From forgotten backup to a stars replacement to the leader of the Seahawks, a most unlikely football success story
In sports, we operate with the premise of a timeline. When a player is drafted by a team in any sport, there is a clock that starts ticking on when the prospect becomes the star player. And because we now live in a high-stakes professional sports world, this time frame of expectations has gotten smaller and smaller. The quarterback position especially has extensive scrutiny and timelines associated with it. If a quarterback drafted in the first round hasn’t led a team to meaningful success in the way of playoff appearances within a few years then often the team will move on and most times that means that the player is relegated to being a journeyman backup. This entire dynamic is what makes the breakout season of Seattle Seahawks quarterback Geno Smith all the more unusual and remarkable. Written off as a bust years ago, Smith is having a renaissance at 32 years old that no one saw coming.
The Road to Success
Like many players taken in the first few rounds of the NFL Draft, Geno Smith came with an impressive college resume. Playing at West Virginia under coach Dana Holgorsen, Geno flourished as a passer in a system that required him to throw the ball 40 times a game on average. This culminated in Geno holding the records for passing yards and touchdowns in a career, single season, and single game for the Mountaineers. Even with a slight drop off in the second half of his senior year, he was still expected to be either a late first or early second-round draft pick in the 2013 NFL Draft.
When the 39th pick of the 2013 NFL Draft came around, Smith was drafted by the New York Jets. A team that was coming off a disappointing 6–10 campaign in 2012 and looking to rebuild after a strong run of playoff success under defensive-minded head coach Rex Ryan. Ryan had experienced success early in his coaching career with the Jets, leading them to consecutive AFC Championship game appearances with teams that were built around strong defenses led by Darrelle Revis and Bart Scott. 2013 was supposed to be a rebuilding year where the team could get back into form.
Geno Smith was intended to compete with incumbent starter Mark Sanchez, but this all changed when Sanchez injured his shoulder in the final preseason game before the 2013 season. This led to the insertion of Smith with a coach that was coaching for his job. As anyone would expect, Smith struggled in these circumstances. His rookie mistakes were magnified in New York, especially as the Jets had tasted success for the first time in years under Rex Ryan. This eventually led to Smith being benched for veteran Michael Vick in his second season en route to Ryan being relieved of his head coaching duties.
In his two years as a starter for the Jets, Smith had a win-loss record of 11–18 and threw more interceptions (34) than touchdowns (25). He was eventually benched and relegated to backup duties for the next two seasons. And it appeared that his timeline to be a high-level starting-caliber quarterback in the NFL had passed. He went on to sign with the Giants as a backup, notably becoming the first African-American quarterback to start a game for the Giants in their history after the benching of Eli Manning by then-coach Ben McAdoo. Smith then went on to sign as a backup for the LA Chargers, before landing in Seattle as Russell Wilson’s backup in 2020. And he seemed to find a home there as the reliable veteran backup. That was until the player he was backing up demanded a trade and was sent to Denver.
When Russell Wilson, the longtime face of the franchise in Seattle, was traded to Denver the expectations of the Seahawks season were as low as they could be. The expectation was that the team would be one of the worst in the league and would be in a position to draft a new franchise quarterback in next year’s draft. For many, it did not matter if Geno Smith or Drew Lock (who arrived in Seattle as part of the Wilson trade) would be starting at quarterback, the results were expected to be the same.
Smith did win the job eventually after the preseason and the team was poised to start him alongside a young roster of players that most people had never heard of. Then the season started and something amazing and unexpected took place. Geno Smith looked like a different player than everyone remembered in New York. Opening the season against Denver, in Russell Wilson’s first game back in Seattle, Geno was magnificent. He was decisive, made the right reads, and was moving the ball down the field. This resulted in a win for the Seahawks that many assumed would be the biggest of their season.
But Geno’s play has simply improved as the season has worn on. The Seahawks have now won three games in a row, and a large part of this is due to Geno Smith. Smith currently leads the league in completion percentage and catchable passes. He has been accurate and efficient, only throwing 3 interceptions to his 13 touchdowns so far this season. He has shown pocket awareness, mobility, and decision-making ability that seemed to be escaping him in New York. Now the future of the Seahawks does not seem as black and white as it did in the immediate aftermath of the Russell Wilson trade.
Eyes on the Future
This Seahawks team is now fully bought into Geno Smith. After last week’s win against the Giants, wide receiver Tyler Lockett praised the team’s selflessness and what it can help them accomplish. Geno Smith is a part of this equation, his steady hand under center has provided the Seahawks with stability that has allowed their young players like Kenneth Walker III to flourish. What started as a bridge year to their eventual franchise quarterback has turned into another discussion entirely.
Geno Smith has certainly performed at an MVP-candidate level this season and has shown an ability to win games. And in a modern NFL that protects the QB more than ever, it is reasonable to expect Geno Smith to be able to perform at a high level for the next 3–4 years. A renaissance of a player this late in a career is astonishing. The only other story that feels close to this sort of rejuvenation is the rise of Buffalo Bills quarterback Doug Flutie in 1998 after spending 8 years in the Canadian Football League.
Stories like Geno Smith’s this season is the reason why so many of us watch football religiously every Sunday. To see a player like this whom many left for dead find a second life with a franchise that was also left for dead by the collective football consciousness is why we watch. And funnily enough, Smith and his Seahawks are experiencing the success that was expected from Russell Wilson and his Broncos. It is a credit to Smith’s resilience to keep himself hungry and dedicated to always improving. There is perhaps no better way to describe this mental toughness than his postgame comments after that week 1 win against Denver. When asked about the people that wrote him off as a starting quarterback in this league, Geno simply stated “ya they wrote me off, I didn’t write back though”. I doubt that many people will continue to write off Geno Smith, the author of the best comeback story this league has seen in years.