BUFFALO, N.Y. — He doesn't surf through the mass of humanity to greet anyone, nor is anyone waiting to greet him. There's no jersey exchange. No reminiscing. He's mired in postgame purgatory these days. Darting his eyes around New Era Field one final time, he decides that, nah, he's good and heads through the tunnel.
Geno Smith is the backup quarterback.
Ryan Fitzpatrick is the starter. And the starter—that bearded wonder making a cool $12 million—is the main attraction after this game, a 37-31 win over the Bills in Week 2. As Fitzpatrick explains his FitzMagic at a press conference moments after the game, Smith stands here in sudden, surreal obscurity.
One punch KO'ed him into irrelevance.
Inside a crammed visitor's locker room, the 25-year-old knows where this conversation is headed.
"Eventually everybody will see," Smith begins. "Eventually everybody will see.
"You've got to roll with the punches."
Yes, one could say that.
It's one thing to lose your job based strictly on performance. Or an ankle injury. Or an arrest. In the summer of 2015, Smith lost his when a backup linebacker named IK Enemkpali cold-cocked him in the jaw. He was set to be the starter in Year 3, but instead he needed surgery, Fitzpatrick stepped in and the rest is history.
The career journeyman enjoyed a career renaissance, with 3,905 yards and 31 touchdowns. Smith's last start was Dec. 28, 2014.
Then this past offseason, Fitz and the Jets engaged in a seven-month staring contest, Smith preparing as the No. 1 all along through OTA's and minicamp. But, voila, Fitzpatrick re-signed on July 27.
That punch heard 'round the sports world is still rocking Smith's world.
But Geno Smith is here to tell you, emphatically, he's better for it.
Is he optimistic? Grateful? A Fitz ally? Yes, yes and absolutely yes. Smith speaks with Stuart Smalley tenderness. But he was also "pissed off" when the Jets re-signed Fitzpatrick and assures, "I'm still pissed off." When he runs sprints, lifts weights, studies film, he thinks about the Jets' decision.
Asked point blank if he should be the starter of this team, Smith is shy, then not so shy.
"I'm not going to go there right now," he says. "I believe in myself. I was the starting quarterback at one point. I don't see why I can't be."
Yet here he is. Waiting.
He won't relive The Punch, but the story that surfaced originally was that Smith owed Enemkpali $600 in travel costs after missing the linebacker's football camp due to the death of a brother's best friend. Three months later, Smith told Newsday he never owed Enemkpali a dime.
Either way, he was sucker-punched and refuses to lament what could've been.
"You could walk outside and get hit by a car," Smith says. "You never know what could happen with life. Life throws obstacles at you, and you just have to take them—and it really shows your character, what type of man you are. Are you going to lay down and cry? Or are you going to stand back up and keep fighting?"
Smith has been fighting, his way, ever since. After trying to learn several different types of offenses under Marty Mornhinweg—the coordinator in all-out experimentation with the 2013 39th overall pick—Smith found comfort in Chan Gailey's scheme. He fine-tuned mechanics with his personal quarterback coach, Tom House.
At West Virginia, Smith was an arcade-like juggernaut in completing 71.2 percent of his passes for 4,205 yards, 42 touchdowns and only six interceptions as a senior. Today, he admits the Mountaineers offense did not translate to the NFL. He needed to the learn why and how behind plays.
So forget those 35 interceptions to 27 touchdowns his first three pro seasons. Forget the 72.3 passer rating.
Smith is beaming. He says "the sky's the limit" for his potential, describing himself as a pocket passer who can now decode coverages. When he rewatches those picks, he cringes at a green-as-grass quarterback "doing a lot of things blind."
"Now, I know where the guys are going to be," Smith says. "It's not like I'm dropping back and trying to figure out where they're going to be. I know where they're going to be and I can just react."
Just ask House, he adds. And House agrees.
One of the most influential men in football you've never heard of, the former MLB pitcher has worked with the best quarterbacks in the game at 3DQB in Southern California, from Carson Palmer and Andy Dalton to a quartet of Super Bowl champs in Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Eli Manning and Joe Flacco. For two-and-a-half years, he has also worked with Smith. And he says the post-punch Smith is "night and day" different than the pre-punch version.
Not nearly as committed at first, "goofy" even, House soon saw the skills a franchise quarterback must possess.
These last two summers, something clicked.
"You don't want the kids to be passive," House says. "You want them to be angry or frustrated that they're going to be a backup. But you can't let that emotion get in the way of your job. And your job is to prepare yourself. You have to make sure that your process gives you the best chance for a positive outcome.
"He's so much better across the board in all those things. Whenever his opportunity comes, he's going to be just fine."
It still blows Smith's mind that Michael Vick was once his backup. He repeats that nobody is bigger than the game and that he must accept life as a backup right now. Safety Calvin Pryor, one of Smith's closest friends on the team, insists such rhetoric is real.
Smith, while "pissed off," didn't sulk.
"It was hard, it was hard," Pryor says. "You're going to go through some things. It's how you bounce back from it. I think he has handled it well. At times, he can get frustrated. But as a brother, you let him know 'God has a plan for you. It's going to work out whether it's here or another place.'
"It happened and all of a sudden—boom!—things took a left turn."
Teammates were truly starting to believe in Smith before the punch, Pryor says, and then again this past summer. Still, he has no clue who Smith is as a quarterback now. Nor does Pryor have a clue where Smith's career goes from here. He only insists this is a quarterback who's "locked in."
Adds receiver Quincy Enunwa, "I think anybody would be frustrated. But I think the way he showed it is great. He comes in and he's still that positive guy."
Every time Smith starts daydreaming about starting again, about the fate of a franchise resting on his shoulders, he instantly retreats to the reality that he must stay patient.
He thinks back to his childhood. To the story of his birth, when the umbilical cord was wrapped around his neck and he couldn't breathe. To the fact that his dad was behind bars when he was a kid, only recently turning his life around. And to the woman who raised him most, his grandmother Mosetta Bratton. She was stern. Tough. She refused to let Smith feel like a victim.
Bratton died in August 2012, at the age of 61, and her lessons stuck.
"Never pitying yourself," Smith says. "I'm never that guy. I live a wonderful life. I'm in the NFL. Think about it. We're in the NFL. Not many people get this opportunity, so I'm not going to take it for granted.
"You can't look at things for what they are right now because life goes on. Five or 10 years from now, I could be a Super Bowl-winning quarterback and no one will remember this. Maybe they'll say this is what elevated me. But I have to use this time right here as a benefit."
Which all explains Smith's actions those raw hours after Enemkpali slugged him.
He could've pressed charges, could've sent Enemkpali to jail.
Instead, the two actually talked it out. Enemkpali apologized, and Smith accepted that apology. Smith wanted to become a story of inspiration, not bristling vindication. He refused to be a victim.
"I think he did something in the moment he didn't really want to do," Smith says. "People don't know me and him had a really good relationship. I wouldn't have been invited to the camp if not. I want to use that situation as my story to tell the little kids back home that this happened to me and I didn't let it stop me.
"That situation is not going to define me. It never has and never will. I'm too good of a player to let something like that stop me from playing in this league."
Of course, his own employer is skeptical. Not only have the Jets turned to Fitz twice, they've drafted quarterbacks in the fourth round (Bryce Petty) and second round (Christian Hackenberg) since taking Smith. Every personnel decision made by a changing front office suggests the Jets don't believe in Smith.
Smith cites his 4.5 in the 40-yard dash, his accuracy and his last 10 starts. He'll be a free agent next spring and—looking around the NFL—Smith has no doubt he'll start again. The way the 6'3", 218-pounder sees it, only half of the teams in the NFL have franchise quarterbacks. That leaves 16 options.
"It's going to come," he says. "I'm way too talented."
Says House, "He got delayed, not denied. When he gets his opportunity, he'll run with it."
In the meantime, the Jets will ride the right arm of Fitzpatrick as long as it lasts. Against Buffalo, his rapport with Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker was downright poetry in motion. He sliced 'n' diced the secondary on back-shoulder throws, threaded of a needle over the middle, you name it.
And then this past week, he was absolutely dreadful, with six interceptions in a 24-3 loss at Kansas City. One telegraphed wounded duck after another, Fitzpatrick earned Pro Football Focus' worst grade ever for a quarterback.
The 100-plus career starts made him the easy choice into this 2016 season, but how long does Fitzpatrick remain that choice for Todd Bowles? Smith must be on the Jets head coach's mind. The quarterback's road back must be on his mind.
Smith doesn't knock Fitz after his near-perfect Bills game. He calls him "a great leader," a veteran who understands the game.
"But I've been a starter," Smith says. "I've been playing. I hate to continue to throw that around. It's not like I'm throwing my weight around. But I just believe that I can do a lot of things in this league. I've done it."
Five minutes later, Fitzpatrick appears.
The two chat and Smith packs up his things. He leaves the locker room without a sprain, a bruise, a scratch. Only a surgically repaired jaw that assures you one thing this night.
Geno Smith is a backup now, but he might not be a backup for long.
Tyler Dunne covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter at @TyDunne.