Football fans in New York and around the country are witnessing one of the more outrageous character assassinations in today's sports culture in America. I am of course referring to the assault on Geno Smith, the second-round draft pick (No. 39 overall) of the New York Jets.
While Smith's draft stock fell from a probable No. 1 overall down to a borderline top 10 before the draft got underway, he took a true plummet on draft day when he fell out of the first round entirely. Then, to top it off, despite being nearly assumed to be the top pick on day two, he continued to drop all the way down to the Jets at No. 39 overall. The craziest part that we are all witnessing has been the piling on by a variety of media outlets to absolutely destroy Smith's public image following the draft.
Let us start with a quick rundown of a few facts.
1. Geno Smith was viewed as the best quarterback in the draft and the possible No. 1 overall pick for much of the offseason.
2. Plenty of analysts thought Smith was going to be drafted early in the first round.
3. Smith has not actually done anything since the draft to warrant this retroactive character assassination.
Why is history being rewritten? Why is it that a guy whose character was lauded for months is suddenly being viewed as a presumed bust before he has even stepped onto an NFL game field?
Is it to retroactively justify the draft fall? Is it because he is in New York? On the Jets?
I honestly cannot answer those questions right now. But I can join the small set of voices out there protecting this guy from character assassination.
Does Anyone Still Like Geno?
Short answer: yes. There are a few media voices out there protecting Smith. Perhaps the most moving defense came from John B of GangGreenNation.com. John B's argument essentially boils down to the following:
Smith is a rookie with a squeaky-clean past. Watch him on the field, and then judge him after that.
To me, that argument basically covers it, but John B goes into great detail about just how irrational this situation is. The first really major thrashing of Smith's character came before the draft from Nolan Nawrocki, a scouting report that drew some interesting responses. Needless to say, the aforementioned thrashing was brought into question, with Glenn Davis of SportsGrid.com referring to it as "some mighty effective trolling."
As John B adds (in the report mentioned above), Nawrocki's negative piece was "stunning because almost every scouting report and word out of West Virginia both on the record and anonymously has portrayed Smith as an extremely hard worker and a good teammate."
Let us examine the evidence lined up against Smith's psychological ability to compete in the NFL. His supposed terrible crimes to date include being sad on draft day, firing his incompetent agents and checking his cell phone during a pro visit. As John B aptly points out, none of these three purported character flaws is much of a flaw or even uncommon at all.
Issue No. 1: Getting Sad on Draft Day
Anyone who watched televised draft coverage of the first round saw that Geno Smith did not enjoy dropping through the entirety of the round. He looked visibly unhappy as one team after another passed him over. As Matt Gagne of SportsIllustrated.com put it, Smith was "sulking" and "scowling."
To me, the most inane part of the new hate-Geno bandwagon is how melodramatic these types of analyses are. As John B put it: "[Smith] thought this was going to be the greatest night of his life. All of his dreams were going to come true...Is it unreasonable for a 22-year-old to be devastated by something like this happening?"
All it takes to understand how this situation must have felt for Smith is some basic human empathy and common sense. After working for most of his life thus far toward a goal, he showed up on national television with everyone (including his professional agents) telling him he was about to achieve that goal. Then he spent two hours on television having that success stripped away.
Do not underestimate the dramatic difference in salary and career stability between a No. 1 pick and a No. 39 pick. According to OverTheCap.com, Smith's draft fall dropped him from an estimated $22 million contract to an estimated $5 million contract. Note that the rookie pay scale is fairly rigid and so nothing Smith does can substantially increase his contract over the next four years. $22 million is pretty obvious set-for-life type money. $5 million is nice, but if you think about that in terms of lifetime income, it is not an enormous amount, especially not by pro athlete standards.
In addition to losing a lottery's worth of money, Smith also lost out on career security. A second-round pick can be abandoned far more easily than a high first-round pick. Could any of this dampen the spirits of an emotionally normal 22-year-old? You bet.
To act like Smith is some sort of depressed, tantrum-prone kid, simply because he felt unhappy watching his dreams being yanked out of his arms, implies some uncanny ability to be unaware of how human emotions work.
When looking at the actual events going on since the draft, it is hard to be at all concerned about Smith's emotional state. According to Kimberley Martin of NewsDay.com, Jets' offensive guard Brian Winters had a favorable first impression of Smith. Said Winters, "Right when [Geno Smith] walked in the door, he was bright and happy. You definitely feel like he has those leadership skills."
Issue No. 2: Firing his Agents
The second post-draft knock on Smith was that he fired his agents. Ignoring for a moment the fact that for a man to hire or fire his own agents is a normal thing and not worthy of much attention, let us pretend we want to be armchair psychologists and judge Smith's future based on this isolated action. Should we really believe that Smith threw a tantrum and fired his perfect and blameless agents simply because he dropped in the draft?
John B suspects otherwise and for good reason. According to John B, Smith's agents had repeatedly disappointed him by failing to counter the Nawrocki report, failing to get him good press and brand him and finally giving him poor advice regarding the Senior Bowl. Perhaps there is some "he said, she said" going on. However, when the best player at the most important position with no blemishes on his record cannot get drafted in the first round, one has to wonder if maybe the agents did not, in fact, do a perfect job.
Ultimately, to close the book on a player who has not yet played in even a preseason game based on such hearsay is sketchy at best, even if we highly value our armchair psychology skills.
Issue No. 3: Checking His Phone
The final knock against Smith is perhaps the silliest, but saw a surprising amount of press attention. As reported by Rich Cimini of ESPNNewYork.com, during some of his interview days, Smith used his cell phone, doing such things as "texting friends and checking Twitter." One anonymous scout (via that report) claimed that Smith comes off as a "spoiled, pampered brat."
To me, these criticisms essentially come off as a generational complaint. For a 22-year-old to bring his cell phone to an interview is standard at this point. And to check Twitter during down time is completely normal. Perhaps some will disagree with that, but I could imagine far worse character flaws than checking Twitter.
The truth that perhaps underlies this story is that Smith is a relatively quiet guy. As Mike Casazza of the Charleston Daily Mail said in an interview with Brian Bassett of TheJetsBlog.com, Smith seems to be "more comfortable playing on his iPad than partying."
My take on this is that partying and fitting into a perceived mold of the superstar is not important for leading a team in the locker room. As John B put it, "You don't need to be outgoing in social settings to be a leader in an NFL locker room. I can name plenty who aren't, including the last two Super Bowl MVPs."
Looking past Smith's quiet nature, Bassett describes him as "exceptionally bright," and just about every report that has ever come out about Smith's attitude in practice has described him as an unusually hard worker.
What It All Means
Ultimately, what can really be said about Smith? Attempting to predict a quarterback's career is hard enough. Trying to predict it based on minor off-the-field personality traits is even harder. John B suggests that the source of the attacks against Smith relate to the uniform he now wears:
We're dealing with the Jets...If [Geno Smith] really has attitude problems, the story writes itself. It fits right into any story about dysfunction and chaos...It's an easy story, and it generates attention for the author. They know that most fans won't pay it close scrutiny because it sounds close enough to the truth as fans know it.
This is a skeptical view being presented, but perhaps not an unreasonable one. If Smith had been drafted at No. 1 overall by the Kansas City Chiefs, I find it inconceivable that any of these character assassinations would have been written. Given the current situation in New York following a down season in 2012 and all of the noise caused by the Tim Tebow controversy, it is true that it is "easy" to assume the worst, even when it comes to a 22-year-old rookie who has yet to wear the uniform in a game.
In the end, is there any causal relation between Tim Tebow's career and Geno Smith's? No, not in the slightest. Smith is his own man, and he will determine his own future. By taking initiative, taking responsibility and impressing his teammates, there is little left wanting in his initial approach to the offseason.
According to Brian Costello of NYPost.com, Smith was "impressive" and passed with "zip." According to Costello, the Jets' staff like what they are seeing and "want Smith to win [the QB competition]." Quarterback expert Ron Jaworski also defended Smith (also via Brian Costello), describing Smith as "tremendous," "clinical" and "surgical."
Is it too early to judge Geno Smith?
Does this mean that Smith is the next Peyton Manning and a guaranteed Pro Bowler? No, far from it. Nonetheless, it is safe to say that judging his career before it gets started based on minutia like checking Twitter is not reasonable. For all we know, he could end up being a star in this league for the next 15 years, so proclaiming his career over before it even gets under way is a solid way to potentially spend the next 15 years being supremely embarrassed.
My advise to NFL fans? Take a breath, relax, hold your judgement and let's all see what Geno Smith can do on the football field.