I don’t think it’s controversial to say that Geno Smith’s 2023 (up to this point) has not been as good as his 2022 season. Because of that, we’re in constant debate over whether or not he should be the quarterback for 2024. Hell, there’s been reasonably frequent talk about how much longer he should still be the quarterback this season!
But I think even the most critical person of Geno would admit there have been a few positives that have contributed to the Seattle Seahawks’ 6-3 start. These are worth highlighting for praise not to vouch for his long-term viability as a starter, but to at least balance out the constant scrutiny over the turnovers, near-turnovers, red zone difficulties, and 3rd down woes.
The third play of this sequence is smooth too. Nice placement on this ball from Geno to Tyler pic.twitter.com/MhlwVA6Dio— Dugar, Michael-Shawn (@MikeDugar) November 13, 2023
It’s the NFL’s great cheat code, you could argue. Geno Smith’s play-action numbers this season are superb:
61-of-80 (76.3%) for 753 yards, 3 touchdowns, 0 turnovers, 2 sacks taken.
Smith’s play-action rate is 27.1%, which is 5th in the NFL among qualified passers (aka quarterbacks who’ve played a considerable portion of the season). This also indicates that Shane Waldron is calling more play-action than you might think, even if it’s not necessarily consistent from week to week.
The waters are much murkier without play-action, where his completion percentage is just 61.7%, his sack percentage increases, and obviously 100 percent of his turnovers have occurred in straight dropback situations. This is a major difference from last season, when Geno was basically as effective in PA and non-PA situations.
But the play-action works, has consistently worked, and figures to continue to work. Geno is conclusively one of the best play-action quarterbacks in the NFL.
Quarterback efficiency on early and late downs— Computer Cowboy (@benbbaldwin) November 14, 2023
For all the hand-wringing about 3rd downs when Russell Wilson was in Seattle, he's done pretty well this year and the Seahawks have...not pic.twitter.com/FlxB63tc3B
Geno Smith is in the bottom-right quadrant. The further right on the graph you are, the better your EPA/play is on early downs. The lower you are on the y-axis, the worse you are on 3rd/4th downs. Obviously we’ve discussed the 3rd/4th down problems throughout the season and it won’t go away until it improves. However, the only QBs better than Geno on early-down dropbacks are Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, C.J. Stroud, Tua Tagoaviloa, and Brock Purdy.
Look at the splits!
Early Downs: 152/212 (71.6%) for 1763 yards, 9 TDs, 3 INTs, 9 sacks
Late Downs: 44/88 (50%) for 401 yards, 2 TDs, 4 INTs, 10 sacks
There’s a gaping disparity that was not as pronounced last season. Another way to look at it, if you want to go off the back of the play-action stat, is that traditional obvious passing situations are flummoxing Geno and the entire offense.
Geno with the nasty backpedal to avoid pressure and stay on schedule pic.twitter.com/70AObBPg3Y— Mike Barwin (@MikeBarwin) September 25, 2023
The Seahawks have had to do a lot of adjusting to life without a healthy offensive line. Thankfully, Geno has avoided becoming a walking sack machine.
His pressure-to-sack rate, which, if you haven’t figured it out by the terminology, is the rate in which pressures are leading to sacks, sits at just 14.6%. Only Gardner Minshew, Baker Mayfield, Jared Goff, Josh Allen, and Patrick Mahomes (who’s under 10%) are lower. The top P2S quarterbacks are Daniel Jones, Sam Howell, Desmond Ridder, Russell Wilson, and Trevor Lawrence. In fact, Wilson and Geno have both been pressured 130 times, but one QB has been sacked 19 times and the other has been sacked 30 times.
In a year in which sack rate is at a 25-year high, Geno has lowered his rate to just 6.0%, which is below the league average. Whether by play design or through his own pocket movement, he’s getting the ball out of his hands more often than not. That’s not to say he hasn’t had untimely sacks or plays (like the end of the 1st half against the Commanders) that are essentially sacks, but this is about the best outcome you could hope for when you’ve had as many different OL combinations as Seattle.
For comparison: Smith’s sack rate was 7.4% last season, which was a modest 12th among starting quarterbacks. Not too good, not too bad, but the pass protection was demonstrably worse as the season wore on, and Seahawks fans experienced a very familiar feeling given the consistently high sack rates throughout the Pete Carroll era.
Sacks are typically a QB stat, but so are pressures. The PFF charting also does not deem Smith to be creating too many of his own pressures (i.e. holding onto the ball too long, running into pass-rushers, etc.). When assigning responsibility for pressures allowed, Smith is dinged for less than 10% of his 105 pressures, which is one of the lowest rates among starting quarterbacks. You don’t need to guess who’s got the highest QB-created pressures allowed, but Patrick Mahomes is actually 2nd. The difference is Russ is turning those self-created pressures into a lot of sacks, whereas Mahomes has been his usual otherworldly self at avoiding sacks.
This is a fun one that will spark the most debate, I’m sure.
Geno Smith has three game-winning, “last score wins” drives in four opportunities. I’ve mentioned before that this can be a fickle stat, because Zach Wilson has three GWDs and one of them was a 1-play drive in which the Eagles deliberately let Breece Hall score so they could get the ball back. These are not phony game-winning drives where Geno is a bystander but gets the credit.
Against the Detroit Lions, the Seahawks won the overtime coin toss, and Geno was as sharp as could be. Smith was 6/7 for 69 yards and the winning touchdown to Tyler Lockett on 3rd down in the red zone, the two areas where Seattle has struggled badly all season.
Three weeks ago versus the Cleveland Browns, currently the No. 1 defense by DVOA against the run and the pass, the Seahawks defense gave Geno one last shot after a pretty brutal stretch of ineffectiveness from the 2nd quarter onward. Two-minute drill Geno answered the call to the tune of 4/5 for 52 yards and the winning screen pass touchdown to Jaxon Smith-Njigba. We might need to hold this win in higher regard, because it’s Cleveland’s worst performance by Expected Points Added (EPA) on the season.
Then, of course, there’s the much-discussed victory over the Commanders, where Geno undoubtedly had some shaky moments in the 1st half, but a much stronger 2nd half in which he essentially had two game-winning drives. The touchdown pass to Tyler Lockett would’ve been a GWD on its own, but the Seahawks defense essentially made Geno do it all over again.
He answered the call.
Geno Smith on the go-ahead scoring drive: 5/5 for 50 yards and a touchdown— Dugar, Michael-Shawn (@MikeDugar) November 13, 2023
Geno Smith on the game-winning drive: 4/5 for 50 yards
Geno today 31/47 for 369 yards, 2 TDs
His only “failure” on the season is against the Cincinnati Bengals, who repeatedly stymied the offense in the red zone, and shut the door on the final possession of the game.
I’m not particularly interested in moving the goalposts on this topic because last year there was palpable concern over Geno not being capable of leading those “clutch” late-game drives during his 2021 and 2022 seasons. In 2021, Smith had chances to win the game late or in overtime against the Pittsburgh Steelers and New Orleans Saints and didn’t deliver. Last season, he was unable to get a W against the Atlanta Falcons, the Saints again, and the Las Vegas Raiders (after, it should be noted, he led a go-ahead TD drive before the defense unraveled).
This year, Smith has been up to the task a majority of the time. If you want to bemoan Smith being part of the problem against the Commanders and Browns in particular for creating close scores and deficits to climb out of, that’s fair. But don’t pretend that many of Russell Wilson’s 4th quarter heroics weren’t required as a direct result of ineffective offense and critical mistakes. The same applies to plenty of other more accomplished and revered quarterbacks. Otherwise, Geno is in a complete no-win situation where he’s either failing to deliver winning points with the game on the line, or he does deliver them but there’s some sort of “it’s the Commanders” or “he threw two interceptions earlier in the game” qualifier. The Seahawks’ propensity to play nail-biting, one-score outcomes regardless of quality of opposition didn’t start under Geno.
Of course, the schedule gets substantially tougher from here. If Seattle can’t function without play-action or fix their situational football, then the Seahawks risk weekly substantial deficits and it could all unravel. We know where Geno and the offense must improve, but we also must acknowledge where things have gone right, and what’s gone right is part of why Seattle’s in great position to make the playoffs and challenge for the NFC West.