Even as Geno Smith has performed at a Pro-Bowl level this season, the Seahawks quarterback has been his own toughest critic, shouldering the blame at times when he was far from being the reason his team lost a game.
In Sunday's loss to the Panthers, Smith had his first two-interception game of the season—though the second of those shouldn't have counted had a missed offside penalty been called—and while he still threw three touchdown passes, it was as Smith himself described it, an up-and-down performance. Smith's two interceptions contributed to a loss, but were hardly the only or biggest reason for it, not with the Seahawks unable to run the ball effectively on offense and unable to stop the run on defense, but as Smith put it after the game, "I don't expect to come out here and be perfect, but I do have a standard, and I don't think I played to that standard today."
Even after a game below his standards, Smith still leads the NFL in completion percentage, ranks third in passer rating and fourth in passing touchdowns, so no one is suggesting he's the reason the Seahawks have lost three of their last four games, but after throwing four interceptions in the past three games, he does feel like he can do a better job taking care of the ball.
It's a balancing act every quarterback needs to handle, deciding when to take the safe play and when to be aggressive, and far more often than not this season, Smith had walked that tightrope incredibly well, but of late he has taken a few more risks, by his own admission.
"It's just making the right reads and staying on schedule, not trying to force the issue," he said. "I haven't done that much, but there have been some cases where I have been snakebit by being a little too aggressive. It's just taking what they give us, and if I have to check it down, check it down."
Offensive coordinator Shane Waldron has seen far more good than bad over his quarterback, so he doesn't necessarily agree with Smith's criticism of himself.
"Geno's done a tremendous job all year long of taking what the defense has given him," Waldron said. "Even the times where he's had some mistakes or it hasn't gone his way, his ability to be resilient ad bounce right back the next play, the next series and lead the offense in a positive way has been pretty impressive to watch. I know it's not always going to be perfect through the course of a 17-game season, and Geno knows that too. And all you can do is keep learning from the mistakes and then move forward and try to be better as a result of those."
Smith wouldn't blame the struggling run game for causing him to be more aggressive, even if a more balanced attack would benefit everyone involved, and notes that regardless of what else is happening, he has to find the right balance in his play.
"No specific reason, I've just been playing to win," he said. "Obviously, we were down early in that game, so part of that was my mistake early on. When you are trying to get back into a game, you don't want to throw a check down and feel like you are giving up, so you are trying to make a big play or get things going, get some momentum. For me, again, I have to get back to what I was doing, which I haven't really changed much, but I have been a little more aggressive than usual, so I have to be smarter."
Against a very talented 49ers defense, it will be all the more important for Smith and the offense to be both efficient and smart with the ball. Back in Week 2, the Seahawks didn't score a point on offense—they did get deep in the red zone, only to turn the ball over on an ill-fated halfback pass—but the Seahawks have also evolved and grown as an offense since then. It was after that Week 2 performance that Pete Carroll noted it was time to open up the offense and trust in Smith to make plays, and Smith and the offense responded in a big way.
Now, one of the keys in Thursday's game will be the way Smith and the offense balance that more open offensive approach that began after the first 49ers game with making sure they aren't aggressive to the point of putting the ball at risk against a dangerous defense.
"I think early on in the season, for every team, it's a feeling out period," Smith said. "You are learning your guys, learning your teammates, and the coaches are learning what they can work with and the types of guys they have. I think after that game, I think Pete said that we were going to allow these guys play and not hold anything back. I think those were his words, and that is what has been happening. We've been out there going after it, really being aggressive, and to me, I think I have been too aggressive as of late, so I have to get back to what I was doing early on which was taking what they give me and allowing us to have a complementary football team where we all play together and not feel like we are just trying to push the envelope or trying to push our limits to see what we can do. We know what we can do, but we have to stay on schedule."
Waldron appreciates that his quarterback is being accountable—and in reality more than he probably needs to be—and concerned about ball security, but he also wants Smith to keep being the explosive player he has been throughout the season.
"He's done a great job of being aggressive down the field when the timing or the rhythm of the play has allowed it," he said. "I think there's some times to where, in an instance where you might think you have a free play, but it wasn't confirmed quite yet, being a little bit aggressive right there. And I know those are things that that you try to avoid, but he's coming from the right place when he's making these decisions. Those are snap decisions that you got to make in the heat of the moment. I know he's his harshest critic, but I think he's done a great job overall over the course of a season of really mitigating risks throughout the course of games and doing a great job taking care of the football."
Waldron was then asked if he agreed with Smith's assessment that he was being too aggressive.
"No, I think Geno's playing great ball," Waldron said. "…We trust him with all of our hearts in doing the right thing down in and down out with the ball. We'll learn from it, there's chances where he knows he can get the ball to a checkdown at times, but I don't want to take bigtime throws that he's been making down the field away just at the expense of a mistake here or there that can happen through the course of a year."
Go behind the scenes with team photographer Rod Mar as he shares moments from Week 14 vs. the Carolina Panthers on December 11, 2022 at Lumen Field. Eye On The Hawks is presented by Western Washington Toyota Dealers.