A year ago Geno Smith was in the early stages of rehabbing a torn ACL and wondering if and where he might get another opportunity to play quarterback for an NFL team.
“Week 13 of the 2017 season for the New York Giants with a healthy Eli Manning watching from the sideline,” no one would have had the sense to tell him at that point. Yet here we are.
It’s been a crazy journey for Smith, with plenty of bumps and obstacles, a couple of surgeries, an infamous sock to the jaw and one start in the past three seasons. So forgive Smith for not joining the hysteria over the benching of Manning and what it says about the Giants and their leadership. Instead, he’s focused on his opportunity.
It may be one of his last.
“Had a year to get healthy,” Smith said of getting from there to here with the Giants. “I’ve had time to learn the system and learn the guys, so it’s a great opportunity. I look forward to it.”
And to hear him tell it, he’s not the only one.
“Guys were kind of fired up,” he said of the reaction to the announcement to the team on Tuesday. “Guys are giving me hugs, handshakes, and I think guys have witnessed my story from afar, just seeing how things have kind of played out. So I think they’re looking forward to that part of it. They’ve seen me practice. They’ve seen me get better throughout the year and I think they’re really eager to get to work during the week and try and go out there and get a victory.”
McADOO AN EARLY FAN
Giants coach Ben McAdoo, who likely will be remembered as the man who benched Manning and not the man who started Smith, always has been intrigued by the former Jet. He studied him as quarterbacks coach of the Packers when Smith came into the NFL and watched him with the Jets. He always liked what he saw.
“That was part of bringing him in here,” McAdoo said this past week. “He’s a talented player with a big arm. He can create.”
Who does that sound like? If you said McAdoo quarterback ideal Aaron Rodgers, that wouldn’t be much of a leap.
No one will say that Smith has the talent to play at that level, but he certainly comes closer in terms of skill set to Rodgers than Manning does. After two years of having a square-peg quarterback starting for his round-hole offense, McAdoo seems genuinely excited to see if Smith can give him a proper fit.
McAdoo, of course, denied that idea.
“The offense, it’s a system and you can pull and you can plug and you can pull anything in the system for each and every player that you have on the roster,” he said. “Quarterback and otherwise.”
But back in March, McAdoo already was envisioning Smith plugging and pulling.
“I find it very exciting,” he said in an interview at the league meetings. “A guy who has his skill set is hard to find. You can’t find guys out there who have that type of arm talent, the quick release, the throwing motion and the feet to go with it. And he’s a competitor. It’s exciting to be able to bring a guy in and be able to work with a guy like that and see where you can take him.”
He was asked that day if the newly signed Smith could one day become Manning’s permanent replacement with the Giants.
“I can’t see why not,” he said then.
His answer probably hasn’t changed.
OBSTACLES TO OVERCOME
Smith has two great handicaps in terms of fan acceptance. The first is that he is replacing an icon, a player who won a pair of Super Bowls for the franchise, and, for many millennial Giants observers, is the only quarterback they have ever known.
“Eli has done a lot of great things for this organization,” Smith said this past week. “I think he deserves the utmost respect because of that, and that’s the standard, man.”
But he isn’t dwelling on that aspect.
“I don’t really view it that way,” he said. “I don’t really look at any outside pressure. It can’t be applied to me. I want to go out there and I want to win for these guys. I want to play hard for my teammates and I want to play hard for the organization.”
The second barrier is that the first phase of his career took place in such proximity to the Giants. The fans here in New York saw him play, saw him throw those interceptions, saw the Jets struggle. They may not have been breaking down the tape and analyzing his play, but they certainly saw the despondent back pages and witnessed his career trajectory in green.
How does one overcome that?
“You can only prove it on the field,” he said. “There’s no talk that can be said. There’s nothing I can say in the media that will change things. The only way that I can improve my current situation or any situation towards the future is to play well.”
POWERFUL ARM, BUT . . .
So what exactly does Smith bring to the Giants’ offense?
“I think he’ll keep drives alive,” wide receiver Sterling Shepard said. “When the play breaks down, he’s definitely going to be a dual-threat guy. He can extend plays. And you know a spiral is coming at you when it’s coming.”
Shepard said the receivers have to get acclimated to Smith’s high-velocity passes but predicted that will not be a huge issue.
“First thing, you see him make throws that very few people can make in the National Football League, let alone anywhere else, so he has an arm,” McAdoo said this week. “He has some anticipation with that arm. He can throw guys open, so it’s not just the arm strength. He has the touch. I think once he got into this league, you saw his fundamentals improve, his footwork improved.”
McAdoo said he and the staff went back and watched all of Smith’s tape from his two-minute drives with the Jets during his career.
“That was encouraging to see,” he said.
The truth is, though, that the Giants offense with Smith at the steering wheel can’t be any worse than the offense that Manning orchestrated in the second half of last week’s loss to Washington. Even some of Manning’s biggest supporters admit that.
“There are some things he brings to the table,” offensive lineman Justin Pugh said. “Obviously right now, the way we’re playing football, there is no hiding what we’re doing. We are going out there and going to play some good defense, running the ball more than we’ve had to in the past, and I think Geno can help in that area. I’m not going to get into the game plan stuff, but he brings a different dimension to the game. I think that’s something at 2-9 we haven’t been as successful doing what we’re doing, so sometimes a change is what happens.”
NO JOB SECURITY
Smith has no guarantees. Rookie Davis Webb is waiting in the wings and McAdoo and the Giants already have said they want to take a close look at him, too. That may come as soon as next week’s game against the Cowboys.
Smith’s is on a one-year deal with the Giants, so if he plays well he could be back with the team next year or he could land somewhere else in the quarterback-hungry league. If he plays poorly, he’ll just be a footnote to Manning’s streak.
But the fact that he is getting this chance to do either is the missing narrative of the week. So much attention has been focused on Manning and McAdoo and the mechanics of the decision-making process that it’s been difficult to sift through it all and get to Smith’s career. A guy who took his lumps, who has been dragged through the media, and now has an opportunity to rewrite his story.
“The competitive fire and the competitive nature in players tends to come out, and the opportunity for the player to show what type of player they are in these types of situations is key,” McAdoo said of Smith. “He’s been humbled, and I think when you’ve been humbled, I think your best can come out.”
BY THE NUMBERS
W-L as starter