It’s fair to say that both Geno Smith and the Seattle Seahawks entered the 2022 season with very low expectations. Coming off a disappointing 7-10 season in 2021 that saw the team finish last in the NFC West, Seattle was considered to be in full rebuild mode after trading away or releasing core players — a group that included team captains Bobby Wagner (a six-time All-Pro) and Russell Wilson (a Super Bowl-winning franchise quarterback). Smith, starting in Wilson’s place, was entering his 10th year in the NFL and had spent most of those years as a backup. Indeed, he hadn’t been an opening-day starter since 2014.
This year, though, both Smith and the Seahawks have enjoyed a resurgence that few could have predicted. After beating the L.A. Rams on Sunday on a last-minute drive, they currently sit a game back in the NFC West and would make the playoffs if the season ended today. Meanwhile, Smith finds himself ranked fifth in ESPN’s Total QBR, behind only Patrick Mahomes, Tua Tagovailoa, Josh Allen and Jalen Hurts. Although Smith’s play has seemingly come as a surprise to everyone else in the NFL, the Seahawks — and Geno himself — always knew this was a possibility.
So let’s examine the circumstances surrounding his development and the environment which may have led to his success in this career year.
Smith’s development path
Smith’s talent level and ability to play the position should have never been questioned as much as it has been over the years. In fact, coming out of Miramar High School in Florida, he was a prolific passer, breaking many records on his way to the third-best quarterback career in Broward County history. When he entered West Virginia, Smith was the No. 3 ranked dual threat QB in the nation. At West Virginia, he finished with the school’s career records for TD passes (98), total offensive yardage (12,004) and passing yardage (11,662) while setting the single-season records for passing yards (4,385) and TDs (42).
So Smith has been an effective passer of the football at every level he’s played. However, when he was taken by the New York Jets in the second round of the 2013 NFL Draft, Smith was anointed as the starter for what would soon become a very bad Jets team. Then a sucker punch by a teammate broke his jaw and sidelined him for a significant amount of the 2015 season. This happened to coincide with his backup, Ryan Fitzpatrick, having the most prolific passing season in Jets history. Going with the hot hand, then-Jets coach Todd Bowles decided to stay with Fitzpatrick, firmly entrenching Geno as a backup.
However, one may consider this to have been a blessing in disguise.
During the intervening years spent holding a clipboard, Smith would back up potential future Hall of Fame quarterbacks in Eli Manning (2017 New York Giants), Philip Rivers (2019 Los Angeles Chargers) and Wilson (2019-21 Seahawks). These were three different prominent QBs with three different leadership styles. Surely watching how they prepared, led and approached the game had an effect on Smith. The backup QB is similar to an additional quarterbacks coach. When the starter exits the field between drives, he often talks to the backup QB and reviews what he saw in the defense from a sideline perspective. Having played this role for three all-time greats likely contributed to Smith’s development as a player.
An improved environment
Quarterbacks drafted in higher rounds rarely transform bad teams into winning ones. Among starting QBs for the top 10 teams in FiveThirtyEight’s Elo ratings,1 only Allen (7th overall), Mahomes (10th), Joe Burrow (1st) and Ryan Tannehill (8th) were drafted among the top 10 overall picks. Meanwhile, five others (Dak Prescott, Jimmy Garoppolo, Hurts, Kirk Cousins and Tom Brady) weren’t even selected in Round 1.
|Rk||Team||Elo Rating||Starting QB||Draft Pick|
|1||Buffalo Bills||1699||Josh Allen||7|
|2||Kansas City Chiefs||1694||Patrick Mahomes||10|
|3||Dallas Cowboys||1657||Dak Prescott||135|
|4||San Francisco 49ers||1641||Jimmy Garoppolo*||62|
|5||Philadelphia Eagles||1628||Jalen Hurts||53|
|6||Cincinnati Bengals||1622||Joe Burrow||1|
|7||Minnesota Vikings||1595||Kirk Cousins||102|
|8||Baltimore Ravens||1584||Lamar Jackson||32|
|9||Tennessee Titans||1570||Ryan Tannehill||8|
|10||Tampa Bay Buccaneers||1549||Tom Brady||199|
The prevailing thought is that the teams who pick in the top 10 have significant roster-construction deficiencies — and oftentimes infrastructural issues — which make it a challenge for a young QB to excel. And that is precisely why they’re selecting where they are in the draft: It’s a vicious cycle of NFL life, which frequently sees teams set their signal-callers up for failure.
While everything runs through the quarterback and they touch the ball on every play, they are far from the only players who matter to the offense. In Seattle’s case, there have been issues with the supporting cast — particularly the offensive line — in years past. The unit projected to have quite the learning curve in 2022, with two rookie tackles and a left guard in only his second year playing that particular position. However, they, too, have exceeded expectations and given Smith time to deliver the football from the pocket. According to data from ESPN’s Stats & Information Group, Smith ranks eighth among qualified passers this season with an average of 2.54 seconds in the pocket per throw.
With time to throw, and with his prodigious physical gifts, Smith is tracking for one of the most accurate seasons in NFL history. His completion rate of 72.7 percent is the third-highest figure among qualified quarterbacks2 since 1950, behind only two Drew Brees seasons.
Geno’s ability to play on schedule and deliver the ball on time has contributed to the early success of the team’s young tackles. And in turn, the improved offensive line has also played well enough to give Seattle an effective running game, which has further aided Smith. The Seahawks’ ability to make defenses respect the run has allowed Geno to throw against advantageous matchups: According to Stats & Info, 9.2 percent of Seattle’s passes have been against defenses with eight or more defenders in the box (sixth-most of any team). Kenneth Walker, October’s Offensive Rookie of the Month, has been outstanding; he wasn’t even at the top of the depth chart to open the season, but as it currently stands, he has 649 yards rushing and nine touchdowns. And it’s on both sides of the ball: The play of rookie Tariq Woolen (who is tied for first in the NFL with six interceptions) helps get the offense the ball back. All of these environmental factors have contributed to Smith’s 2022 success.
Ultimately, Smith’s resurrection is a case study in what happens when both development and environment sync up to help boost a quarterback’s career. His steady leadership through adversity and his command of the offense have both drastically improved over the course of his career. Smith’s ability to be “just one of the guys” (as Seahawks coach Pete Carroll calls him) could both be seen as a slight to Wilson and also as a compliment to Smith. In many ways, Smith’s ascension has been in parallel to that of the Seahawks as a team. Things started with low expectations from the outside, but cautious optimism — and plenty of motivation — from within, all of which has led to a surprising resurgence as we approach the back stretch of the schedule. Now Smith is even on the outskirts of the MVP conversation. Who aside from Geno and his teammates would have ever imagined that before the season?
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