NFL prospect Geno Smith eager to rise above unfair criticism

OPINION - All future NFL players have to go through the draft evaluation process. But West Virginia’s Geno Smith may have gone through the harshest evaluation process of all...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

The past two months have been the most stressful and difficult time for many of the country’s top NFL prospects.

Since the combine, every prospect has been under a national microscope. Every combine drill has been scrutinized. Every interview question has been dissected. Every play the prospect ran in college has been studied by NFL scouts in hopes of separating the next great NFL star from the next big NFL bust.

All players have to go through this process. But West Virginia’s Geno Smith may have gone through the harshest evaluation process of all.

And it has nothing to do with his near 70 percent completion percentage, 11,000-plus yards, and nearly 100 touchdowns in college. It has nothing to do with his 4.59 speed, and stellar performance at February’s combine.

It has everything to do with the fact that he’s an African-American playing football’s premier position.

Old school stereotypes persist

Smith, along with other top prospects like Florida State quarterback EJ Manuel, fellow West Virginia star Tavon Austin, controversial LSU cornerback Tyrann Mathieu, and others will be selected in the NFL Draft, beginning tonight.

While all of these players have received their fair share of criticism – Mathieu for his drug history; Austin for his Wonderlic test; Manuel for his ability to read defenses – Smith seems to be receiving the harshest. While some analysts think Smith will be a top-five pick, several others are predicting he’ll fall out of the first round completely.

Pro Football Weekly’s Nolan Nawrocki started the criticism, claiming Smith wasn’t a “student of the game,” “does not command respect from teammates and cannot inspire,” and had “marginal work ethic.” He saves his most scathing comment for his summary, claiming Smith was an:

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. Will be overdrafted and struggle to produce against NFL defensive complexities.” 

This “analysis” came from someone who never spent any real time with Smith. He wasn’t in the locker room with Smith, watching him interact with teammates. He wasn’t in the huddle, listening to Smith lead an offense. He judged Smith merely on what he heard from his “sources,” and not from the coaches and players that have been around Smith for the majority of his career.

NBC Sports: Is there a ‘black tax’ in the NFL?

Earlier this week, Smith fired back at critics on his Twitter feed:

USA Today columnist Jarrett Bell described the phenomenon of black quarterbacks being unfairly judged on things that have nothing to do with playing ability. He calls it the “black tax,” which refers to the stereotypical – and oftentimes completely inaccurate – descriptions levied at black signal callers.

Proving critics wrong

As ridiculous as Nawrocki’s analysis was, you at least can’t call him inconsistent. Two years ago, he said that Cam Newton had “a fake smile” and questioned his drive and motives for wanting to succeed in the NFL. Last year, for all of the acclaim Robert Griffin III (rightfully) received, there were still arguments that Andrew Luck was better since he ran a more complicated offense, and because Griffin wasn’t asked “to do much.”

TheGrio: Warren Moon says criticism of Cam Newton based on stereotypes

It’s been an issue for all black quarterbacks, and doesn’t appear to be going away anytime soon. Warren Moon, a 2006 Hall of Famer, recognizes it and tried to explain:

“It sounds the same as two years ago,” Moon told USA TODAY Sports. “It just shows that there are a lot of people in society who have the biases and stereotypes. And most of it is about your integrity or leadership or work ethic — all of these intangible things.”

There’s no way to judge how Smith will fare. He could become the next Newton, but he could easily become the next JaMarcus Russell. He may lead an offense like Russell Wilson, or have trouble running a traditional offense like Aaron Brooks.

But that’s not the point. The point is we should judge him on what we’ve seen so far. Rather than criticizing him on things that are truly immeasurable unless you spend time with him – like work ethic, attitude, demeanor, and leadership – focus on the facts. White quarterbacks rarely seem to receive this same kind of scrutiny.

Starting tomorrow, Smith will have the ability to disprove faulty reviews from analysts like Nawrocki. He’ll be able to overcome the black tax, by allowing all of his hard work to pay dividends on the field.

Hopefully he will. And hopefully his play, along with players like Newton, Griffin, Wilson and others, will finally force analysts to judge black quarterbacks on the same level as their white counterparts.

Follow Stefen Lovelace on Twitter @StefenLovelace