Joe Montana thought he knew everything. He had won a national championship at Notre Dame in 1977, throttling the No. 1-ranked Texas Longhorns 38-10 in the Cotton Bowl. He had won huge games during his career, including as a senior when the Fighting Irish beat No. 9 Houston to win another Cotton Bowl crown.
Montana was the man, or so he thought.
When he got to San Francisco as a third-round draft pick in 1979, he quickly learned that he knew nothing about how to play professional football.
"Who prepares for practice?" Montana said the other day.
Quarterbacks in the National Football League prepare for practice, at least the ones who want to be great. That was one of the myriad lessons 49ers coach Bill Walsh taught Montana, who to his credit quickly learned what he didn't know and what he needed to know.
"That made such a difference in my career," Montana said.
And that's where Geno Smith must get to if he has any hope of being special, of being a starter, of having a career in the NFL. Smith has all the talent in the world. It's why the New York Jets selected him last week in the second round of the draft. But talent only gets a player into the league. It doesn't keep him there. In the NFL, nothing is given.
Smith has the résumé. He threw 98 touchdown passes and just 21 interceptions in his career at West Virginia. In three years as the starter, he led the Mountaineers to 26 wins. He helped clobber Clemson 70-33 in the Orange Bowl as a junior. As a senior, Smith completed 71.2 percent of his passes and threw just six interceptions in 518 pass attempts.
He has the physical tools for the next level. What he must do is prove he is prepared from the neck up. Already, there is reason to doubt his mental toughness.
Smith thought he was going to be a first-round pick last week and was at Radio City Music Hall for the first night of the draft. He never heard his name called. After the first round, Smith told ESPN he wasn't going to return the next day for the second round. Although Smith reconsidered, his initial decision showed a level of immaturity in the way he handled a significant disappointment that likely won't be his last.
Earlier this week, Smith fired his agents, Select Sports Group's Jeff Nalley and Eric Burkhardt. While Smith told Sirius XM NFL Radio that the firing wasn't because he slipped into the second round, he would not give a reason for his decision.
On Wednesday, Yahoo! Sports reported that in pre-draft meetings with some teams, Smith was more preoccupied with texting friends and checking Twitter than interacting with coaches and front-office executives. If true, that is a damning indication of where he was mentally as he headed into the biggest moment of his young career. Those meetings were job interviews. They were auditions. To not take every opportunity to impress potential employers is incredibly shortsighted, as was wasting any opportunity to learn something from others who have experience in the NFL.
Smith now finds himself in arguably the most volatile situation in the NFL in the country's largest media market. He is one of five quarterbacks on the Jets' roster who will compete for the job Mark Sanchez has held for the past four seasons. There apparently isn't a front-runner. Smith's new coach, Rex Ryan, is a lame duck walking. The roster has significant holes. And leadership inside the locker room is lacking.
Every mistake Smith makes will be under intense scrutiny, as will how he reacts to the mistakes and the criticism for them. He can't pout or be hypersensitive. He can't sulk. He must be steady and composed and patient. He must tune out the noise.
And Smith must understand that he doesn't know anything about playing in the NFL yet and embrace the opportunity to learn and grow. He must dedicate himself, as Montana did 34 years ago, to learning his craft. Smith must understand that Jets offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg knows something about teaching quarterbacks, having coached Brett Favre, Steve Young, Jeff Garcia, Donovan McNabb and Michael Vick.
Those quarterbacks were special. And they worked.
Smith must be the first one to the Jets' practice facility every day. He must watch film until his eyes grow so weary they close. He must learn how to prepare for practice and then take advantage of every snap he gets. Smith must focus on the fundamentals, on the basics, on his footwork and his throwing motion. He must take care of his body. He must get good sleep. He must eat healthy foods. And Smith must be mentally engaged and receptive to teaching, because that's what coaches do.
They teach. Not all players are willing to learn.
"I wasn't even close to being prepared when I got there," Montana said.
Montana learned and became the greatest quarterback of all time. He did it the right way.
If Montana didn't know anything when he got to the NFL, Smith certainly doesn't, either. He'd better decide he wants to learn and is willing to work, or the stellar career he thinks he's about to have won't ever get off the ground.