Geno Smith and the year of the backup black quarterback
Seattle’s backup QB hasn’t taken a single snap this year, and that’s important
RENTON, Wash. — In the “Year of the Black Quarterback,” the stars have led the way. Lamar Jackson is the strong MVP favorite. Patrick Mahomes showed why he is the reigning MVP. Russell Wilson proved his worth as the highest-paid player in the NFL this year. And that’s to say nothing of the statistical seasons put forth by Dak Prescott, Deshaun Watson and Jameis Winston (the 2019 leader in passing yards), or offensive rookie of the year candidate Kyler Murray, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2019 draft.
But while records and stereotypes have been broken by this eclectic group of players, the success among black quarterbacks goes much deeper:
This season has also been the year of the backup black quarterback.
With Andrew Luck suddenly retiring in late August, Jacoby Brissett stepped in to guide the Indianapolis Colts to the brink of the playoffs until a late-season losing streak. The New Orleans Saints’ Teddy Bridgewater filled in for starter Drew Brees for five weeks, leading the team to a perfect 5-0 record. Robert Griffin III and Dwayne Haskins, in limited starts, filled in for or took over for their teams’ respective starters.
And then there’s Geno Smith, the emergency option for the Seattle Seahawks behind Wilson.
Smith has neither thrown nor completed a pass this season, let alone play a snap; his lone notable accomplishment this season was winning a controversial coin toss call against the San Francisco 49ers on Nov. 12. But it’s Smith’s mere presence on an NFL depth chart that signifies a sea change in the league as it pertains to African American quarterbacks.
In modern NFL history, backup black quarterbacks have typically been a former Pro Bowl-level starter (Michael Vick) or star college player who mostly used his legs (Troy Smith). But Smith, who in two years as a starter completed 57.5% of his passes and had nine more interceptions (34) than touchdowns (25), has maintained a seven-year career despite being neither of those things. In other words, he has been allowed to be a modest backup like many white quarterbacks.
“I think that it says that the league wants to win,” Smith said of the shift in perception of black quarterbacks. “I don’t think it’s about black and white anymore. The world is changing and so it’s not your old 1960s, 1950s anymore. People aren’t looking at it that way anymore. It’s just about production.
“And these guys are producing.”
As an African American quarterback who has made it this far professionally, Smith is all too familiar with how people who look like him are judged at the game’s most important position.
Coming out of Miramar High School (Florida) in 2009, Smith was an All-American and state player of the year. He threw for more than 3,000 yards and 32 touchdowns in his final season at Miramar. And he was invited to the prestigious Elite 11 high school quarterback camp. But scouting sites dubbed him a “dual-threat” quarterback — a loaded designation that normally applies to only black quarterbacks — even though he put up pedestrian rushing numbers during his career.
Smith would go on to rush for a grand total of 342 yards his entire four-year career at West Virginia. But the racialized label stuck with Smith before and after he was selected 39th overall by the New York Jets in the 2013 draft. Leading up to the draft, a scouting report read that Smith was a “cross between Akili Smith and Aaron Brooks” — two black quarterbacks — and lacks “the football savvy, work habits and focus” to be a starting NFL quarterback, critically coded language of African American players’ intelligence and work ethic. Smith had the prototypical size, strong arm, and accuracy of a traditional NFL quarterback, yet he felt pigeonholed in the Jets’ offense.
“Same thing coming out of college, I had minimal rushing yards,” he said. “When I got to the league, I was running the Wildcat, and that wasn’t my game. And then people wonder why I struggled. It’s because they were trying to change me into something that I wasn’t.
“I can scramble. I’m fast. But my game is within the pocket. And then I move outside of the pocket and I make plays throwing. But I don’t know whether or not that was because of stereotypes or just bad coaching.”
The color of Smith’s skin led to more than just assumptions about his playing style. In his third season in 2015, after a Jets teammate punched Smith in the face and broke his jaw, a reporter, apparently upset with Smith’s tenure with the Jets, referred to him as a “garbage hip-hop loser QB.” (If you’re the contrarian type, Smith had signed with Jay-Z’s Roc Nation Sports agency after the draft.)
“They weren’t ready for my type of personality,” Smith said of the New York media. “And me being who I am, being raised by my grandmother who dealt with segregation, who dealt with having to drink from separate water fountains, I always stay true to who I am because I have to for her. I would let my ancestors down if I ever changed who I was, if I ever changed my stripes.”
Two years later, when Smith replaced two-time Super Bowl champion Eli Manning while with the New York Giants, he faced a mountain of pushback from both the media (“SAY IT AIN’T GENO” was printed on a New York Post cover) and Giants fans. Multiple death threats were sent to Smith. Smith’s father even received a message that read: “He better not start this game or we’ll kill you.”
“I just brushed it off,” Smith said of the death threats. “It’s not the first time I got death threats. I used to get death threats when I was growing up from people who lived across the street, down the street. So it’s not something that I was afraid of. It was more of a thing that it’s just uncommon for that to happen for a guy starting a football game.”
There’s a double standard applied to black and white quarterbacks in the league, and it comes down to benefit of the doubt. White quarterbacks, backup or starter, can play at the professional level, hence the amount of times during a season someone will ask, “He’s still in the league?” when a white backup enters a game. But for black quarterbacks, they almost have to be perfect to stay in the league past their time as a starter. Vick served as a backup for two different teams during his final two seasons on the strength of being Michael Vick. The Chicago Bears’ Chase Daniel, meanwhile, has played for four teams in 10 seasons (five starts) after going undrafted in 2009, earning more than $34 million along the way.
“It’s not just in football, this is in life for African Americans. We deal with that on a daily basis,” said Smith, who had a perfect passer rating in his last start for the Jets in 2014. “I grew up in the furthest south that you can go in Miami. So being racially profiled, teachers looking at me as if I was just some dumb jock even though I made straight A’s. Having people talk down on you, look down on you because of the color of your skin. That’s something that I dealt with growing up every single day. So when it comes to that part of it, football, it’s just another thing. It’s just another part of what we have to go through as African Americans.”
That expectation of perfection even applies off the field. There’s the shared belief that quarterbacks are the CEO of NFL teams, that they are the face of the organization and are expected to act accordingly. But leadership can look different for different people; how Tom Brady leads will likely be different from Jackson or Watson because they have different backgrounds. Yet Brady’s way will often be seen as the standard.
After Smith joined the Jets, he says, a Jets public relations staffer told him to be the team’s “Obama.”
“And I was like, ‘Man, I’m not a politician. I’m a football player. Don’t expect me to do politics. If I see something wrong, I’m going to say it.’ ”
The face of longtime NFL backups have normally looked like Brian Hoyer (11 seasons, 38 starts) or A.J. McCarron (six seasons, four starts); rarely has a black quarterback reached that sort of longevity without being a starter. Yet Smith has been brought on board by three teams since not being re-signed by the Jets in 2017. His career path best matches up with another black quarterback who struggled as a starter but found a second career as a starter-ready backup.
After 3½ up-and-down seasons as the Detroit Lions starter in the late 1990s, Charlie Batch signed a one-year contract with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2002 and would go on to re-sign with team multiple times over the next 10 seasons to back up Ben Roethlisberger. Batch knew that if he wanted to stay in the league, he would have to act as the starter, both in how he practiced and in his leadership, even when sitting behind a young first-round pick like Roethlisberger.
“When you are in that role, you have to be ready in preparation,” Batch said over the phone. “I prided myself on being ready, more prepared than what Ben was at the time.”
Like Batch, Smith’s been afforded the benefit of the doubt like any white backup, and he didn’t have to be a former MVP candidate or gimmick player to get that.
“He looks in control of the offense,” Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll said of Smith during the preseason. “He really understands it, so that’s a real positive.”
All of this is possible, Smith says, due to the shift in perception of black quarterbacks in the league. Teams value winning over stereotypes these days. In the past, a Lamar Jackson-type college quarterback would be converted to receiver, but now that type of quarterback is getting the chance to lead his team to the best record in the regular season.
Smith believes that he will be a starter again in the league someday. He has learned enough over the past few years from sitting behind Eli Manning, Philip Rivers and Russell Wilson that he believes will make him better the next time he’s given an opportunity. Also, he said, Seattle has allowed Geno to be Geno. He doesn’t have to be buttoned-up, which isn’t him.
“I don’t see my career coming to an end no time soon. I got a lot of years left in the tank,” he said. “Whenever that opportunity comes, wherever it is, that’s the main thing, to produce, to win, to lead and then keep being myself.”