RENTON, Wash. — Geno Smith will make his first start since 2017 on Sunday night when he fills in for an injured Russell Wilson and leads the Seattle Seahawks against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field (8:20 p.m. ET, NBC). It will only be his second since 2014.
So it’s no wonder that when the 31-year-old Smith was asked this week how he’s grown as a quarterback from his early days to his ninth NFL season, he mentioned how he’s more patient now.
“That’s with all things,” Smith said.
It’s true with regard to how he plays quarterback and with how he’s had to wait his turn behind three of the most durable quarterbacks in NFL history — first Eli Manning, then Philip Rivers and now Wilson. Smith would still be waiting but for the finger injury Wilson suffered last week against the Los Angeles Rams, which could sideline him for the next three games and possibly beyond.
“It means everything,” Smith said, “but it’s not about me, it’s about the team and going out there together, all as one unit.”
More than anything, it’s about whether Smith can keep the Seahawks (2-3) playoff hopes alive until Wilson to returns after his Oct. 8 surgery. It’s an especially tall order with their defense struggling and running back Chris Carson out for a second straight week.
But Smith’s backstory makes for an interesting subplot in his reemergence into the NFL consciousness.
His career with the New York Jets was derailed in the most unusual way. He was about to enter his third season as their starter in the summer of 2015 when he was punched by a teammate during a locker room altercation. It broke Smith’s jaw and cost him his starting job, as the Jets stuck with Ryan Fitzpatrick when Smith returned two months later.
The next bad break came in October 2016, when Smith took over for an ineffective Fitzpatrick, only to tear his ACL in his first start since 2014.
“It was awesome for me,” Smith said of his time in New York. “Any time you get adversity, it’s a chance for you to really show what you’re about and to respond. At the time, looking back on it, in that moment, was I totally aware of that? Probably not, but as you go on and you just grow, you just see how those things can help you and shape you to be better. I think that’s what it did.”
It appeared Smith would get another extended look as a starter with the New York Giants in 2017. He took over late in the year when the team benched Manning, ending his streak of 210 consecutive starts. But the Giants pulled the plug after one game and went back to Manning, an abrupt and curious move that reeked of behind-the-scenes politics.
Smith spent 2018 with the Chargers before signing with Seattle in 2019, adding Rivers and Wilson to the list of ironmen he’s backed up. Rivers’ streak of 240 consecutive regular-season starts is the second-longest among quarterbacks in NFL history, behind Brett Favre (297), per ESPN Stats and Information. Manning is third on that list and Wilson sixth (149).
“Just sitting here and knowing I have the capability to play in this league but just not getting that opportunity for a number of years was a test of patience,” Smith said.
He was asked if that patience was more difficult to maintain given the bizarre manner in which he lost his first starting job.
“It was hard,” Smith said. “Honestly, it was hard. I’d be lying to you if I said it wasn’t hard. But like I said, just having that ultimate faith in myself, my ability, my preparation. And then you’ve just got to dig deep. You’ve just got to dig deep and say forget it, man. I’m just going to work. I’m just going to work and be the best that I can be every single day, not worry about the outside factors and just do what it takes to make myself better and be ready for the opportunity.”
Before he took over for Wilson last week, Smith’s playing time with the Seahawks had been mop-up duty, most notably a nice showing late in a blowout win over the Jets in 2020. With Wilson playing virtually every snap, Smith was best known in Seattle for his heroics as the Seahawks’ designated caller of overtime coin tosses.
That changed when he relieved Wilson in the fourth quarter against the Rams. Smith gave the Seahawks life when he threw a touchdown pass to wide receiver DK Metcalf, capping a 98-yard drive on which he went 5-for-5. Seattle’s hopes were dashed when Smith was intercepted late in the fourth quarter on a throw to receiver Tyler Lockett, who collided with a defender and fell down.
The way Smith played last week — plus his early-round talent and 31 career starts — gives some legitimacy to the confidence coach Pete Carroll and his teammates have shown.
“He’s more than ready. I know he’s eager to get things going, eager to go out there and play,” Lockett said. “When you do get your opportunity, shoot, that’s what you’ve been waiting for. So you want to go out there and make it happen. You want to be able to prove to yourself — not just everybody else — you want to prove to yourself you can still play, you still belong here, you’re still as great as everybody saw when you were growing up, when you were out there in Morgantown balling in the Big 12, all the way to when you got to the league.”
If he does, who knows, maybe Smith could parlay the opportunity into a better job next year as a bridge starter. Or at least a raise from the minimum-salary deals he’s been playing on.
After last week’s game, Smith was asked what he wants to show the NFL if he starts in Pittsburgh.
“I just want to win,” he said. “That’s all that is important. I just want to win.”
ESPN New York Giants reporter Jordan Raanan contributed.