By DENNIS WASZAK Jr.
AP Sports Writer
FLORHAM PARK, N.J.- The worst day of Geno Smith's young NFL career came four weeks ago with a halftime benching and whole lot of doubts.
Since being benched four weeks ago, former WVU standout Geno Smith has been making winning plays for the Jets.
The New York Jets' rookie quarterback was 4 of 10 for 29 yards and a minuscule 8.3 rating in the team's 23-3 home loss to Miami on Dec. 1. It capped a miserable three-game stretch for Smith, who went from potentially being the future of the franchise to an overmatched, mistake-filled question mark.
It also turned out to be a critical turning point.
"I think it may have helped him," coach Rex Ryan said Tuesday, "just because sometimes you sit back out and you have a chance to see it from a different perspective and you know how hungry you are to get back out there."
Smith has played dramatically better in the Jets' three games since that lousy day, throwing four touchdown passes and running for another two scores with just two interceptions. New York won two of those games, with Smith playing a major part.
"Yeah, I've been growing," Smith said after the Jets' 24-13 victory against Cleveland on Sunday. "That's a part of the process."
So is winning over his coaches, teammates and fans.
In front of some of the same fans who booed him in that game against Miami, Smith had them cheering as he threw for two TDs and put the Jets in control against the Browns with a 17-yard scamper that was capped by him jumping into the arms of several fans in the back of the end zone.
"I loved the way he managed the game," receiver David Nelson said. "I loved the way he took what the defense gave him."
In an up-and-down season for the second-round draft pick, Smith is giving the Jets plenty to consider as they head into the offseason. While it's unlikely he has done enough for general manager John Idzik to believe he's the undisputed starter for 2014, Smith is certainly making an argument for himself.
Another win - against the Dolphins at Miami - and the Jets would finish an unlikely 8-8 with a quarterback who's still developing.
"I'm not worried about what anyone else says about a deadline or who I'm supposed to be proving myself to," said Smith, who has 25 turnovers. "The only people that I have to prove myself to are my teammates and my coaches. I understand that and that's what keeps me level-headed."
From the moment he first stepped foot in the Jets' locker room, Smith has handled himself admirably. While questions about his attitude and work ethic dogged him coming out of West Virginia and apparently contributed to his slide in the draft, the rookie has been humble, engaging and responsible.
That has gone a long way to Smith already establishing himself as a young leader.
"He's a rookie, and that's what I've been trying to stress all along," guard Willie Colon said. "He needs a maturation period."
Smith still needs to read defenses better and stop locking on receivers, but the amount of growth he has made since his first few practices can't be disputed. He had to work from scratch on simple things such as his footwork in his drops from under center.
Smith also has been incorporating his legs in his game, something offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg has wanted to see all season. He has 142 yards rushing in his last three games, developing into a legitimate dual threat.
"He needs his time, and I think it's unfair for anybody to step out and say, 'Oh, this kid is not having a great year. Let's look for a new one,'" Colon said. "Every player needs time to develop. It's up to us as a team to get better, up to us as a line to do a better job and let the kid grow up. And, I think he's doing that."
NOTES: DE Muhammad Wilkerson won the team's Curtis Martin MVP award, as voted on by players. Among other award winners were LB Demario Davis, who won the Dennis Byrd award for most inspirational player, and DB Isaiah Trufant, who was selected for the Ed Block courage award. ... Ryan on missing the playoffs for three straight seasons: "That's a huge thorn in my side, and everybody else's." ... Colon was selected as the recipient of the media good guy award, voted on by reporters who regularly cover the team.