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New York Jet coach Rex Ryan saw improvement, even when nobody else did.

As quarterback Geno Smith's rookie season wound down, his production cranked up. It was easy to miss. Smith finished last season with a 66.5 passer rating, ranked dead last in the league. With 12 touchdowns passes and 21 interceptions, he was the anti-Peyton Manning.

Even the fairest critic could question whether Smith was capable of playing quarterback on Sundays. But Ryan said Smith improved as the season progressed. The Jets won three of their final four games, and Smith posted a rating of more than 85 points in each of the victories.

"He came a million miles," Ryan said. "It starts with his poise, his confidence, the fact that he really knows this offense, and he studies defensive coordinators, studies defenses, and he's confident. He can make all the throws. The young man's a very talented player."

Smith looked even better last weekend when the Jets opened with a 19-14 home victory against the Oakland Raiders. The former second-round pick had a 96.6 passer rating.

His final stat line: 23-of-28, 221 yards, one touchdown and one interception. Solid, steady, the type of play Smith often lacked early last fall.

"His offseason, I think he improved as much as anybody that I've been around in his preparation work, and even physically," Ryan said. "He wanted to add some strength, and he did that during the offseason, as well."

It wasn't a perfect opener for Smith. Along with the interception, he also lost a fumble after taking a hard hit while running near the Raiders' end zone. The turnover likely took points off the board.

Ryan said he talks with Smith about the importance of sliding instead of avoiding big shots from opposing defenders. It remains a work in progress. Inside the pocket, Smith said he feels more comfortable than last season.

"My biggest growth, I would believe, is just my footwork," Smith said. "I've gotten better with my footwork and the timing of the offense, and I feel like the ball is coming out on time, coming out a lot faster. So with more repetitions, I think the footwork has gotten better. And then I think just the total feel for the offense and the game as a whole on the NFL level has gotten better."

Now, the Jets must find the answer to one question. Can they build their offense – their franchise, even – around Smith?

The Jets are still a ways off from finding out. By the end of this season, they should have a good idea. The proof could be found in overcoming challenges like the one he'll face Sunday when the Jets travel to Lambeau Field to play the Packers.

"He doesn't need to do anything Herculean," Ryan said. "He just has to be himself. His preparation speaks for itself. He prepares like a veteran quarterback. He goes out and he's poised, and he's confident. That's what he needs to keep building on.

"Obviously, the mistakes, we've got to protect the football in particular against this group of pass rushers is something we're obviously going to have to do a great job of emphasizing this week."

-rwood@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @ByRyanWood

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