RENTON — Frank Cignetti Jr. is happy to talk about Geno Smith. Eager, even.
“Anything for Geno,” he says. “I love Geno.”
Cignetti has been a college and NFL coach for more than 30 years, mentoring dozens and dozens of quarterbacks over his career. He’s not singling out any one individual, but if he had to …
“I tell everyone: Geno is one of my favorite people anywhere,” Cignetti said in a phone interview this week. “He’s an unbelievable human being. I can’t say enough good things about him. He’s a leader, and he’s a winner.”
By 2017, when many around the NFL had passed on Smith after his tumultuous run as the would-be franchise QB of the New York Jets, Cignetti turned on old game tape and saw something in the free-agent QB that maybe others were missing.
Cignetti, then the QB coach of the New York Giants, saw obvious arm talent and undeniable athleticism. The kind of qualities that don’t immediately pop on tape — work ethic, leadership, drive — are what Cignetti described as Smith’s greatest assets, and reasons he believes Smith will have success for the Seahawks as Russell Wilson’s stand-in over the next month.
Cignetti has seen it before, when Smith was the backup to another ironman quarterback, Eli Manning. Knowing he almost certainly wouldn’t play that Sunday, Smith still asked Cignetti to meet on the practice field one-on-one each morning to go over scripted plays, footwork, formations and the like.
“As good as I’ve ever seen,” Cignetti said of Smith’s preparation. “If he was not the first guy in the building every day, he was the second. He’s a true pro.”
Smith’s first stint in New York came with the harsh scrutiny that accompanies all the brash, young QBs who have tried to make it with the Jets.
The melodrama ended with a broken jaw, a busted knee and an apology from Joe Namath.
“It was hard. It was, honestly. It was hard,” Smith said Thursday, reflecting on the start his NFL career. “I’d be lying to you if I said it wasn’t hard.”
He managed it, he added, by “having that ultimate faith in myself, in my ability, my preparation. And then you’ve just got to dig deep. You’ve got to dig deep and say, ‘You know, forget it, man. I’m just gonna work. I’m just gonna 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.’ ”
The hard-earned perspective he gained in New York prepared him for a vagabond career.
These next few weeks might be his last extended audition in the NFL. His job? To keep the Seahawks (2-3) from falling out of the NFC West playoff picture.
“It means everything, man. It means everything,” Smith, 31, said of his first NFL start since December 2017. “But it’s not about me, you know. It’s about the team and going out there together, all as one unit — the offense, the defense, special teams, coaching staff, front office, everybody. … Obviously, it’s a great opportunity, but my mindset is focused on winning.”
It has been seven years since Smith had a regular starting job.
As a rookie in 2013, Smith was thrust into the starting job in Week 1 after Mark Sanchez suffered a bizarre injury in one of the Jets’ final preseason games. The Jets wound up going 8-8 that season with Smith starting every game; he threw 12 touchdown passes and ran for six more, with 21 interceptions and four lost fumbles.
The Jets stumbled to 3-13 the following year, leading to the ouster of coach Rex Ryan and, ultimately, the end of Smith’s role as the full-time starter.
During training camp in 2015, he lost the starting job “because of one of the most insidious locker room soap operas ever,” as the New York Post’s Mike Vaccaro described it. Jets backup linebacker IK Enemkpali sucker-punched Smith in the locker room, breaking the QB’s jaw in two places.
The disagreement was over $600 Enemkpali felt Smith owed him after Smith canceled a planned summer trip to Texas for Enemkpali’s youth football camp. Smith had reportedly backed out of the trip because a family friend had died in a motorcycle accident.
Midway through the 2016 season, Smith got a chance to start in place of veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick, but he injured his knee early on in that game. Namath, the Jets legend, later questioned Smith’s toughness for not playing through the injury — only to learn the next day that Smith had torn the anterior-cruciate ligament in the knee, ending his season. Namath issued a public apology.
“Bad timing, bad decisions and bad luck” is how one New York Post headlined summarized Smith’s Jets tenure.
“Anytime you get adversity, it’s a chance for you to really show what you’re about and to respond,” Smith said this week. “In that moment was I totally aware of that? Probably not. But as you go on and you grow, you just see how those things can help you in shaping you to be better, and I think that’s what it did.”
Smith is happy to pass along his experiences now. Eager, even.
So when Cignetti reached out last year, Smith accepted an invitation to speak to his old coach’s new quarterbacks. Over a series of Zoom meetings, Smith shared his journey with the young QBs at Boston College.
“It was really cool for Geno to do that, spending time with our guys here,” said Cignetti, in his second season as the Boston College QB coach. “It’s a really important message he could give to our guys, not only about football but just about life in general.”
Smith added: “I’m definitely passionate about passing on the knowledge I have to anyone, especially the youth.”
A future coach? Cignetti said he could absolutely see that in Smith’s future.
First, Smith has at least a few more games to play, starting Sunday evening, in prime time, against the Steelers in Pittsburgh.
Smith starred in college at West Virginia — just 75 miles south of Pittsburgh — and he led the Mountaineers to a win at the Steelers’ Heinz Field in a rivalry game with the University of Pittsburgh in 2010. The Backyard Brawl, they call the rivalry.
“Don’t forget, Geno has history at Heinz Field,” Cignetti said. “He’s won there before, and he’ll win there again.”