When Seahawks coach Pete Carroll named Geno Smith the team's starting quarterback following their third preseason game, Smith, more than just about anyone, deserved a moment to sit back and reflect on his journey starting Monday night's opener against the Broncos.
Smith, a 2013 second-round pick out of West Virginia, was the starting quarterback for the Jets in each of his first two seasons, dealing with the typical up and downs faced by a rookie quarterback on a struggling team.
Heading into his third season, Smith's chance to grow as a young starter was abruptly lost when he suffered a broken jaw in locker room altercation, then he never got the starting job back from Ryan Fitzpatrick. From there Smith became known as a career backup, biding his time behind the likes of Fitzpatrick, Philip Rivers, Eli Manning and Russell Wilson, but all along he never stopped believing he could be a starting quarterback in the NFL. But after the Seahawks traded Wilson to Denver this offseason, Smith had a chance to compete for the starting job, and he took full advantage, winning the competition with Drew Lock, and now on Monday he will be the first quarterback to go eight years between season-opening starts since Zeke Bratowski in 1971.
"I understand that there has been a gap, but I've never lost confidence in my ability or the things that I can do on the field," Smith said. "My first two years I had some really great games and put a lot of great things on tape. But I was able to grow over that course of that time just being with Eli Manning and Philip Rivers and then obviously being here with Russell. All three of them are Hall of Fame quarterbacks in my opinion. And being in the room with those guys and just learning football, being in different football systems, being around different coordinators, I was able to gain a ton of knowledge. That really was the most important thing to me other than anything else."
But as unlikely as Smith's journey back to a starting job might be, he knows he doesn't have time to reflect on that right now, not with a game and a season to prepare for.
"Not at all," Smith said when asked if he celebrated winning the starting job. "I didn't take any moments. There was no celebration or anything like that. I went to the weight room the next day; I was going to do it anyway. And that's just my mentality. I'm not star-struck or anything by this opportunity. I've been working my butt off and I think that the work is more important than all of the reflection and all of that type of stuff. It's about taking care of business. And so obviously I'm thankful and grateful that I know I've been working for, and I know there's more work to be done."
And it has been that focus on the work that allowed Smith to have such a steady, consistent camp and preseason in order to hold off Lock and win the job.
"We've worked really hard to take one step at a time, keep going, and keep your head down," Carroll said. "That's what he's done, every step of the way, he's been on it. He's presented himself in the best light, he's been there for everything, he's been on it, and he's been consistent. … He was on it all the way throughout.
"Geno has done a great job of leading in that regard, he's as steady as you can be, he's been consistent, and he's been a really good leader as well. I expect him to handle it well. I mean, he's been around, he's been around a long time. It's a big deal to him, obviously. It should be and it is, but he knows, he's been with us, I really feel like he's going to be calm and chilled the way he needs to be and go out there and cut it up the way he is supposed to."
A big reason why Smith won the starting job is the way he took care of the football throughout camp, something he also did last season in relief of Wilson, throwing only one interception in three-plus games, a pick that was the result not of a bad decision or inaccurate throw, but bad luck with Tyler Lockett getting tripped up by a defensive back while running his route. And that might be the biggest change in Smith from the quarterback who was capable of making big plays early in his career, but also sometime reckless with the ball, throwing 25 interceptions in his first two seasons.
"I'm in my 30s now, I was 23, 24 years old back then," he said. "The difference now is my focus on maintaining the football, making sure I'm protecting the football. Back then when I was on the Jets, I felt like I would have a good game and a not-so good game. It was very inconsistent, and I think I was able to find some type of consistency in my game and I think that started with my feet, my base in the pocket. Obviously, getting stronger just over the course of my career and just growing as a man. And then just protecting the football. I've seen a bunch of football. I know what I'm looking at. I'm the veteran guy in the room now so I'm not just the young kid that I was when I first got into the league… You can see where turnovers and not being great in situations can lead to not getting wins. And so, for me back then, I hate to talk about the past, but I mean, I was pressing a little bit. You know just trying to make every single throw out there, trying to make every play even if it wasn't there. And I think the maturity came with understanding that I don't have to make every play. It takes all 11 on the field and you don't have to play hero ball. You can just out there and play the game and let the game come to you."
And even if Smith doesn't have the luxury of taking a deep breath and taking in what he has accomplished this offseason, his teammates are both happy for the veteran quarterback, and excited to see what he'll do given a chance to once again be a starter.
"Now that he's in the driver's seat, you really get to see him as a mature person and as a mature leader in the quarterback position," said DK Metcalf. "I think he's going to surprise a lot of people with how mature he is in his decision making at the quarterback position. It's fun to see him just step into that role and just take advantage of it."
Said Tyler Lockett, "He hadn't been able to have a chance to play for a long time. So not too many players get this opportunity to not play for a while and now you finally get to come back and be a starter in this NFL league. So, for him, I'm truly excited for him being able to get his shot and just being able to have him ready to go"
And while Wilson's job will be to try to help his new team win on Monday night, he will also be happy to see his former backup leading Seattle's offense.
"I'm excited for him because he works his butt off every day," Wilson said. "He's been a great friend. I remember talking to him throughout the whole situation, I told him—he's got a young son named Seven—I told him, 'Man, go do this for Seven.' What a gift that we get to play this game… We worked together every single day, how much time and effort he spend with me and vice versa, and I never held back to give him everything I knew and vice versa. That's what it's all about, man. It's just trying to try to share you know and what you love, and it's been amazing joy. So I'm actually excited to see him and I think he's going to have a great year. He's a great guy and just a great competitor."