To even be able to play football, Alex Smith wears a customized brace that keeps his surgically repaired leg stable. It’s a physical reminder of how much the Washington quarterback has had to endure in the wake of the life-threatening injury he suffered on the field two years ago.
But Smith, in his first start Sunday since the November 2018 injury, said he wasn’t thinking about his journey, the hospital stints or his leg.
Instead, Smith was focused on the moment. He was calm in the pocket as he faced plenty of pressure early. He was honed in as he engineered drives that erased a three-score deficit. And he was deflated after Matt Prater’s buzzer-beating, 59-yard kick gave the Detroit Lions a 30-27 victory over Washington that spoiled his extraordinary comeback bid.
Smith experienced the highs and lows of a football game — emotions that, to Smith, overshadowed the fact that it had been 728 days since he had last started.
“The scary part is how normal it felt,” Smith said. “It felt really good, really normal. I’ve got to pinch myself how lucky I am to feel that way.”
Despite the loss, Washington (2-7) gained something with Smith under center on Sunday. Teammates watched in the huddle and on the sidelines as Smith kept them on the task at hand. They heard his words of encouragement after plays. And thanks to Smith’s execution, they made plays themselves.
Against the Lions, Smith, who made a relief appearance for an injured Kyle Allen last week, threw for more than 300 yards in back-to-back games for the first time in his 16-year NFL career. He finished with a career-high 390 yards and a career-high 38 completions on 55 attempts. In the second half, he led Washington to four straight scores — tying the game, twice.
For coach Ron Rivera, Smith’s productivity does Washington a favor. Beyond keeping the team in games, the effective play at the key position allows the coaching staff to better evaluate players.
It’s crucial for a team mired in a rebuilding year.
“It’s a heck of a story, but to be honest with you, the thing I’m really pleased with is the way he’s played,” Rivera said. “When you get that kind of play from a quarterback, it shows the development of the other guys around him. … When good things are happening like that, you’re developing players.”
Rivera hopes his players can learn from Smith, whose rocky NFL journey extends far beyond his leg rehab. The quarterback has dealt with adversity at nearly every turn, from being benched early on to being traded after a career year in 2017.
On Sunday, Washington’s loss was particularly deflating for a young team that has talked openly about winning the embarrassing NFC East. Rookie defensive end Chase Young, especially, will have to handle the criticism that comes with the game-changing penalty that he committed in the final moments.
With 12 seconds left, tied at 27, Young ran into Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford after the signal-caller had tossed the ball — a roughing-the-passer penalty that’s called practically every time. The error was costly: Detroit advanced the ball to the 50-yard line, and Stafford hit wideout Marvin Jones for a nine-yard gain.
The completion put Prater, who holds the record for the NFL’s longest kick, in field goal range.
“Rookie mistake,” Young said. “It happens.”
Teammates had Young’s back. Defensive lineman Jonathan Allen pointed to other areas — notably Washington’s slow start — that was just as damaging in the long run. Washington went into the half trailing 17-3 in part because of botched plays on both sides of the ball. The defense gave up 55 and 27-yard touchdowns, while the offense had possession for more than 20 minutes and still only managed a field goal.
Washington has still yet to score on its opening drive this season. On Sunday, the execution was notably bad once it reached red zone. A reverse on second down was immediately snuffed out for a loss of 10, and then Smith took a sack for a loss of 13 that forced Washington to punt.
But Washington had kept its composure — in large part because of Smith. Rivera said on the sideline, he saw a “certain confidence” from players on the sideline knowing that Smith was their quarterback.
And when Washington needed the 36-year-old to make a play, Smith delivered. Down 24-3, Smith led near-perfect drives over three possessions that resulted all in touchdowns. On those series, Smith threw just two incompletions — going 18 for 20.
Perhaps his most impressive sequence, however, was Smith’s final two-minute drive. The quarterback wasn’t exactly sharp, but it was a disorganized 19-play series that saw Washington get bailed out by two defensive penalties. Even with the inconsistency, Smith made just enough throws to set up the game-tying 41-yarder from Dustin Hopkins.
“Alex was phenomenal, very poised, very confident,” said rookie wide receiver Isaiah Wright, who had six catches for 59 yards. “Not flustered. He did what he had to do.”
Wright said that as a rookie, Smith has helped him “slow the game down” at various points by noting coverages and talking through the contest. Smith will approach his receivers to make sure they’re all on the same page, Wright said.
After the game, Smith caught up with former Washington and current Lions running back Adrian Peterson. The two both arrived in Washington in 2018, and much has changed since. Peterson was released in September, the same time Smith was making the active roster as the team’s third-string quarterback.
Now, Smith’s teammates are much younger than him — even more so when that was already the case two years ago. But he doesn’t mind it.
Quite the opposite, actually.
“That’s the best part of being back,” Smith said. “Certainly the guys in the locker room, the guys in that huddle, there’s so much youth and energy and personality. It’s fun to see those guys and make plays with them. … As an old guy, it’s contagious.”