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Geno Smith, 'renaissance' quarterback
He was finished. Banished by the New York Jets. Now? This QB has the Seattle Seahawks contending for a championship. Bob McGinn traces a career arc that's unlike anyone in the NFL.
This is the seventh part of a series looking at active players and their current situation vis a vis what it was entering the NFL draft from our longtime scribe Bob McGinn. The comments from personnel men were made in the months leading up to the draft for my NFL Draft Series, which dates to 1985. Scouting football prospects is an inexact science, especially when it comes to off-the-field considerations. It has been said that no two evaluators view a player exactly the same way.
The resurrection of Geno Smith as an effective NFL quarterback is unfolding in Seattle for a second straight season.
Smith, once the forgotten man in quarterbacking circles, has the Seahawks one-half game ahead of the San Francisco 49ers at 5-2 in the NFC West one year after leading them to an unexpected playoff berth with a 9-8 record.
In the six seasons that should have been the peak of his career, Smith bounced from team to team to team to team making two starts and throwing 101 passes. Seven times he had to be content signing one-year contracts, including by far the richest — one year, $7 million, $500,000 guaranteed — with the Seahawks in April 2022.
Then, finally given a legitimate chance to win a starting job, Smith outpointed Drew Lock to become Russell Wilson’s successor in Seattle. Playing all 1,090 snaps and earning NFL Comeback Player of the Year honors, he received in March a three-year, $75 million deal ($40 million guaranteed) that could be worth up to $105 million.
“I give him credit,” an executive in personnel for an NFL team said Wednesday. “He’s had that renaissance in the last year and come back and had the best season of his pro career at whatever age (32) he was. That’s something that isn’t very common.”
Think Jim Plunkett. Think Rich Gannon. Think Lynn Dickey. Plunkett and Gannon directed teams to the Super Bowl, and Plunkett was victorious in his two appearances.
Is Smith capable of winning a Super Bowl?
“I think he’s a good, solid starter,” the scout said. “You can win with him. He can take you to the playoffs. I don’t know if you can win a Super Bowl with him.
“I like him, but I think there’s like a level of where I see him. Against really good defenses in playoff situations, is he going to hold the ball too long? Is he going to make the wrong read at times? That’s what I’d worry about with him.”
The executive was asked to compare Smith against the 31 other starting quarterbacks based on who he’d want to win a game right now if the supporting casts were equal.
Smith came out as the No. 13 quarterback, trailing seven in the AFC and five in the NFC. In alphabetical order, the AFC list was Josh Allen, Joe Burrow, Justin Herbert, Lamar Jackson, Trevor Lawrence, Patrick Mahomes and Tua Tagovailoa. The NFC list was (a healthy) Kirk Cousins, Jared Goff, Jalen Hurts, Dak Prescott and Matthew Stafford.
“I feel like he’s got all the physical ability as far as throwing,” the scout said. “He has the ability to hit all spots on the field and make the hard throws. He has arm strength. He has enough mobility to run.
“My issue with him is, in big situations, I wouldn’t trust him to not make the mistake. He’ll force some things at times.
“He takes a lot of sacks (60 in 1 ½ seasons). That’s because he’ll hold and wait for that to open instead of being anticipatory and getting rid of it. He’ll hold it and then force it.”
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Height: 6-2 3/8. Weight: 221 (218 at 2013 combine). Age: 33. From: Miramar, Fla.
40-yard dash: 4.58. Vertical jump: 33 ½. Broad jump: 10-4. Wonderlic test: 24. Arms: 32 ½. Hands: 9 ¼.
Parade All-American selection. Passed for more than 3,000 yards.
Rewrote the record book at West Virginia; still leads in passing yards (11,662), passing touchdowns (98) and completion percentage (67.4).
Played five games off the bench in 2009 as a true freshman. Started all 39 games from 2010-’12, working under Bill Stewart as a sophomore and Dana Holgorsen as a junior and senior. His record as a starter was 26-13.
The 2011 season ended when the Mountaineers crushed Clemson, 70-33, in the Orange Bowl and Smith was chosen MVP. In 2012, the Mountaineers started 5-0 before losing five games in a row and finishing 7-6.
Using the NFL system, Smith’s passer ratings were 81.1 in 2009, 100.7 in 2010, 105.8 in 2011 and 117.5 in 2012. His career mark was 107.8. Also, he rushed 245 times for just 342 yards (1.4) and four touchdowns.
Coach Rex Ryan and quarterback Mark Sanchez were the talk of the town in 2009 and ’10 as the Jets advanced to the AFC Championship Game twice before losing to the Colts and the Steelers.
By the spring of 2013, however, the bloom was off both parties. Finishes of 8-8 in 2011 and 6-10 in 2012, coupled with Sanchez’s 52 giveaways the two seasons (remember the infamous Butt Fumble), left the coach and quarterback on thin ice.
GM Mike Tannenbaum was fired after the 2012 finale. His replacement was John Idzik, vice president of football administration for the Seattle Seahawks. Idzik was given responsibility for personnel decisions, including the draft.
It was reported that the Jets considered selecting Smith with the second of their two choices in the first round, or trading up from the second round to take him. Instead, they took cornerback Dee Milliner at No. 9 and defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson at No. 13.
Florida State’s E.J. Manuel was the first quarterback selected, going No. 16 to Buffalo in a colossal reach.
“Man, I’m glad I don’t have to draft a quarterback,” an NFL personnel director said before that draft. “These are a bunch of guys as far as I’m concerned. If you’re starting one of them, it’s because you had nobody else.
“None of these guys took their teams to the next level. None of these guys won anything. Each one has his own characteristics, but none of them are good enough to be starters.”
That scout was dead right. It took a decade before one passer from the class of 2013 emerged as a legitimate starter. That was Geno Smith.
In the last few weeks before the draft, I polled 16 scouts with national orientation to name their top five quarterbacks in order. Smith led with 74 points (11 first-place votes), followed by Matt Barkley (58, three), Manuel (35, two), Mike Glennon (28) and Ryan Nassib (22). Five others that were nonentities in the pros received votes.
Manuel was the lone quarterback off the board when Idzik chose Smith at No. 39.
“We drafted Geno Smith because he has exceptional talent,” said Idzik. “Let’s get him in a situation where we can help him and develop him. Let’s see where that goes. We’re not here to predict what level he’s going to be.”
On Thursday night, when the first round was held, Smith was at draft headquarters inside Radio City Music Hall in New York. After sitting around for 3 ½ hours without a call, he considered not returning for Day 2 but in the end went back.
“It was just a test of patience,” he said. “It’s not a thing where I’m bitter. I’m excited to be living out my dream. If it needs to be used as motivation, then it will. I’m proud to be a Jet, and we’re going to the playoffs next year.”
Not unexpectedly, Ryan was all in on his new quarterback’s bold prediction.
“I hope he’s right,” said Ryan. “He believes in himself … I appreciate that. We’ll see if that pans out, but certainly I believe that’s the right mentality.”
All indications were that Sanchez would have entered 2013 as the starter and Smith as the backup. Then Sanchez suffered a season-ending right shoulder injury in the final exhibition game and Smith, ready or not, took the reins.
Smith finished 36th and last among qualifying quarterbacks in passer rating with a mark of 66.5. Still, the Jets improved by two games to 8-8 as Smith flashed exceptional ability, especially in the clutch. He also ran for 366 yards and six touchdowns; those six rushing touchdowns represented two-thirds of his career total of nine.
In the 2014 offseason, Idzik signed Michael Vick to back him up. In August, an ESPN poll of coaches and scouts named Smith as the worst starter in the league. With the Jets in the throes of a seven-game losing streak at midseason, Ryan benched Smith and turned to Vick.
“I’m good,” Smith told reporters shortly after his demotion. “I’ve got to get better from this. I’ve got to learn from this, and I am. I will learn from this.”
Smith returned to start the final five games of a 4-12 season that cost both Ryan and Idzik their jobs. The new combination of GM Mike Maccagnan and coach Todd Bowles signed Ryan Fitzpatrick, an 11-year veteran, to back up Smith in 2015.
Two days before the exhibition opener. Smith was sucker-punched in the locker room by teammate IK Enemkpali, a second-year linebacker. In a 2020 story, ESPN’s Rich Cimini reported that the incident resulted from a $600 debt that Smith had put off paying Enemkpali.
Smith suffered a fractured jaw in two places and began the season on the inactive list. Fitzpatrick assumed control, played exceptionally well and the Jets, in one of their finest offensive seasons, finished 10-6.
Brandon Marshall, a Pro Bowl wide receiver for the Jets in 2015, told Cimini in August 2020: “I think it (the punch) ruined (Smith’s) career. He was primed to have a really good year. That was taken away from him.”
In 2016, Smith told Cimini: “When I look back on this when I’m 40, 50 years old I’ll ask myself, ‘What time in my life made me a man?’ I think this was that time in my life.
“It was so easy to say, ‘Hey, this is not my fault. I’m the victim here, and this guy should be going to jail.’ Instead, I manned up. I owned it. I took responsibility for whatever actions I had in that altercation and I chose to let that fuel me to become a better man and a better player.”
The next season, Fitzpatrick threw so many interceptions that he was benched after a 1-5 start. With the door open, Smith started against the Baltimore Ravens but suffered a torn ACL and was done for the season.
“He caught a bad break two years in a row,” Bowles said. “Obviously, I’m sure he’ll bounce back from it, but it’s the tough part of the business.”
It was this season that Smith caught up with Tyler Dunne, for a piece at Bleacher Report, promising the NFL hadn’t seen the last of him. “Eventually everybody will see,” Smith said. “Eventually everybody will see.”
After four unfulfilled, snakebit seasons, Smith was cast aside by the Jets and allowed to walk as an unrestricted free agent.
In April 2017, Smith went to the New York Giants for one year and $1.88 million ($300,000 guaranteed). He started one game for Eli Manning, who was benched, but then management stunningly went back to Manning for the remainder of a 3-13 season as Smith receded into the woodwork. An unrestricted free agent again in 2018, Smith went to the Los Angeles Chargers as Philip Rivers’ understudy. His one-year deal was worth $1 million ($200,000 guaranteed). He had four pass attempts.
When the Chargers decided to move on, Smith took a one-year, $870,000 ($25,000 guaranteed) unrestricted free-agent deal with Seattle in May 2019. In late August, Smith was cut for the first and only time in his career. The Seahawks brought him back two days on a comparable one-year contract.
Smith signed one-year, near-minimum salary deals with the Seahawks in 2020 and ’21 to back up the almost indestructible Russell Wilson. In 2021, he performed well in three starts, which led to the lucrative backup deal with Seattle.
In the blockbuster trade that sent Wilson to Denver in March 2022, one of the players headed to Seattle was quarterback Drew Lock. He had made 21 starts for the Broncos. Expectations were that Lock would win the job to succeed Wilson.
Coach Pete Carroll, however, installed Smith as the starter during the off-season program. In mid-August, Lock missed time after coming down with COVID-19. Smith emerged to play every snap, making the Pro Bowl and guiding Seattle to a wild-card playoff berth. His 69.8 completion percentage mark led the NFL, and he rushed for 366 yards to equal the career best from his rookie season. His passer rating of 100.9 ranked fifth in the league.
WHAT SCOUTS SAID BEFORE THE DRAFT
AFC scout: “I would have a hard time putting him in charge of my team. He’s OK in the types of exposures I’ve had to him. Little erratic as a player.”
AFC scout: “He’s got a fluid delivery. I had enough GMs say, ‘He’s not perfect but he will go in the top 10.’ I can see where people say they can take those flashes and turn it into something. He has a lot of easy completions in this offense, which is fairly typical of college quarterbacks nowadays. He plays from a crouched position. He plays with a significant amount of knee bend. He plays shorter than he measures. He’s in the shotgun almost exclusively. At times, he will literally bounce in place on his back foot four, five, six, at times eight times. There’s no way he can bounce eight times in the NFL. That will never happen. It’s more of a work-in-progress than a plug-in-and-play.”
AFC scout: “He has talent but I ain’t crazy about him. He’s not a No. 1 pick. He’s not a bad player. He can throw the ball. I’m not sure about his decision-making.”
NFC scout: “I went to the (Pinstripe) bowl game against Syracuse and he just didn’t do it for me. There just was nothing about the way he carried himself or commanded that game that led me to believe he was a franchise quarterback. I liked him early when he was destroying everybody. He’d be the only one I would consider. He plays in that offense but they do some pro stuff, too. He’s athletic. He’s gotten a lot better, too, every year he’s been there. He’s got really good vision. He’s not one of those system guys who just chucks it to the first guy. He can see the field and read defenses. But once they started playing some better teams he kind of got exposed.”
AFC scout: “He will have a fantastic first quarter and stink the joint out in the second quarter. There’s no consistency to him. He’s not as tall as you want but he has it all. He needs to display better consistency. He needs some work on his mechanics. He holds on to the ball. His delivery is a little long. He’s just so streaky.”
NFC scout: “Geno scares me but he is talented. Good kid. Quiet. He’s just so erratic in his play. He just needs a lot of work because their system is so different. He’s a better athlete probably than a quarterback. He’s got good arm talent with a clean read. But any time he’s out of rhythm he’ll lock on the target. He’s in a real simple read system. Needs to work on the timing throws.”
AFC scout: “He’s got the intangibles. He’ll fit in well with a lot of offenses. He doesn’t have a great long arm. His receivers made him look pretty good. When you’re throwing to Stedman Bailey and Tavon Austin, they have a tendency to make you look a little bit better. But, in the right scheme, his decision-making is OK.”
NFC scout: “I wouldn’t take him in the first (round). He’s OK. Not a bad kid.”
AFC scout: “There are only two guys that have the athletic ability of a (Ryan) Tannehill. That’s (E.J.) Manuel and Smith. And Smith doesn’t like using his legs. Manuel likes using his legs but he doesn’t have near the arm talent.”
NFC scout: “I’m not a Geno Smith guy at all. He’s probably got more talent than (Matt) Barkley but I’d try Barkley first. I’m not sold on Smith. At all. He doesn’t have good field vision. He’s late reading. I don’t think he’s a good leader. He’s got these eyes; it’s like a deer in the headlights. I’ve watched his demeanor on the sideline. He’s by himself a lot. One of his teammates said he definitely wasn’t a leader. They didn’t like him … Good athlete, strong arm, throwing motion is fine. But nothing clicks from the brain to the release. He just isn’t quick enough. And a lot of throws he made at West Virginia, these guys are wide open. The offense got these guys wide open and there was a lot of good RAC (run-after-the-catch) from Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey. I would put him as a bust. Why should I take a bust, even if it’s in the second round?”
AFC scout: “He’s Akili Smith. That will end the conversation. But he might go in the top seven.”
AFC scout: “I think he will go in the first round. I’d take him. I love his arm strength, and he’s athletic. He offers a lot to a team. Best arm (in the draft).”
AFC scout: “There is some upside to him but there’s a lot of question marks to him.”
WHAT PEOPLE ARE SAYING NOW
Seahawks coach Pete Carroll (to NBC’s Peter King): “I didn’t realize in Geno’s first couple years how well he was commanding the backup situation. He was really improving. He thought of himself as a starter. Geno’s the example I preach about to our players. He maintained a starter’s mentality throughout four years of sitting. He never didn’t believe. I’ve been coaching for a million years. Never saw it like I saw with Geno. You know, Kobe Bryant talked about the curiosity that he had to maintain as his career went on. Always being curious. That’s what Geno has.”
Seahawks GM John Schneider (in March): “Geno, I want to let you know what an inspiration you’ve been to men, women, young, old, all around the country. Lessons about faith, perseverance, work ethic, being a good person. Watching you last year was awesome, and I know you’re super excited about the future. So thank you to you. Thank you for working with us.”
Geno Smith (in FOX interview): “He (Carroll) has given me that self-confidence, kind of a new lease on life. I’ve always been a little hard on myself. I’m always, like, ‘You’re not good enough.’ He helped me change the way I talked to myself.”
Carroll (in FOX interview): “What he did was allow his voice to become the voice. In doing so, he just did everything exactly the way you hoped he would do it.”
Titans wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins: “They wrote me off. I feel like Geno.”
Beginning Sunday against the Ravens in Baltimore, Geno Smith and the Seahawks will take on a murderous schedule over seven weeks that includes a pair of games against the 49ers, the Eagles at home and a road game against the Cowboys.
For the second straight year, Smith has helped Seattle start out as one of the NFL’s biggest surprises. His end-of-career journey has inspired people in every walk of life.
Come February, almost no one expects the Seahawks to be in Las Vegas for the 58th Super Bowl. Just like their quarterback, it would be a bad mistake to count them out.
Previous pieces from McGinn’s series…
And make sure you sift through the “Draft” archives at GoLongTD.com to read all parts of McGinn’s 2023 and 2022 draft series.