By Bob Hertzel
Times West Virginian
It was supposed to be the happiest night of Geno Smith’s life, and not because it was his mother’s birthday, although that added to the festive spirit he was feeling as he arrived on the red carpet at Radio City Music Hall for the NFL draft.
He was supposed to be the first quarterback selected in the draft, maybe as high as No. 4 by the Eagles or No. 6 by the Browns or No. 8 by the Bills, but as the night wore on the spotlight switched to teammate Tavon Austin, who became the first skill player selected as St. Louis traded to select him with that No. 8 pick that might have been Smith’s.
He was nowhere, and as the hours passed the TV cameras and commentators focusing on him, his smile changing to a look of concern and then, more than midway through the first round, he sat there with his head bowed, unsure if his name would be called at all on April 25.
The question was whether this was a result of his late-season slump that saw a 5-0 start turn into a 7-6 season, his fundamentals coming apart toward the end so much so that he had to prove himself all over again to NFL scouts in The Combine and tryouts.
On the surface, he seemed to do fine in those workouts, yet he became the center of controversy, especially when one Nolan Nawrocki of Pro Football Weekly filled an analysis of him with so much venom that it well may have poisoned some of the minds that were analyzing him.
Just hours before the draft, radio talk show host Dan Patrick saw fit to bring WVU Coach Dana Holgorsen on to his show to talk about the tripe Nawrocki had written.
“Smith is a gimmick, overhyped product of the system lacking the football savvy, work habits and focus to cement a starting job and could drain energy from a QB room,” Nawrocki had written.
Holgorsen, of course, had denied the truth of Nawrocki’s charges, which went far deeper than just the sentence reproduced here, but Patrick pushed one point.
Either Nawrocki had gotten the information upon which he based his analysis from someone within the WVU program or he had flat out lied. He asked Holgorsen which one it was.
“He’s not talking to me, I guarantee you that,” Holgorsen said. “It’s unfair. None of it is true. You can talk about each and every one of his statements and I guarantee you nothing could be farther from the truth.”
In fact, Holgorsen sees Smith in the exact opposite light and believes that rather than not having enough intelligence to quarterback in the NFL, intelligence is one of his greatest assets, not a fault.
“Geno is a student of the game. He’s a tremendous leader. Probably understands defenses better than I do, just by studying it and by looking at it,” he said. “You know it’s hard to be under center. It’s hard to look at the defense and, regardless of what offense you run, have answers for it.
“He can see what all 11 are doing at the same time and get us in the right play. He probably called half of our plays on the own. I give him the freedom to do that.”
So what happened here that Smith would suddenly find himself having to defend himself coming out of a season in which he threw 42 touchdown passes to six interceptions and out of a career where he broke every passing record the school has short of most interceptions?
What happened that his stock slipped from a sure-fire first-round pick, perhaps as high as No. 4, he falls off the radar. How much did the Nawrocki article affect his status? How much did it draw attention to whatever negatives, even as others defended him?
We tend to say that it’s just part of today’s Internet world, where no one is responsible for anything they say, where the truth matters not as long as you can get yourself recognized ... but that really isn’t it because this kind of thing has happened before.
Go back to another era, another quarterback, to a quarterback who was drafted No. 1 in the entire draft even though it was being spread around that he didn’t have the mental aptitude to handle being an NFL quarterback.
This wasn’t “the black tax,” as Nawrocki’s criticism of Smith, Robert Griffin III and Cam Newton over the past three years was dubbed in USA Today, for this quarterback from long ago was white.
Yet there it was during his first few years, being called “dumb” and “The Bayou Bumpkin” because he spoke with a southern accent and because Louisiana Tech, the school that gave Terry Bradshaw to the NFL, is not exactly Harvard.
Bradshaw was smart enough, even though taken by a team that was 1-13 the year before he arrived, to win four Super Bowls, and those who want to say anyone could with the cast of characters both on offense and defense he had around him can say it, but in the NFL of that era, as in this era, it was a quarterback first league.
Can Smith be a winning quarterback in the NFL?
Holgorsen believes he can.
Now whose word are you going to take, Holgorsen’s or Nawrocki’s?
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.