Behind Geno Smith, Jets taking flight

The question isn’t whether it’s a surprise that, five games into the season, the Jets are a full three wins ahead of the Giants in the insignificant-but-significant two-horse race that is New York football.

The question is: Did anyone think that the Jets would be better than the Giants? A single person? Would anybody, in August 2013, have been willing to put down money on the Jets ending the season with a superior record?

I’m guessing not.

And this isn’t through any great sin or ignorance of the football-spectator world-at-large. It’s because, at the beginning of the season, the Giants were only one year removed from a Super Bowl win and coming off a disappointing, but still capable, 9-7 season.

The Jets, meanwhile, were a spiraling mess, consumed by a quarterback controversy during training camp, freshly without the best defensive player in franchise history, their coach the constant object of criticism.

The rest of the roster was a mix of unproven youth — not exactly a positive on a team well known for busting its defensive prospects — and curiously picked vets; the leaders, guys like David Harris, Calvin Pace, Antonio Cromartie, Nick Mangold, and Santonio Holmes, were all either coming off injuries, underachieving seasons, or changes to their position-mates.

But it all came back to the quarterback spot. For the past two years, Mark Sanchez had been the albatross hanging around Rex Ryan’s neck. It’s not worth the time recounting how bad Sanchez truly was, other than to mention that at least one metric rates him as the worst quarterback to ever start four seasons for one team. Ever.

No matter how well Ryan did with the rest of his team, that poor judgment threatened to override his accomplishments, because anyone watching couldn’t help but think: How does he not see it?

Fortunately for Rex, the issue was made moot by Sanchez’s injury. (Remember that controversy? That was fun.) And through five games, Geno Smith has done a few things beyond getting the Jets to 3-2, which, after all, involved plenty of help from Lavonte David.

First of all, he’s thrown touchdown passes, a technique that Mark Sanchez was never quite able to get the handle of; 4.5 percent of his pass attempts have been for touchdowns, higher than three out of four of Sanchez’s seasons, including last year.

It’s a small sample size, but his completion rating is 60 percent, a full five points better than Sanchez’s career mark. And, most importantly, he’s shown improvement, and over a short period of time, too, culminating with Monday’s wizardry against the Falcons: 16/20, 199 yards and three touchdowns.

Everything about that performance was positive: a terrific completion percentage; great efficiency in his yards per attempt; and three scores compared with no turnovers. Smith’s been dogged by turnovers so far, including and especially in a three-interception fourth quarter that crushed the Jets’ surprisingly good shot at an upset win over the Patriots; after Week 4, his 11 giveaways were tied for the league lead. But the Falcons game was a step forward, and if Smith can continue along on that sort of developmental path — coupled with the continued dominance of a shockingly firm front seven — the Jets will legitimately compete for a playoff spot.

Week 5 was a turning point in another way, too. You know who Smith was tied with after Week 4 for most turnovers in the league? Eli Manning. And when Smith was winning the game against Atlanta with zero giveaways — well, the day before, since Jets-Falcons was a Monday-night affair — Eli Manning added another three interceptions, moving into sole possession of both most interceptions this season (12) and most total turnovers (14).

Manning’s best quality has never been protecting the ball — he threw 25 interceptions in 2010, a number he’s on pace to beat significantly this year, followed by 16 in 2011 and 15 in 2012 — but his turnovers this season are happening at an almost unprecedented rate: He’s on pace to throw 38 picks in 2013, which would be the second-most, behind George Blanda’s 42 INTs in 1962 (AFL, Houston Oilers). That was more than 50 years ago.

There’s nothing more emblematic of the shift in the Giants’ and the Jets’ New York standing than their records. But the performance of their two quarterbacks — one a rookie who barely won the starting job and the other a two-time Super Bowl champion — is a close second. As Geno and Eli go, so does New York City football.