RENTON, WA - For the first time in nearly a decade, or 3,577 days to be exact, the Seahawks will hit the field this weekend without Russell Wilson under center. In his absence, Geno Smith will start for the first time since 2017 and only the second time since 2015.
But while Smith has only seen the field for 235 combined snaps in the past six years, the former West Virginia star has continued to prepare as if he's the starter despite playing behind the NFL's most durable signal caller. He's been actively involved with the game planning process during the week and in games, he serves as Wilson's wingman on the sideline, going through calls, reads, and what he's seeing from the sideline to help the Pro Bowler execute on the field.
After waiting for his turn for the past three years, with Wilson undergoing finger surgery last week and set to miss at least the next three games, roles will be reversed and Smith will get his shot to lead the Seahawks' offense in Pittsburgh.
“Russ has been awesome and what he’s doing is the same thing he’s always done, and I’ve done the same things I’ve always done," Smith told reporters on Wednesday. "We prepare as if we are starters and going to play and then we support one another. That is something that has been tremendous just with this group and our support. We all come together so he has been phenomenal.”
For Smith, who entered the league with the Jets as a highly-touted second-round pick, the past six years have been a prolonged exercise of patience after he fizzled out as a starter in New York. Without any opportunities presented to compete for a starting job elsewhere, he turned down several overtures from other teams to stay in the Pacific Northwest over the past couple of years, including after being cut before the start of the 2019 season.
Through all the adversity, Smith kept his head up and maintained faith he would eventually get another crack at proving himself to the rest of the league. Last Thursday, that chance finally came after Wilson's right middle finger struck Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald's arm during a follow through on a throw and he suffered a ruptured tendon, eventually forcing the backup into the lineup with his team trailing 16-7 on the scoreboard.
Admittedly, Smith didn't enter amid ideal circumstances, but backup quarterbacks rarely do. Seattle started his first possession at the beginning of the fourth quarter at its own two-yard line and all he had to do was guide his team 98 yards in his first meaningful regular season action in four years. No pressure.
But that's exactly what Smith did, as he completed all five of his pass attempts for 72 yards and capped off a stunning drive with a 23-yard touchdown pass to DK Metcalf, cutting the Seahawks deficit down to 16-14. Captivated by his surprising play, a re-energized crowd at Lumen Field soon began chanting "GE-NO! GE-NO!" as he willed his team back into the game.
After Los Angeles responded with a quick touchdown of its own, Smith would lead a second scoring drive, positioning Seattle for a short Jason Myers field goal later in the quarter. Unfortunately, he wasn't able to capitalize on one last opportunity to win the game in the closing moments, as receiver Tyler Lockett tripped up and he wound up getting intercepted by Rams safety Nick Scott to seal the deal.
“I feel like I came in a little bit of a tough situation just in the fact that we were down and they were pretty much in pass rush mode, so there was no real threat of a run in that situation," Smith remarked. "Overall, I feel like we moved the ball and got points but we came up short in the end and that’s what I’ve been focusing on. I’ve been focusing on finishing at the end of the game because that’s what you want. You get the ball in your hands to win the game, that’s a dream right there."
Though he wasn't quite able to guide the Seahawks to a comeback victory, Smith heroically completed 10 out of 17 passes for 131 yards, one touchdown, and one interception, bringing life to a team that looked dead in the water without Wilson. Such a stellar performance provided a reason for optimism that the team could weather the storm without their franchise quarterback in the short term.
With coaches and teammates alike confident in his ability to lead the team, Smith believes all of the challenges he's faced over the past several years have prepared him for this moment. Now 31 years old, his long road transitioning from being a starting quarterback to a reserve allowed him to grow as a player and a person.
"I think the biggest growth came with just being patient," Smith explained. "And that's with all things. Just sitting here and knowing I have a capability to play in this league but just not getting that opportunity for a number of years was a test of patience. That also goes for me playing quarterback on the field."
From 2009 to 2012, Smith shattered record books at West Virginia, throwing for over 11,000 yards with 98 touchdowns in four collegiate seasons. As a senior, the Mountaineers finished ninth in the nation averaging 39.5 points per game and he threw 42 touchdown passes, which ranked fifth all-time in the Big 12 conference.
As Smith noted, when he came into the NFL in 2013, he was "used to scoring every time" and that was his mentality. But he quickly got a rude awakening in the league, throwing 21 interceptions compared to just 12 touchdowns as a rookie. He continued to struggle in 2014, throwing 13 touchdowns and 13 interceptions in 14 games, and found himself benched in favor of Ryan Fitzpatrick the next season.
After the Jets didn't re-sign Smith following the 2016 season, he spent one season with the New York Giants and another season with the Chargers, throwing a grand total of 40 passes in seven games as a backup behind Eli Manning and Philip Rivers. As has been the case behind Wilson, he says he learned a great deal from those two veterans, which set him up for success once his time to play arrived.
“It was hard, I would be lying to you if I said it wasn’t hard," Smith said of adjusting to being a backup. "Having the ultimate faith in myself, my ability, and my preparation, I had to just dig deep and say 'forget it, I’m just going to work' and be the best I can be every single day while not worrying about the outside factors. I had to do whatever it takes to get better and be ready for the opportunity.”
Comparing who he is now to the player he was coming out of college and early in his NFL career, Smith says his acquired patience has helped him in a number of ways, including progressing through his reads in the pocket. He also has seen his footwork improve dramatically over time. Both of those traits, plus plenty of confidence, poise, and athleticism, could be seen on display last week against the Rams.
Sitting in third place in the NFC West with a 2-3 record and three games behind the Cardinals in the standings, the Seahawks hope to see that same version of Smith running their offense against the Steelers and over the next few weeks to help the team stay in the playoff hunt. Still a fairly young player, playing well in Wilson's stead could land him a legitimate chance to compete for a starting role elsewhere next year.
But while Smith understands there's a lot at stake for him individually and he's grateful for the opportunity, after coming up just short of finishing off a spectacular comeback last week, he's eager to do whatever it takes to get his team back in the win column. At the end of the day, nothing else matters.
“It means everything but it’s not about me, it’s about the team. Going out there together all as one unit, the offense, defense, special teams, coaching staff, front office, and everybody. It’s about doing what’s best for the team. It’s not about me at all. Obviously, it’s a great opportunity but my mindset is focused on winning and doing what is best for the team.”