It’s a time-honored truism of football that everyone loves the backup quarterback. He’s a beacon of hope and possibility — facets that often are exposed as wishful thinking once pipedreams are replaced by actual playing time.
Geno Smith, who gets his first Seahawks start on Sunday six games into his third season as Russell Wilson’s understudy, has managed to twist the storyline a little bit. The classic backup tale involves a struggling starter that the fan base has lost faith in; the eternal theory is that the No. 2 guy can’t do any worse, and maybe he can do a lot better.
Obviously, that’s not the case in Seattle, where everybody but the most cynical are satisfied with Wilson. No one was calling for his ouster from the starting job, or clamoring for Smith’s ascension. It took an injured finger requiring surgery to accomplish that outcome — the first injury to sideline Wilson in his nine-plus seasons as the Seahawks’ quarterback.
Yet there still has been an outpouring of support for Smith, who had fans chanting his name when he entered the game after Wilson’s injury last Thursday to try to execute a comeback win over the Rams.
Smith didn’t quite pull it off, but now he’s at the center of another time-honored storyline in sports — the underdog tale. There’s an undeniable appeal to seeing a 31-year-old guy who hasn’t played regularly in seven years finally get his shot. And try to do what most deem impossible: Replace one of the league’s best quarterbacks and keep alive the Seahawks’ flagging hopes to make the playoffs.
It has the makings of a redemption story that would tug on everyone’s heartstrings.
Smith lost his starting job with the Jets because he got sucker-punched by a teammate, and got “Wally Pipped” by Ryan Fitzpatrick while he was recovering from the resulting broken jaw.
Since then, Smith has wandered from the Jets to the Giants to the Chargers and finally the Seahawks, sitting behind three of the sturdiest quarterbacks in NFL history — Eli Manning, Philip Rivers, and Wilson.
In Seattle, teammates and fans have learned to appreciate Smith’s loyalty. He said he could have left for other opportunities but decided he liked it too much here, despite always knowing his chances of garnering playing time were remote.
“The reality was that I was comfortable here with the team, coaches, front office and all of the players,” he said Thursday.
They also appreciate what appears to have been a fanatical level of commitment to staying ready for the moment when Wilson did get hurt, which was more than two years in coming.
Smith talked last week about how his desire to play was so strong that it was “gut-wrenching,” in his words to be relegated to the bench each week.
“Sometimes I fight back tears before the games, like man, I wish I could be out there,” he said. “The reality is, you’ve got to prepare and you’ve got to keep preparing.”
It’s impossible not to respect that kind of attitude. And it’s impossible not to respect someone who studies the game plan so thoroughly each week “that I feel like a coach when I’m out there.” That’s not just his assessment; Carroll and a host of players vouched for Smith’s total command of the offense.
Smith’s job heretofore has been to impart that knowledge to Wilson, and tell him what he’s seeing from the sideline. Now the roles will be reversed on Sunday in Pittsburgh when Smith makes his first start since Dec. 3, 2017, while with the New York Giants.
“He’s going to be really tuned in,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said of Smith. “He’s really smart with the scheme and system, really sharp in the huddle and at the line of scrimmage. He is really good at all of that. He gives himself every chance to have a good performance and help us win.”
Through his three long years of inactivity, backing the man he called “the ultimate ironman,” Smith always wore his helmet on the sidelines. That way, he could hear the play calls right along with Wilson, and even try to anticipate what offensive coordinator Shane Waldron was going to call.
You can bet teammates notice that kind of thing. And they certainly paid heed when Smith immediately led them on a long scoring drive against the Rams in which he ran the offense to perfection. He might have even led them to a stirring comeback victory if not for a play in which receiver Tyler Lockett fell down/was tripped, leading to an interception that clinched the game for Los Angeles.
“I just think the way Geno handles himself, the way Geno prepares — if you walk into a room or you walk into the building and you’re just a fly on the wall, you wouldn’t think that Geno was not a starter, just by the way he prepares,” Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner said.
“I think that’s why it’s so easy for us to rally behind him, because we know that he’s done the work. We know that he’s prepared. He’s right there with Russell learning and doing all the things he needs to do to be a great quarterback. Here’s his opportunity to do that, and everybody’s extremely confident in what he can do. He has our back for sure, and we have his.”
In the words of Lockett, “Geno’s more than ready.” In the words of Carroll, “Geno has a way about him.”
Until the second half last Thursday, it was all theoretical, an aura that Smith could only disseminate during practice, and from the sideline on game day. Now Smith’s readiness is about to be thrust into the real world in a vital game for the Seahawks.
It could be a great story.