It was the Sucker Punch Heard ’Round the NFL, and for a long time, it looked like the death knell for Geno Smith’s career … because name a quarterback who has had his jaw broken in his own locker room in August by his own teammate and overcame that kind of ignominy.
It turns out there is one.
Maybe outdueling Russell Wilson on Monday night in Seattle will prove to be a fleeting moment in the sun for him. This much is certain: It took Geno Smith seven years to get back up off the deck after an edge defender named IK Enemkpali changed the course of his career and Jets history.
And from afar, on the night he got back up, two of his former teammates, two former Jets quarterbacks, cheered his comeback and celebrated him as a model of perseverance.
Fox Sports NFL analyst Mark Sanchez: “He didn’t draft himself to the Jets, he didn’t know. You could tell he’s learned from Russ. Some of those plays looked more like Russ than Russ. You’re like, ‘Damn dude, where’d that come from?’ ”
Amazon Prime Video NFL analyst Ryan Fitzpatrick: “First of all, I was just really happy for him. His last time as a first-game starter was 2014, and so it’s been a long, bumpy road, and I think maybe the last eight years, they’ve taught him a lot about patience and perseverance. And it was so great to see just the emotion that he was playing with. He’s always been able to throw the ball, obviously. But it seems like he has more of a sense of who he is, what it takes to be a winning quarterback.”
Sanchez was the incumbent when Smith was drafted in the second round out of West Virginia by then-general manager John Idzik. Smith won the job by default after Rex Ryan decided it would be a good idea to play Sanchez in the fourth quarter of a preseason game against the Giants during which Smith was intercepted three times. Sanchez injured his shoulder on a hit, was lost for the season and headed the next season to Philadelphia.
“[Smith] was a rookie, so he would make rookie throws and rookie mistakes, just like I did,” Sanchez said.
The transition from the Air Raid system in college was going to take time.
“You see that he had the ability to do it, he just wasn’t comfortable with it yet,” Sanchez said. “He didn’t quite grasp it all right away.”
But Smith’s arm talent was never the issue.
“He could sling it,” Sanchez said. “It’s not like Jeff George walked in the building, or Matt Stafford, or Randall Cunningham, somebody who could throw it 100 yards. So you weren’t like blown away by his arm strength, but there’s plenty of guys who play for a really long time that don’t have crazy arm strength that are just solid, deliver the ball when it needs to be there, have enough touch on the ball, can fit it in a window if they need to.”
In the summer before his second season, Smith, who had 12 touchdowns and 21 interceptions as a rookie, scoffed at an ESPN poll that ranked him as the worst starting quarterback.
“If I’m No. 32, by this time next year or the year after,” Smith said, “I expect to be in the top five.”
Not quite. He had 13 TDs, 13 INTs in year two, and it cost him $12,000 for dropping an F-bomb on a heckling fan, but perhaps new coach Todd Bowles and offensive coordinator Chan Gailey could continue to develop him in 2015.
They never got the chance.
Down goes Geno … down goes Geno … down goes Geno.
“I was very curious about the details ’cause I was like, ‘Huh?’ Did somebody just snap or did like somebody throw the first blow or what the hell happened?” Sanchez said.
Just like that, journeyman Fitzpatrick became the Jets’ starting quarterback and enjoyed a career year. It wasn’t long before Smith began his own journeyman career — playing behind Eli Manning (2017), Philip Rivers (2018) and Wilson (2019-21).
“It was really hard,” Fitzpatrick said, “because it was his team, and unfortunately that incident happens and then I kind of took it and ran with it that year, and even the next year he was the guy for that offseason while I wasn’t there trying to get a contract signed. I think both those years were really hard for him.
“I think what he’s done, he was forced to take a step back there, but he’s taken a step back, and he’s been in all these different situations now and had a bunch of different quarterbacks. He can pick little things from them and apply them to his game. You could just see all of the eight years bottled up and that coming out with emotion on the field as he was playing.”
Sanchez played for Seahawks coach Pete Carroll at USC.
“I just remember how much confidence I had playing for the guy, and what he meant for me mentally, emotionally preparing for a game,” Sanchez said. “And putting you in that mindset like when you walked out on the field you’re the baddest dude out there, and you’re gonna go ball out. And there was no doubt about that. I never second-guessed anything, I was just ready to go. You could tell that bled over into Geno and his mindset and how hard he’s worked over these last few years. He looked like a different player. It was incredible, it was actually fun to watch.”
Smith, who faces the 49ers on Sunday, seconded that emotion this week.
“One thing that I have learned from Coach is just that mindset, having that positive mindset, always believing in yourself and believing in the guys around you, and then positive self-talk. Coach Carroll is one of the best coaches I’ve ever had, and I think one of the reasons is that he is so positive in that he truly believes that anything is possible. Just having a guy like that, continuing to push us, having us compete every day, as well as just being positive is awesome.”
Not every quarterback could handle New York as seamlessly as Eli Manning did.
Sanchez: “I don’t know what else on Earth is like it. It’s gotta be like some high version of political office. There’s just so many expectations — some realistic, some unrealistic — so many factors outside of your control. It made him a little calloused and taught him some things, just like it has for me, maybe for football, maybe for life. You learn a lot, and sometimes it sucks. But to see him go out and play the way he did, I was just so impressed.
“On Wikipedia, it’s like one sentence of like, ‘He hasn’t started since’ whatever the sentence is, but those are years of your life that are frustrating and you’re preparing for a game and then you don’t play, and then you do it over and over and over and over, and it’s almost like hundreds of ’em go by and then you finally get a chance to compete for a job, and everybody explains it away in like one sentence. To him it’s not one sentence.”
Fitzpatrick: “I think Geno has really matured in the last 10 years. New York is a very tough place to play quarterback, but he’s done a nice job kind of figuring it out and figuring himself out, but sometimes no matter where the situation is, it just takes time. And unfortunately when you’re a higher draft pick and you get thrown in right away, there’s not a whole lot of patience. So I don’t know that it would have been different anywhere else, I just think there was patience that needed to be had, and he’s really done a good job of taking advantage of the different places he’s been.”
Smith, who will turn 32 next month, created a buzz after the game Monday when he said with a smile: “They wrote me off, I ain’t write back though.” Asked about it on Thursday, he said, “It really was just a spur of the moment.”
What is Smith like in the huddle?
“He’s somebody who knows what needs to be done and he goes about his business the right way,” classy Seahawks receiver and captain Tyler Lockett told Serby Says. “Sometimes he could be quiet, sometimes he could be talkative, but I think the one thing is he does command the huddle and everybody in that huddle has his back.”
The moment maybe only he saw when he was down … but never out.