upon himself to counsel some of the Jets’ younger players when it comes to "guys who think it’s cool to do certain things off the field and it’s cool to say certain things."
Vick, in his leadership role, will say things like, "Hey, you might want to think about who you are affecting when you do that."
Nelson says the Jets locker room has grown tighter and that the results will show on the field.
"I truly believe in this team. We were 8-8 last year and one game away from the playoffs. Every year you see a six seed or a five seed win the whole thing. So why not us? Why not? We have the talent, we definitely have the capability and now it’s just a matter of putting that together."
What a far cry for a man who didn’t particularly care for the Jets while playing for the Buffalo Bills during his first three seasons in the NFL. What’s more, Nelson’s 2013 season was his first chance to really get to know head coach Rex Ryan, who he was admittedly not fond of during his Bills days.
"You know, I can say it because I was on the outside looking in. I played for Buffalo for three years and hated playing against the Jets because I always thought Rex was this loudmouth coach, and honestly, I couldn’t stand him," Nelson said.
But now? Things couldn’t be more different.
"I respect that man and I love playing for him. His players love playing for him, not because he’s easy going and not because he pampers his players, but because he treats his players like men. And treats us like we’re individuals, not a money sign or not as a value as what we can do for him."
What the Jets can do for Ryan is become more consistent.
"You never knew what team you were going to get with us last year," Nelson said.
Consistency should be easier now that the Jets have begun to stockpile offensive weapons to go along with their burgeoning young defense. Gang Green spent money this offseason, signing wide receiver Eric Decker from the Broncos and adding star running back Chris Johnson. They also found a solid talent in tight end Jace Amaro in the NFL Draft.
Nelson says the Jets’ goal is to look like a top 10 offense every week, not just once in a while. When you combine that with a solid defense, things are definitely looking up.
"Now will I sit here and say we’re a Super Bowl team? I’ll talk to you again in October," Nelson said with a laugh. "I firmly believe we’re a playoff team. Playoffs happen, anything can happen."