Seattle’s offense managed six points on 10 possessions. Smith threw for 180 yards with an interception, his eighth pick this season compared to 12 touchdowns.
The Seahawks quarterback had played through a triceps contusion he suffered four days earlier in a one-point loss against the Los Angeles Rams, which left a large knot on his right elbow and limited his throwing leading up to the game against the 49ers. He didn’t take part in early warmups.
Nor did Smith take the easy out afterward, saying his arm wasn’t an issue.
“I haven’t seen the film yet, but it wasn’t good enough to get a win,” Smith said when asked to assess his play. “It wasn’t good enough to score any points, so definitely not up to my standard.”
During this second season as the Seahawks’ starter, Smith has been accountable and available. But the production and efficiency haven’t been consistent. By several metrics, Smith is not playing at the same level as he did during his breakout 2022 season in which he made the Pro Bowl and was named NFL Comeback Player of the Year, most evident with a Total QBR that has dropped from 62.8 (seventh) to 50.1 (20th).
Heading into Thursday night’s game against the Dallas Cowboys at AT&T Stadium (8:15 ET, Prime Video), the Seahawks’ offense has scored three touchdowns over the past four weeks, with none in the past seven quarters. Smith tossed two of those touchdowns in a narrow victory over the Washington Commanders, when he threw for a career-high 369 yards and led a winning field goal drive. Washington, ranked 28th on defense at the time, would fire its coordinator 12 days later.
The four-game stretch has been bookended by blowout losses to the Baltimore Ravens and 49ers in which Smith has posted his two lowest QBRs as Seattle’s starter, including his fill-in work in 2021.
With three losses in those four games, the Seahawks have fallen to 6-5 and two games behind San Francisco in the NFC West. They hold the second of the conferences’ two wild-card spots, but their schedule isn’t letting up. The Cowboys (8-3) are nine-point favorites, per ESPN BET. A rematch against the 49ers (8-3) in Santa Clara and a home game against the Philadelphia Eagles (10-1) follow.
For a team that tries to not make any game bigger than another, the urgency was evident this week at Seahawks headquarters — and not just with their struggling offense.
“We need a win,” defensive tackle Jarran Reed said. “We need to put a couple wins together, and we need this one for sure. This is going to be a huge game for us.”
For Smith, his contract raises the stakes.
The three-year, $75 million deal he signed in March ostensibly ties him to Seattle through the 2025 season. But the short length and the absence of any fully guaranteed money beyond 2023 means the Seahawks have a potential out this winter if Smith falters.
“I don’t think there’s a step forward from a season ago,” Brock Huard, a former NFL quarterback who co-hosts a radio show on Seattle 710 AM, told ESPN.
“… The season has not ended. There’s still big football ahead. But 11 games in, I don’t think anybody in that building and even those on the outside would say, yes, this is a significant — or even a — step forward from a year ago.”
THE SEAHAWKS’ PLAYOFF outlook and perception of Smith’s season might look different if the quarterback had pulled off an epic comeback win in Week 11 against the Rams, which he nearly did.
Smith had left the game late in the third quarter following a hit from Aaron Donald. After ditching his ice wrap and wincing through some warmup throws on the sideline, he returned for the final drive.
Down 17-16 with 1:31 left and no timeouts, Smith drove Seattle to the Rams’ 39 after a 21-yard completion to DK Metcalf. While hurrying to the line of scrimmage, Smith never got the playcall from offensive coordinator Shane Waldron, so instead of spiking it with around 28 second left, he called a run-pass option and handed off to Zach Charbonnet in an attempt to keep the Rams on their heels. But the play was poorly blocked and went for a short gain, which meant Seattle couldn’t get Jason Myers any closer than 55 yards out for the winning attempt.
Spike. Wide right. Game over.
Smith said an ill-timed technological glitch with the sideline-to-QB communication system was to blame for not getting the call. Backup Drew Lock, listening on the sideline via the same radio feed in his helmet, didn’t get it either. Carroll and Waldron, though, said Smith couldn’t hear the call amid the commotion of a chaotic moment.
The botched finish and differing explanations fit the larger theme of ambiguity when it comes to Smith’s season. How much of his regression from 2022 is his doing versus a product of a faltering supporting cast?
Consider what’s happened around him.
Injuries and ineffectiveness have forced the offensive line to use eight different starting combinations in 11 games, with 10 different players making at least one start. Right tackle Abraham Lucas, arguably the Seahawks’ best O-lineman as a rookie last season, hasn’t played since the opener but could return Thursday night. Left tackle Charles Cross missed three games, and the other three starters have all missed at least one. Not surprisingly, Seattle ranks 20th in ESPN’s pass block win rate — after finishing eighth last season — and has struggled to consistently move defenders off the ball in the run game.
Seattle’s receiver corps is among the most talented in the NFL, but Tyler Lockett (hamstring) and Metcalf (ribs/hip) have routinely missed practice time because of lingering injuries, which has likely affected the on-field chemistry with their quarterback. Rookies Jaxon Smith-Njigba and Jake Bobo have produced big plays but have also committed some predictable gaffes of inexperience, like Bobo not relaying an audible to Lockett on what turned out to be an interception against Baltimore.
Metcalf ranks 73rd among NFL wide receivers this season in converting only 53.1% of his targets into catches, down from 63.4% last season. He has only two drops, but according to ESPN Analytics’ Receiver Tracking Metrics, Metcalf ranks near the bottom of the league in catching passes he should catch — even though he’s been among the best at getting open.
“Catching the ball when it’s thrown to us and just making him right on some throws,” Metcalf said when asked what Seattle’s receivers can do to help Smith. “Even though he puts it in our vicinity, we still can make the catch. We’re all elite receivers, so just approach it that way.”
On the flip side, Metcalf ran by a defender for what would have been a touchdown and a two-score lead in the third quarter of the Rams game, but Smith overthrew him.
Smith’s touchdown-to-interception rate has declined from 2.7 last year to 1.5 (see chart). His completion rate has dropped nearly 4.5% from his league-best 69.8% last season, though his increase in off-target percentage hasn’t been as significant.
“He was anticipatory and accurate in a way last year that was one of the most pleasant surprises in football, and why he was the Comeback Player of the Year,” Huard said. “I thought those two areas, anticipation and accuracy, were just off the charts for as long as he had not been a starter. And this year both of those are just a step in the wrong direction.”
The Seahawks know what they want to do offensively — run the ball to wear down opponents and set up an explosive passing game. Recommitting to the run was the organization’s plan after they traded quarterback Russell Wilson in 2022, but they rank 24th in designed rush rate this year and since the start of last season. Carroll and Waldron say that’s a product of routinely getting behind schedule on early downs and not converting enough on third down, leaving them with fewer overall plays.
Through 12 weeks, the Seahawks are 21st in yards per carry (4.1), 26th in rushing yards per game (95.8) and 29th in third-down conversions (31.3%). The Seahawks running back Kenneth Walker III has missed most of the past two games with an oblique strain and is doubtful to play against the Cowboys.
“This offense does not pose a threat in the run game,” Huard said. “It’s two, three yards a carry. You’re going to have people doing what they’ve done, and that is just sit and squat on their routes and play two safeties over the top and the box handles the run and then the extra bodies are limiting explosive plays. It’s just altogether a bad combination.”
While Carroll has repeatedly said the Seahawks need to play better around Smith, one area where he wants the quarterback to improve is getting the ball out quicker — Smith ranks 24th in the NFL at an average of 2.91 seconds before pass. That was an issue on some of the six sacks Smith took against the 49ers, and it’s a big emphasis given the Seahawks’ upcoming schedule. The Cowboys rank first in pass rush win rate by a wide margin, and Seattle’s next three opponents (49ers, Eagles and Titans) are also in the top 10.
“The one aspect I think for Geno is that timing and rhythm in the pass game, especially in the known passing situations on third down,” Waldron said. “But for those things to happen for Geno, there’s a lot of things that go into it.”
Carroll is not one to directly criticize his players or coaches, but his comments this week left no doubt that he feels like Waldron’s game plans and playcalls aren’t getting the most out of Seattle’s playmakers on offense.
“We have unique talents, and we’ve got to make sure we’re maximizing that,” Carroll said. “I feel like we’re not. I feel like we’re not seeing stuff. You saw the playmaking of Jaxon again [vs. the 49ers], and he continues to show stuff that separates him from others, and we just need to give him more chances. We’ve got guys in different areas of our game that can do stuff I think better. Our tight ends can be used better than we’ve used them in the last couple of weeks.”
Carroll was referring to the jaw-dropping one-handed catch Smith-Njigba made against San Francisco to convert a third-and-9. The 20th overall pick hasn’t been as much of a factor on third down as expected, but that play showed the kind of difference-maker he can be in moving the chains.
“I trust in our process,” Smith said. “I believe in the players around me, I believe in the coaches, I believe in myself. For us, it just gets back to doing what we do, which is playing good football, playing sound football and knowing that we can execute.”
THE DETAILS OF Smith’s contract had yet to fully emerge when the Seahawks held a news conference last March, a week before the start of free agency, to commemorate the signing. Flanked by Carroll and general manager John Schneider, Smith said he had “no doubt” he’d end up in his current position — a Pro Bowl quarterback with a rich new deal — despite the windy path his 10-year career had taken.
Smith cited that same confidence when asked about betting on himself with a deal that included a reported $30 million in incentives.
“I just believe in my ability,” Smith said. “I believe that with the guys around me, with the coaches that we have … I think the future is very bright for us. So with the contract and the incentives it’s just a way obviously for both parties to make it work. It allows the team room and space to do what they need to do but it also gives me an opportunity to be one of the top-10-paid quarterbacks, which is something that I believe that I am.”
But what were initially reported to be incentives were actually escalators, a key distinction. Whereas incentives are guaranteed, Smith’s escalators are tied to non-guaranteed roster bonuses and thus work much differently. If he’s on the roster on the fifth day of free agency in March, the Seahawks will owe him a $9.6 million bonus that could escalate to as high as $24.6 million based on Smith’s performance in 2023.
Smith isn’t on pace to hit any of the four statistical benchmarks (4,282 passing yards, 30 touchdown passes, 69.755% completion rate, 100.874 passer rating) that each come with $2 million escalators. But he will qualify for a $2 million bump if the Seahawks reach the playoffs or win 10 games (provided he plays 80% of the offensive snaps). That would set Smith up to make $24.5 million in 2024 with a $33.2 million cap number.
But the ice-cold reality of the NFL is unless Smith plays up to his potential and elevates above the issues around him over the final month of the season, the Seahawks could conceivably be wary of paying that kind of money to a 33-year-old quarterback coming off a down year.
Not that they have an obvious alternative or a clear path to one.
Unlike the past two drafts, the Seahawks won’t have a top-10 pick barring a complete collapse in the closing stretch. They don’t have a second-rounder either after giving it up in the Leonard Williams trade, though they do have an extra third.
The widely held presumption inside Seahawks headquarters after the Wilson trade was that Lock would win the starting job in 2022, setting up that season as a trial run to see if he could be the long-term answer. But while Lock has his supporters within the organization and would be a significantly cheaper option, nothing he’s done in two seasons would make anyone certain he’d be a better alternative than Smith.
After losing the quarterback battle to Smith last summer, Lock didn’t play a regular-season snap in 2022. He’s made two brief relief appearances this season, going 4-of-12 for 66 yards and an interception.
Despite the Ravens leading by four scores in the fourth quarter of the Week 9 blowout, by which point Baltimore had pulled Lamar Jackson, Carroll kept Lock on the sideline and Smith in game for the duration of the 37-3 loss — as if to avoid any notion of a benching.
“This is not a one-guy deal,” Carroll said afterward.
Smith has hardly been the only problem for the Seahawks’ offense. But whether or not he can be more of a solution over the closing stretch could go a long way in determining whether he remains their starter beyond 2023.
“We need to help him be effective,” Carroll said. “That’s what this is. That’s by running the football and by catching the football and making our plays and converting on third downs. We have to help him in every way we can.”