Smith, once the future of the New York Jets, has a chance to reclaim the narrative on his NFL career in a new opportunity in Seattle.
No matter what happens during the remainder of his NFL career, Geno Smith will go down as the answer to a trivia question asked by those who cycle through MetLife Stadium’s gates, no matter whether they wear green or blue.
For New York Jets fans, Smith is the last green thrower to toss a perfect game on the gridiron (a 158.3 passer rating) and the only one to do so in the 2010s. In the realms of New York Giants history, he’s the man who ended Eli Manning’s streak of 210 consecutive starts under center.
Smith is finally free from the incessant spotlight of quarterbacking in the metropolitan area, one that has slightly hardened him as he tries to carve out an extended NFL path. While Smith had settled into a backup role in Seattle, a rare injury to Russell Wilson (one expected to keep him out for at least the next three weeks after he was placed on injured reserve) has thrust him back into the gridiron mainstream. His path starts on Sunday night as the Seahawks (2-3) start the process of salvaging their season in prime time against the Pittsburgh Steelers (8:20 p.m. ET, NBC).
The visit to Pittsburgh will be Smith’s first regular season start since his infamously historic single outing as the Giants’ primary man in December 2017. The trust bestowed in Smith to help the Seahawks in their most desperate hour in a long, long time is the highest vote of confidence since former blue head coach Ben McAdoo controversially inserted Smith into the woebegone Giants’ starting lineup once they were among the earliest eliminated from the 2017-18 playoffs. McAdoo did in spite of only Manning’s streak but the prescience of then-rookie Davis Webb, who had been the Giants’ highest selection at quarterback since the instantly-traded Phillip Rivers went fourth overall on a fateful spring afternoon in 2004.
At the time, a respectable performance (21-of-34, 211 yards, a touchdown, and two lost fumbles in a 24-17 to the Oakland Raiders) wasn’t enough to withstand the fury of Giants fans eager to see their Super Bowl hero go out on any semblance of a “right” note. When McAdoo was ousted, one of the Giants’ first moves was to re-establish Manning as the top passer.
McAdoo had a parting gift for Smith upon his firing after the Oakland debacle.
“When Coach Mac was let go and left the building, I talked to him before he left, and he had told me he felt like I deserved to play the rest of the season,” Smith told Pat Leonard of the New York Daily News after his metropolitan departure in 2018. “He believed in me. A lot of people did. Guys wanted me to do well. But there are some things that are out of your control.”
“I’m not going to cry cry over spilled milk over things I can’t control. That’s only going to hinder my success or progress. It just added fuel to fire, made my offseason workouts interesting because I’m working harder. That opportunity was taken away from me for whatever reason, so every time I step on the field or in weight room, that’s my motivation.”
Going into Sunday night’s crucial contest, Smith is slightly more laid back, yet still enthusiastic, as he believes he’s made the most out of the past two-plus seasons through watching Wilson work.
“It’s not like I haven’t been playing football at all. The difference is now, it’s physical reps,” Smith told Ian Rapoport of NFL Network. “I’m getting all the reps. You always take mental reps and prepare that way, but this is about physical preparation as well, more than just the mental side of playing quarterback. This week was different because I’m taking physical reps, as well.”
Sunday’s return to the spotlight is nearly four years in the making: Smith spent a year as Rivers’ backup with the Los Angeles Chargers before settling in Seattle in 2019. Wilson’s durability has made the job of Pacific Northwest understudy a bit of an afterthought: Sunday night will mark the first time since New Year’s Day 2012 that someone other than “Russ” will start under center for the Seahawks (that honor going to the late Tavaris Jackson).
Yet, Smith had shown enough, primarily through his lasting starting endeavors with the Jets, that he could be a reliable contingency plan in case of an emergency. The West Virginia alum, after all, had his fleeting flashes of brilliance of green, including those earned in a prime time setting. For example, the second-round pick threw three touchdowns and engineered a game-winning field goal drive in a Monday night triumph in Atlanta as a rookie in 2013. While ultimately meaningless in the grand scheme of the standings, Smith managed to provide temporary solace to the tumultuous teams of the 2010s, sending Rex Ryan out on the right note with a 37-24 win over Miami.
Seattle was partly rewarded when Smith allowed them to keep pace in yet another nationally televised instance: as the Seahawks struggled to keep pace with the mighty Los Angeles Rams, the departure of Wilson could’ve been damning.
Instead, Smith rose to the occasion, keeping the increasingly desperate Seahawks in the game through a 131-yard performance that yielded 10 points over his first two drives in the fourth quarter. The affair ended in heartbreak…Smith was forced into a Nick Scott interception when intended receiver Tyler Lockett fell down on a route…but it was enough to keep the faith amongst Seattle brass.
“If Geno is going to play for us some as Russ comes back, you know, he showed that we’re in good hands,” Carroll said in the LA aftermath, per Liz Mathews of Yahoo! Sports. “I was just proud for him and the fact that he hung with us all this time and believed in being part of this program. Then when he got his chance, he did really. That was pretty good.”
“I went right to Geno afterwards and said, you been waiting a long time for your opportunity,” Carroll told reporters. “The faith you’ve shown in our program and us to stay with us, so proud that when he got in there, he did great. He really looked good. He’s been working for that. He’s a talented football player.”
Smith now gets to prove such acument on a long-term basis. The opportunity provided in Seattle affords him a rare chance as a high-profile washout (a status granted through factors partly beyond his control) to reclaim the narrative on his NFL career and perhaps get back on the radars of teams searching for starters.
But Smith appears to be embracing this chance with a sense of healthy abandon, one set to savor every moment of this comeback.
“I’m fresh, I feel like I’m 21 years old. I’m ready!” Smith said during Pittsburgh prep, per Rapoport. “The moment is what it is. We have a Sunday night game in Pittsburgh. It’s one night, not the rest of my life. Mostly, it’s a game I love to play, a game that I’m passionate about. It’s one that I prepare for and am ready for whether I get to play or not. It’s not a chance to showcase anything, that’s how I see it. I’m not going to change my stripes. I’m just looking forward to playing football.”
Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags