SEATTLE — Quandre Diggs’ first encounter with the persona of Gene Smith came on a Saturday night in October in Austin, Texas, ten years ago.
Smith had a self-assured, cocky and swaggering demeanor to match the West Virginia quarterback at the time. He talked trash and then backed it up with the way he played on the field. In that game, Smith threw for four touchdowns in West Virginia’s 48-45 victory.
“You guys can go watch the video of him throwing the Horns and talking trash to me and stuff like that,” Diggs recalled. “I’m just like, ‘Okay, bro.’ But he was like that. He was a Heisman candidate at the time. Therefore, he had the right to lead his junk.’
Fast forward 10 years, and some of the confidence and swagger Smith displayed during those college moments has returned.
It’s a more mature version, shaped and molded by a decade of NFL struggles. But now that Smith is thriving, the season is by far one of the best by any quarterback in the league this season.
He’s earned the right to let that swagger recover.
“I think it’s a mixture of talent and mental stability. I think those things are coming together well now,” Smith said. “I’ve always had those two things, so it’s more important to me to be in the light than to do it in the shadows.”
The Seahawks enter their bye week 6-4 after last Sunday’s 21-16 loss to Tampa Bay in Munich, Germany. After 10 games, they lead the NFC West by a half game over San Francisco, a prediction no one would have made before the season started.
While there are many reasons behind Seattle’s surprising season, Smith’s play is at the top of the list. It wasn’t ideal, as evidenced by some of the struggles in the first half last week against Tampa Bay. But it was much better than anyone expected.
Heading into the season, no position was seen as a bigger weakness for Seattle than linebacker. After Russell Wilson’s decade under center for the Seahawks, the situation Seattle faced with Smith or Drew Lock at quarterback was seen as the biggest hurdle for a team that appeared to be entering a rebuilding season.
In the days and months that followed, there were many apologies for the way Smith played.
“They said what they said. I mean, I’m going to stand where I stand,” Diggs said. “You guys have been there, I stand by what I stand by and these principles and if you don’t believe it Geno is showing them right now and a lot of people are eating their words.”
Smith arrived at the bye leading the league in completion percentage (72.8), second in passer rating (108.0) and fifth in passing yards (2,474). He’s on pace to throw for 4,000 yards, which would surpass Smith’s total passing yards between 2014 (when he last started) and 2021.
He was supposed to be a placeholder until Seattle could use their draft capital gained from the Wilson trade to go out and get their quarterback of the future in the 2023 draft. That could still be what Seattle does, but its current quarterback might end up being the Seahawks’ best option.
Smith was essentially cast aside as a bright line, still remembered for his shortcomings with the New York Jets — remember the locker room hit? — and for being the quarterback called upon to end Eli Manning’s streak with the Giants.
But Smith said he was always learning. His patience and willingness to wait for another opportunity may be his best quality as a quarterback.
The first 10 games of this season showed what he has learned during his time as a backup. The next seven will likely determine where his career goes. As a free agent after the season, Smith could find himself in line for a salary that seemed unfathomable before the season.
He is making $3.5 million this season compared to all quarterback deals based on his play. Next year, there will likely be another set of zeroes behind that number, whether Smith is in Seattle or moves on.
The rest of this season will likely decide how big that salary will be.
“We’re in the middle of the season and we’re doing what we need to do. But there is a conversation going on,” Carroll said. “We understand that. Very, very happy with our guys and think they did a great job. Geno is having a fantastic season.”