They wrote Geno Smith off. Here’s why he’s been able to write himself back into NFL stardom
We all know the quote: “They wrote me off, I ain’t write back, though.”
Geno Smith said those words immediately following the Seattle Seahawks' stunning win over the quarterback he replaced, Russell Wilson, and the team that traded for him, the Denver Broncos, in Week 1.
It was a cathartic moment for Smith, who endured almost endless disappointment or embarrassment during his first nine seasons as either a backup to an entrenched starter or the victim of the New York media market. Sometimes he was both.
He wasn’t picked in the first round of the 2013 draft. He lost almost twice as often as he won with the New York Jets. In perhaps the wildest offseason story of the past decade, Smith’s teammate, IK Enemkpali, broke Smith’s jaw before the 2015 season over a reported $600 dispute. When Smith had a chance to supplant Ryan Fitzpatrick in New York during the 2016 season, Smith tore his ACL.
The backup years came next. First in 2017 with Eli Manning on the New York Giants, where he ended Manning’s starting streak only to be replaced the following game. Then for one season behind Philip Rivers with the Los Angeles Chargers in 2018. When Smith finally landed with the Seattle Seahawks in 2019, he knew he’d also be the backup to Wilson.
Smith never appeared to waver on the truth he believed: If he got a chance to win a starting job, he would. And when he did, he’d succeed. That opportunity came when Seattle sent Wilson to Denver.
“I know I’m better for all those [earlier] years,” Smith told NBC Sports’ Peter King after Week 7. “Coming into this year, I wasn’t sure what would happen. When Pete Carroll hit me up and was like, ‘Hey, I’m giving you opportunity to compete for the job,’ I mean, that’s all you have to say to me. That was awesome. He’s shown faith in me. That’s just what I need.”
That dream is living out in reality through the first nine games of the 2022 season. The Seahawks are 6-3, with the NFL’s fourth-best scoring offense, and Smith leads the league with a 73.1 completion percentage along with the sixth-most passing yards and fifth-most passing touchdowns.
So no, he's not writing back his doubters. Instead he's writing a newer, brighter chapter.
“A lot of [quarterbacks] would have folded having to deal with a lot of the s*** he had to deal with,” Quincy Avery, Smith’s quarterbacks coach, told Yahoo Sports. “And it’s a testament to him that he did it. I think that’s what makes him so special. And that's what's so cool about this moment is that all the things he's been through, he's just battled and now he gets to show people.”
Geno Smith has long been ‘a kid of resilience’
Damon Cogdell, Smith’s high school coach in Miramar, Florida, isn’t surprised by Smith’s recent ascent or his mental fortitude to withstand years of uncertainty. As soon as the Wilson trade went down, Smith’s mom, Tracey Sellers, called Cogdell to tell him how ready her son was for the opportunity.
The discipline to keep trudging forward began for Smith during his youth football days playing for the Miami Garden Ravens, where coaches put players through a gauntlet of early morning workouts while instilling the ideals of school work and community service.
The maturation process continued in high school when Smith started as a freshman in 2005 but broke his collarbone during Miramar’s 6A playoff quarterfinal loss to Deerfield Beach. Smith left the game after Jason Pierre-Paul sacked him, but Smith learned the following offseason how to play smarter to avoid those situations and how to rally a team as a vocal leader in the huddle and on the sideline.
“It’s not in his DNA [to give up],” Cogdell told Yahoo Sports. “That’s the one thing about Geno: He is a kid of resilience.”
While Smith enjoyed statistical success in college at West Virginia, he and the Mountaineers stumbled his senior season, their first in the Big 12. West Virginia lost five consecutive games during the middle of the 2012 season after starting the year 5-0. Smith and the offense couldn’t keep pace with their opponents while the defense failed to hold up.
But Smith never seemed fazed by the disappointments, according to then-WVU head coach Dana Holgorsen and quarterbacks coach Jake Spavital.
"At that point, guys usually kind of just throw the towel in," Holgorsen told Yahoo Sports. "But that’s not Geno’s makeup. He's gonna line up and play, compete and try to win every game no matter what."
“He was literally putting his body on the line and was really fighting and just tried to get to bowl eligibility and end his career on a high note,” Spavital told Yahoo Sports. “That's all he wanted to do. He kept showing up every single week, making sure that he put the best product he could out on the field.”
Everything culminated in a summer of hype for Smith’s NFL prospects. Some draft experts pegged him as the top quarterback prospect, praising his arm strength, pocket presence and athleticism. But by the end of the first night of the NFL draft, only one quarterback went in the first round (Florida State's EJ Manuel), and it wasn’t Smith. He and his family left the green room sad and frustrated, unsure of what went wrong and where to go next. Cogdell, Holgorsen and Spavital were all in attendance with Smith and confirmed the disappointment, but none noted an apparent change in Smith’s demeanor.
“He never was gonna give up on himself or just, you know, quit,” Spavital said. “He's just always gonna keep pushing forward and always trying to prove people wrong.”
Smith had a lot of maturing to do in football
There’s a lot to be said about Smith’s first four years in the league with the Jets, who took him in the second round. Most of it is negative. Smith went 11-18 as a starter during his first two seasons and finished with the lowest completion percentage, the second-fewest touchdown passes and third-most interceptions among quarterbacks with at least 25 starts. It didn’t help that Smith was the eighth-most sacked QB during that span as well.
Some of that can be attributed to him. Some of it can be attributed to the environment in New York. The Jets cycled through skill position players and offensive linemen a lot from 2013-2014 in the final years of the Rex Ryan era, and that instability bred poor play.
“You just have to look at the team. Here you have a really young quarterback put in a really tough market in New York, and you talking about an era where we didn't win,” former Jets running back Bilal Powell said. “When you have a guy that's young going into certain games with receivers that just arrived the same week and they're trying to learn an entire offense in a week and he's out there on Sunday, there's no chemistry. And when you put that with a young quarterback like Geno at the time, he's forced to make bad decisions with the ball.”
Those seasons were bad, but the locker room punch knocked the air out of Smith’s career in 2015.
Smith was poised for a bounce-back season with a new coaching staff under Todd Bowles and Chan Gailey, a new receiver in Brandon Marshall and two new offensive line starters. That all ended in an instant when Enemkpali’s fist collided with Smith’s jaw. The reason for the punch: Smith reportedly owed $600 for missing a youth football camp for which Enemkpali paid his travel costs. Fitzpatrick became the starter and led the Jets to a 10-6 record, while Smith sat on the bench that year and the year after.
Smith later told ESPN that the punch was a seminal moment in his football career. It reignited the spark he perhaps lost during his early days in New York and forced him to reflect on himself moving forward.
"Every day I'm pissed off until I get my job back," Smith said in 2016. "Until I'm a starting quarterback, I'm pissed off every day. That's my mentality, that's my competitive nature. I want to win so badly, deep inside of me. I'm not pissed off at anyone, but I do believe I'm a starting quarterback in this league, and I believe I can do great things.
"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.”
With his Jets career in the rearview mirror, Smith began his time as a backup studying under some of the best quarterbacks of the past two decades. Though riding the bench frustrated him, Smith learned a lot about different styles of offense, quarterback tendencies and defensive schemes. In an odd way, toiling behind the likes of Manning, Rivers and Wilson slowed the game down for Smith. He had time to take everything in rather than be rushed back into the fire.
Former Los Angeles Chargers offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt didn’t observe an aggrieved or angry Smith. Instead, he saw someone who wanted to just be better and grow.
“You didn't see any indication of that,” Whisenhunt told Yahoo Sports. “There was no bitterness. He was always a guy in great spirits and certainly a guy that was very serious about learning football.”
One such moment stood out for Whisenhunt. During a 2018 preseason game, Smith correctly identified a Cover 0 defense (man-to-man coverage with no safety help over the top). It required Smith to quickly change the protection at the line of scrimmage, vocalize adjustments to the rest of the team and then execute.
“He handled it like he'd been doing it for years,” Whisenhunt said. “He was so excited when he came running off the field: ‘I saw it!’ That kind of energy was really cool to see.”
That trend continued in Seattle. The Seahawks signed Smith in 2019 because they loved his arm strength and intellect, but he was never going to threaten Wilson’s starting role.
Then-Seahawks executive Alonzo Highsmith told Smith at the time that his job was to be “the ultimate pro behind Russell Wilson.” That meant shadowing Wilson in meetings and on the practice field to get a good sense of how to be successful in that offense, as well as being Wilson’s eyes and ears on the sideline.
Smith played the role well, but his desire to be a starter never faded. He’d get frustrated in practice, according to Seahawks quarterbacks coach Dave Canales, when he had to cede starter’s reps to Wilson or had a bad throwing day with the scout team.
“That was probably one of the biggest challenges of his career was knowing that he could really throw and knowing that he was in the prime of his career, physically, and not being able to really do anything with it,” Canales told Yahoo Sports. “He had such a hard time with that, but then he also understood the big picture of his opportunity and his role. It just was not easy. He's not wired that way. He was never wired to be a guy who was just like, ‘You know what, I'm a journeyman backup and I get to enrich the starter.’ That was never gonna be enough for him.”
Seattle presents the perfect opportunity
Everything changed when the Seahawks traded Wilson. Smith changed his diet, his workout regimen, his recovery exercises. Everything. Although Carroll told Smith he’d give Drew Lock an equal chance to win the job, Smith prepared as if he had already won the job.
He and Avery honed in on some of the key aspects of his game. Smith already had the arm strength, accuracy and a unique ability to “finish throws with his hands” but Smith needed to improve his top-half rotation with Avery to generate force with his arms.
To do that, Smith focused on trunk and hip mobility with South Florida-based trainer Sharif Tabbah. But they would switch the exercises and rotate the opposite way Smith would normally throw. The movements helped balance out Smith’s stance to aid his pocket presence and give him more strength with his arm.
“There's a saying, kind of like a joke, in rehab. It's like: How do you fix a golfer’s back? You make 'em swing the other way,” Tabbah told Yahoo Sports. “So it's this same thing with a quarterback. If they're always throwing, snapping this one way, we have to work on the other way as well.”
Smith saw a difference. He noted to Tabbah a few times during the offseason that he exerted “way less effort” with his throws yet saw more zip on the ball. “I'm just slinging this thing and I feel like I'm getting extra yardage,” Tabbah remembers Smith telling him.
The Seahawks noticed, too. Canales said Smith’s body “really changed” by the time he came to training camp this past summer and the coaching staff felt Smith’s blend of deep-ball potential and short-to-intermediate accuracy perfectly suited the team’s offensive plans for 2022.
The Seahawks saw Smith’s potential when he started three games for an injured Wilson in 2021, but the sample size wasn't enough for them to make a determination before an entire offseason of work. Once they recognized Smith could be their guy, they let him loose.
“The only question left for all of us in the building was like, ‘Can he win games consistently?’ ” Canales said. “I think he's shown people that he can.”
Smith won’t call this year a redemption or revenge story, even if all the signs point toward that narrative. He’ll play all three of his former teams in the Jets, Giants and Chargers (he’s already beaten two of them) and he’ll face Bowles (now head coach of the Tampa Bay Bucs) on Sunday.
For Smith, it sounds like he’s finally living out what he always knew he could be in the NFL. He’s been telling his teammates “we’re going somewhere” and “we’re building something special” every day since training camp started.
“That mantra — I think the guys start to feel that, yeah, we are going somewhere,” Canales said, “and he's gonna be one of the ones leading us there.”