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NFL

Is It Better To Have Quarterbacked And Lost Than To Never Have Quarterbacked At All?

Geno Smith carries the ball
Steph Chambers/Getty Images

The name “Geno Smith” had not crossed my mind in years until Thursday night, and for good reason. The former New York Jets quarterback of the future had not played meaningful football since 2017, when he ended Eli Manning’s 210-game starting streak and turned the ball over twice as he led the Giants to a 24-17 loss in Week 13. In the years since, he has found anonymous work in the NFL as a backup, first with the Chargers and then with the Seahawks, but he had thrown a total of just nine passes until last night, when the entire game fell on his shoulders. In the third quarter of Seattle’s eventual loss to the Rams, Russell Wilson injured the middle finger on his throwing hand as it collided with Aaron Donald. Wilson would try to gut it out for one more series, but then would permanently be replaced by Smith.

I can’t say I even recognized him at first. I was watching the game on mute, saw that Wilson was out of the game, and then saw the new name on the back of the jersey in the huddle. “Smith, Smith…” I muttered to myself. “Wait, really??” And if Geno’s name was hard to place, the way he performed on that first drive was something completely unlike the way he had always played in my memory—nervous, mistake-prone, ineffective. He took the ball totally cold, probably quite rusty, and immediately oversaw the Seahawks’ most confident drive of the game. Starting at their own two-yard line, Smith needed 10 plays to go the length of the field, completing five passes for 72 yards, getting a PI call on another, and also scrambling for six. The drive’s final play, which drew the Seahawks to within two points, was a beautifully thrown ball that found DK Metcalf square in the hands in the end zone. Geno Smith did that! It was wild!

Matthew Stafford and the Rams, undeterred, marched back onto the field and scored a TD of their own on the ensuing possession. Smith, in response, used quick and short passes to pilot the Seahawks to the L.A. 14, where they kicked a field goal to make it 23-17. One defensive stop later, and Smith received the ball again, this time with two minutes to go and the game on the line. A drive like the one he put together when he first entered the game would have capped off a memorable primetime comeback.

Instead, Nick Scott intercepted the very first pass.

It was tough to watch, the moments after Smith had to walk to the sideline and take in what had just happened, especially when the Fox broadcast paired his frustration with footage that explained the turnover—Tyler Lockett stumbled on his route, leaving no Seahawks in the area to catch the ball. Three whole seasons of waiting for an opportunity to lead a team again, and it all (quite literally) slipped away for Smith on just one unlucky moment.

Smith got plenty of encouragement and kind words from his teammates and head coach in the postgame, but his emotions right after the win fell out of reach made me wonder how the night squares in his personal ledger. Smith has had a pretty chill job for the last few years, as he’s getting paid a million dollars to hold a clipboard and stay in shape. Actually going out onto the field against a strong division foe, with all the pressure and expectations and the millions of eyes watching you, is an almost incomprehensible step up in difficulty. I’d like to think I would choose the risk and the reward, but I honestly don’t know.

Athletes, of course, are built differently than the rest of us. After the success he found at West Virginia, and the bad taste left by his early NFL career, there’s no way Smith wasn’t craving another shot at the spotlight. That’s why he wasn’t intimidated by the enormity of his task on that first drive, and it’s why he’ll be more than excited to try and do it again. But that clearheadedness in the most stressful times means he also knew enough to smartly sidestep the question when asked in the postgame what he wants out of next week.

“I just want to win,” Smith said in response. “That’s all that is important. I just want to win.”