Before anyone could doubt him again, or project him a one-hit wonder, Geno Smith knew where he was headed. His Seahawks had just been routed out of the playoffs 41–17 by the 49ers, and that shiner of a loss would give Smith direction off that soggy Santa Clara grass.

He was going back to Seattle, and not just to clean out his locker.

While his teammates, like the members of any other eliminated team would, scattered across the country to start their offseasons, Smith saddled up in the Pacific Northwest with Seahawks assistant strength coach Danny van Dijk. The quarterback jokes now that van Dijk was probably pretty pissed with him, because chances are the coach wanted to go home, too. But there was real purpose to what Smith hoped to accomplish over the last two weeks of January.

“Obviously, there was a contract situation coming up, but I just wanted to stay connected to the guys and see it through,” Smith said, during a quiet, postpractice moment Thursday. “I wanted to keep playing until we got to the Super Bowl. I just told myself, If I was gonna make it to the Super Bowl, I’d still be training all the way up to the last day. I didn’t see why this [should be] different. I just took that approach—just continue to train as if I did have a game and just see things into the future for myself.

“Like, if next year, this happens, then I’ll still be working at this time. So why not do it now?”

Smith is preparing for his Seahawks to be playing even later in the year this coming season.

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Ambitious? Maybe.

But it’s also another affirmation of a truth that’s been evident to every person who’s been around Smith the past couple of years. He always saw what happened last year coming, even when it seemed like no one else could imagine him getting another shot to start, and even 12 months ago, when most saw him as the safety net in case Drew Lock didn’t turn a corner over the summer. So for those who know Smith, it makes sense that he’d dive right in on work to make the next step in his career renaissance come to life.

In January, that meant strengthening his core and improving his cardiovascular fitness. In February, it meant going to Florida to work with his throwing coach on the finite details of his game. In March, it meant traveling the country to get one-on-one time working with a variety of his receivers. Since then, it’s meant building toward training camp, and the season, with his teammates back in the Pacific Northwest.

You can go ahead and look at the breadth of Smith’s career, or the structure of his new contract, and doubt the Seahawks starter if you want. He’ll point back to what you were saying about him last year and let you in on another truth of his—because of all he’s doing now, he thinks the best, for both him and Seattle, is yet to come.

It’s minicamp season in the NFL, with seven teams kicking off their mandatory three-day sessions either Monday or Tuesday, which is the final big step taken before pro football takes its summer break. Ahead of it, on the website today we’ve got …

• A look at why the Ed Oliver deal makes sense for the Bills.

• Why one contending team thinks less is more in the spring.

• Our umpteenth look at the market for DeAndre Hopkins.

And a whole lot more. But we’re starting with Smith and the Seahawks, and what’s next in Seattle.

As impressive as the volume of Smith’s work is (and it’s not just this year, but consistent with the way he’s been working) is how intentional all of it’s been.

Coming off a 4,282-yard and 30-touchdown playoff campaign, and the Comeback Player of the Year award, in his first season as a starter in eight years, Smith is, for sure, putting the hours in. But that’s just the baseline. Built into all that time is the how and why of the work, which came into play from the jump in January—with his reasoning for enlisting van Dijk to stick around for an extra couple of weeks after the season, a time when, normally, only players rehabbing from injuries are in town.

“It was me and like two other guys here training,” Smith says. “I was just working on my cardio, so I was doing a lot of running on the treadmill, running sprints, running gassers, and then lifting—staying strong, staying fit. I really wanted to increase the strength in my core, the strength in my legs. I’m really happy with the progress. So overall I felt like those two weeks really helped me.

“A lot of guys wanna take that time off. But it’s a long season, and you take two weeks off and you kind of lose everything you gained, in my opinion, through the season.”

Those two weeks also put Smith in the film room for intensive self-scouting that would set the stage for the next phase of his offseason. And yes, there was plenty to like in what he saw on tape. But there was enough to pick at, too.

Specifically, as he buzzed through it, Smith found a top-10 offense that was efficient and explosive and near the top of the league in long touchdowns, but seemed to get bogged down in the red zone and on third down. The drop-off was magnified inside the 10-yard line, and while those were team issues, to be sure, Smith looked for where he could find personal growth within those moments of struggle.

“Those are the things that I wanted to have a plan with. O.K., why didn’t it happen the way that it should have, or the way that we envisioned?” Smith says. “And what can I do to improve on that in the offseason so that when I come back those things are corrected?”

Smith, with the help of coaches both internal and external, determined that he could improve on pocket movement to make himself better when things got muddy, when things got condensed near the goal line or when the defense could dial up different pressure on third-and-long. “Third down and red zone, things typically happen off-schedule, if you want to be great,” he says. “So I’d work on more off-schedule stuff, off-schedule throws, more stuff on the run, on the move, trying to create different arm angles, different points of view.”

And he’d do it with his throwing coach, Quincy Avery, right after leaving Seattle for South Florida, where his quarterback-specific training got underway during Super Bowl week.

Avery pointed to a 2022 clip that ESPN’s Mina Kimes tweeted last week as an example of what they’d worked on—mostly because the play mapped out almost exactly like a drill the two worked on over and over again in February—Smith made Leonard Floyd miss with a subtle movement, then moved hard downhill to find DK Metcalf downfield.

“So much of the work we did was just being able to create space, and still be a great thrower in terms of where our base and balance is, staying loaded, and maintaining that ability to throw accurate passes after sudden movement in the pocket,” Avery says.

Smith and Avery also drilled in on making sure that, even in those scrambling situations, the quarterback was rotating as he threw the ball, instead of being what Avery calls a “linear thrower,” in attacking his targets. That way, as Avery explains it, Smith should be able to stay reasonably accurate in spots where he can’t set his feet as easily or point his front foot at a target, which happens plenty when a quarterback is playing off-schedule.

And as was the case in January, Smith wasn’t going to afford himself much downtime through that phase of his training.

There was this one day, Avery recalls, when he went to meet Smith at his physical therapy gym, with plans for Smith to throw afterward. Smith had just gotten done with two hours of lifting and running, and was on the table getting adjusted by the therapists when Avery showed up with a problem—there was no receiver for Smith to throw to that day. Avery figured, with Smith still a little fatigued from his workout, the dogs might be called off.

Avery figured wrong.

“So it was just him and I in the hot Florida sun, and he goes out there he throws for an hour and 45 minutes,” Avery says. “Let’s say he’s throwing a 20-yard dig to me—he’ll run 40 yards to make the same 20-yard dig throw coming back. Like doing that for an hour and 45 minutes, there’s not a lot of guys that are willing to do that many things in order to get better. Some guys would just be like, Hey, Q, no receivers today. Let’s just push it back a couple hours till guys get down here. He didn’t want to miss an opportunity to get any rep that he could.”

And it was noticeable when the quarterback got back to Seattle in April.

“The most impressive thing, he showed up for our offseason program in what I felt like was midseason form,” Seahawks OC Shane Waldron said Saturday. “His arm was ready to go, and just physically, he was in great shape. He was ready to take on the offseason program, and not in a build-up-to-it kind of mode. He was ready to go right from the start. The one thing I’ve seen Geno continually do the last few years is really be committed the older he gets, outside of just throwing the ball, to the physical preparation and conditioning.”

There was one unintended consequence to all that. When the Seahawks got to the point of the offseason where field work was incorporated, Waldron and the offensive coaches had to monitor the workload and pacing of the receivers, being careful not to overload them with Smith having shown up so ready to go.

But in a couple of ways, the quarterback helped to backstop them on that—first with what he did in March with his receivers. Lots of quarterbacks will invite their skill guys to their homes to stage passing games before offseason programs get kicked off, and there’s obvious merit to the idea of it. Smith thought about doing that, too, before instead deciding to travel to see his receivers individually.

Smith already had the respect of his teammates from his time backing up Russell Wilson, but he is taking on a bigger leadership role as the entrenched starter.

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He went to Los Angeles to meet with Metcalf, plus made a trip to Dallas to see Tyler Lockett, Dee Eskridge and Dareke Young. And while Smith now plays down the effort he made off, (“I like to travel, anyway,” he says) there’s real work they got done.

“With each guy, there were definitely different things we looked at and collectively we looked at during the season and after the season, and said, These are the areas we can improve,” Smith says. “One of the main things for us is yards after catch—we want to increase our YAC—so really just working on timing, talking through coverages, allowing those guys to understand what we’re thinking as quarterbacks, what our timing is, when they should get into what window on a given play.

“Just getting those guys more up to speed and teaching them a little more about the game, which they’re already great at, is big. And just connecting a little bit more.”

The second element in getting those guys ready to keep pace with him was simpler and far more subtle: through the example that he set in all that he did to be ready for May and June.

“His weight-room work ethic has been second to none,” Waldron says. “And so then I think when he shows up in that type of shape, and you start doing the workouts in the Phase I period, and the guys around him see the type of shape he’s in, I think great leaders who are hard workers, guys want to follow those guys.”

The overarching byproduct has been an intense, competitive program in Seattle, in what’s a crucial offseason for the franchise—to build off last year’s bounce back, to position last year’s home-run rookie class for a big step forward and to set up this year’s group of 10 draft picks to match the 2022 group’s production.

For his part, Smith had heard the stories of Pete Carroll’s first group of Seahawks, the ones that won a Super Bowl and went to another, and how their practices were often as edgy as the games, with players fighting for roster spots and playing time in a cauldron of young talent. And Smith’s hope is all the work he’s done can help to recreate some of that magic more than a decade later, with Carroll just a little grayer.

Early signs on that are good.

“Just the way we’re competing on the field, it’s OTAs and guys are acting like we got a game on Sunday,” Smith says. “It’s really becoming who we are. So I’m very pleased with that. I don’t like to jinx stuff, so I want to see it on Sundays, but I’m very happy with the way these guys are working. … It’s in the meeting rooms, it’s in the cafeteria, it’s in the weight room, it’s on the field, it’s in the classroom, it’s straight competition.

“It’s all love, but it’s like, Shoot, man, the defense is trying to destroy us in OTAs, and we’re trying to do the same thing, and it’s months away from training camp and the season.”

Smith did wind up getting a contract done—“I was very confident, the thing about Coach and John [Schneider], they were open and honest with me, there was open dialogue”—one that, even if the deal doesn’t guarantee much past this year, it does signal to the team that he’s the guy. And yet, this is another thing that Smith himself sees as, well, something that hasn’t made much of a difference in where he’s at day-to-day inside the building.

The reason, others say, is that Smith’s approach, and the respect he’s gotten as a result of it, hasn’t changed much. When he was Russell Wilson’s backup, in fact, he knew the offense so well that he became a resource to both Wilson and the skill guys, because they all knew he could help them. Last year, as he battled Lock for the starting job, he never made assumptions or overstepped his bounds.

And Smith understands this role like he did the other roles, so while things like the trips to go see the receivers are new, they’re consistent with how he’s always handled things—by doing the job he has, whatever that is, as well as he can.

“I wish I could say it was different,” Smith says with a laugh. “But even when Russ was here, it was the same. I wish I could say it wasn’t, but it was always the same thing. Even DK and the other guys, when they were rookies, a lot of the guys that went and got paid on other teams, they’ll tell you that I helped them develop a regimen, a routine that works. I worked with Antonio Brown, a Hall of Fame receiver, for 10 years-plus in the offseason. We know how to work. And I think that’s what we pride ourselves on—we work hard.

“So I was leading these guys when I was the backup. Leadership doesn’t have a title. You’re either a leader or you’re not. Leadership, to me, it’s something I’ve been about my whole life. I just continued to do the same things, I haven’t changed anything. I’m working the same way, got the same process, same lifting schedule, and I’m gonna lead these guys the same way. And obviously there is a difference. I’m not naive. Guys will look at it different. But I think if they see you being the same guy all the time, they respect it a lot more.”

But there are differences now—and good ones.

For one, this is the first time in the quarterback’s 11-year career that he’s been in the same offensive system for three straight seasons. Waldron says that alone should help, as should the fact that, since Smith is now entrenched as starter with a contract to match, the coach can better tailor that offense to what he specifically does well.

Second, the other front-line players have gotten their work in (both off the Seahawks campus and on it) primarily with Smith, which is a luxury not afforded to a backup or a quarterback lodged in a competition. That’s also meant getting early, purposeful work in with Jaxon Smith-Njigba, Seattle’s first-round pick and a receiver Smith studied ahead of the draft, talking to coaches about in casual conversation.

So, on paper, if you put the work Smith’s always done together with the little edges he could now take since he’s the starter, you can see where his own vision for 2023 is coming from, even if people can’t see it, the same way they didn’t see ’22 coming.

“He’s a top-five quarterback, for sure,” Avery says. “There’s no doubt, if Geno was 24, people would look at it completely differently, as far as his value. But the unique part is, his game is not predicated on being super fast, or this or that. Geno is gonna be able to play football for a long time, and if he keeps playing at the level he’s at, people will really appreciate his career. … He just finally got the opportunity to prove it.”

For Waldron, that part goes back to Smith’s third start as a Seahawk, against the Jaguars in 2021, and how he built on it.

“I thought that was that example of the guy starting to get more and more opportunities, and you start to see what his true ability is,” the coordinator says. “And then last year he gets a full season to start. Based on [his history], the more chances he gets, he’s still a guy that’s on the rise, he’s not at the peak of where he thinks he can be or we think he can be. The more chances, the more opportunities, I think he’s gonna continue to get better.”

As a result, the Seahawks should, too.

Now Smith will tell you that the opportunity ahead, even with all this optimism, doesn’t give him any more urgency than he already had. Again, his goal has been to be consistent in doing all he can every year, regardless of his personal situation. But it does get him fired up, just to think about how far Seattle could take things over the next eight months.

“I’m super excited,” he says. “I can’t wait for training camp. I don’t want to skip past that. That’s first. We’ll get to the season when it comes, but it starts with the way that we work. We’re already setting the tone for what it’s going to be right now, with the way we’re working right now. I can’t wait for us to put the pads on and really start to build our team, because, man, we got so much freaking talent and so many guys that want to be great, and so much leadership, and so much love inside this locker room.

“I mean, I think the sky’s the limit.”

And maybe you don’t agree with Smith on that. But you probably didn’t last year, either.