RENTON – On the September day in 2015 when Geno Smith learned he’d lost the starting quarterback job with the New York Jets, which he had held for two years, to Ryan Fitzpatrick, he vowed to get another shot.
“I’m just here to keep practicing, keep working,” Smith said then. “The spirits are high around here, and mine are high as well. The window [the notion that his window to be a starter was closing] and all that stuff, man, I’m 24 years old, so whoever wants to say that can say that. But I know that I have a lot of football left in me, and I will get a chance.”
Smith didn’t know he would wait eight years and be almost 32 before getting that next chance.
But on Monday night Smith will again be a starting quarterback for an NFL team in the season opener – a gap of eight years that puts Smith in rare territory.
In fact, only three other times in NFL history has a QB had as big a gap between opening-day starts, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, the last coming in 1971 when then 39-year-old Zeke Bratkowski got the call for Green Bay after not starting an opener since 1962.
“I would not know that unless you told me,” Smith said with a smile Friday.
Smith hopes his return as an opening-day starter goes better than it did for Bratkowski, who was best known for being Bart Starr’s backup. Bratkowski was replaced during the game by rookie Scott Hunter and never started again.
“I don’t feel any type of vindication or anything like that,” Smith said of his return to starting status. “It’s more just preparing and doing the same thing as I’ve always done, not making it more than what it is.”
And in a way it’s that mindset – not making it more than it is – that got Smith the starting job ahead of Drew Lock, acquired by Seattle in the trade for Russell Wilson that created the quarterback vacancy.
Lock threw three interceptions and lost a fumble in two preseason games, and Smith did not have a turnover.
“Ball security is always going to be the first thing that we talk about,” offensive coordinator Shane Waldron said Friday in an answer on how Smith won the QB job. “We are going to keep striving to get all of our guys being tight, making smart decisions and taking care of the ball to put us in the best chance to win.”
Smith acknowledged that’s not always something he was able to do.
He was drafted 39th overall out of West Virginia by the Jets in 2013 – 36 spots before the Seahawks took Wilson – following a college career in which he threw 98 touchdown passes to just 21 interceptions.
Smith, then 22, was thrust into the starting job for a Jets team coming off a 6-10 season that had been to the AFC Championship Game in 2009-10.
But in 29 starts over the 2013-14 seasons Smith had 34 interceptions – his 21 picks in 2013 ranked fourth in the NFL – and had 41 turnovers overall, third most in that span.
Smith looks back now and says he got caught up in trying to do too much.
“I was pressing a little bit,” Smith said. “You know, just trying to make every single throw out there, trying to make every play even if it wasn’t there. And I think the maturity came with understanding that I don’t have to make every play. It takes all 11 on the field, and you don’t have to play hero ball. You can just go out there and play the game and let the game come to you.”
Following a 4-12 season in 2014 in which the Jets were 3-10 in Smith’s starts, the team signed Fitzpatrick. Then came a fateful moment of Smith’s career in August 2015 when he was punched by teammate IK Enemkpali in the locker room amid a reported dispute over $600 Smith was said to owe Enemkpali. Smith suffered a broken jaw and was out roughly a month. In his absence, Fitzpatrick led the Jets to a 2-0 start and was named the permanent starter.
Smith has started just five games since – he spent two more years with the Jets, then one each with the Giants and Chargers backing up Eli Manning and Philip Rivers before coming to Seattle in 2019, earning a reputation as a career backup.
Smith, though, said he never questioned that he would get another shot.
“The thing that kept me motivated was seeing myself do well, just seeing myself make plays out there on the field,” he said. “Then I’ve had a ton of great coaches who have continued to let me know that I’m capable. I’ve had defensive coordinators come up to me before games and after games and say, ‘When you get your shot, you are going to be ready.’ “
When last season ended, Smith’s future was uncertain.
Wilson wasn’t traded until March 8, at a time when Smith was a free agent. He also was arrested on suspicion of DUI on Jan. 10, a day after the Seahawks’ season-ending win at Arizona, which might have complicated things. No charges have been filed in that case, however, and the Seahawks said it would not impact their decision to keep him.
After weighing his options, Smith didn’t sign until April 22, more than a month after the free-agent signing period began, getting a contract worth up to $3.5 million but with only a $500,000 signing bonus guaranteed. That hardly guaranteed him a spot on the roster, let alone as the starter.
But listed atop the depth chart when the offseason program began in late April, Smith held the starting job throughout.
“At the end of the day, Geno did enough to really feel good about going into this first game and him taking the reins and his leadership,” Waldron said.
Being the starter on opening day, though, also doesn’t guarantee anything about the rest of the season, with coach Pete Carroll saying Lock will remain in competition for the job.
Smith also knows the immediate challenge that awaits – matched up with his predecessor Wilson on the marquee stage of “Monday Night Football” – could hardly be greater.
“You can’t block that out,” he said of knowing Wilson is on the other side. “That would be a little naive to say that. I do understand everything that is going on around us. Russell was the man here for a while, and I know there will be emotions on both sides. But I’m not caught up in that. I’m just focused on taking care of business.”
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