LANDOVER — Given how long Alex Smith had to wait, through all those days in the hospital and the 17 surgeries he had to endure, his return to football action happened in the blink of an eye.
One moment, he was a backup on the sideline. The next, he was under center, taking a snap just a handful of yards from the spot where he suffered the broken leg that took a two-year chunk out of his playing career — and very nearly claimed more.
Smith went into Sunday’s 30-10 loss against the Los Angeles Rams unsure whether he’d see action. Sure, he was active, but as is usually the case for second-string NFL quarterbacks, that didn’t mean he’d play.
Then, with two minutes left in the first half, starter Kyle Allen was blasted while scrambling and left the game with an arm injury.
So much has gone wrong for Washington in the two years since Smith’s injury. Coaches and executives have been fired. The team has been wrapped up in controversies off the field, ranging from an overarching name change to sexual misconduct allegations. Even this past week, coach Ron Rivera’s benching of Dwayne Haskins was seen as the latest sign of dysfunction.
But for an afternoon, Smith’s return overshadowed everything, even the afternoon loss.
The 36-year-old wasn’t enough to save an overmatched Washington Football Team, but the latest chapter in Smith’s personal journey of recovery was inspiring nonetheless.
“I’d be lying if I said there weren’t a lot of days where I didn’t think it was going to happen,” Smith said.
“It’s a [heck] of a story,” Rivera said.
After all, many doubted — Smith included — that he would play competitively again after his leg was shattered in a November 2018 game against the Houston Texans. Complications from the 17 surgeries required to rebuild Smith’s leg at one point almost cost the quarterback his life.
His football career seemed to be over, but on Sunday, Smith was back.
Washington even chose to stick with the veteran over Allen after the 24-year-old starter was cleared to return in the second half. Rivera said Allen will remain the team’s starter for next week’s game against the New York Giants if healthy, but decided out of “an abundance of caution” to keep the quarterback sidelined.
That gave Smith his moment. Admittedly, it didn’t go the way of a Hollywood screenplay.
In his first action back, Smith struggled to produce in a pouring rain. He resorted mostly to checkdowns, throwing for just 37 yards and completing 52.9% (9 of 17) of his passes. Washington’s offense, desperately needing a spark, mustered a net of minus-six yards in the second half. Smith’s lone scoring drive resulted in only three points, when Dustin Hopkins nailed a 48-yarder to end the half.
Still, Smith said playing football felt the same as it did before the injury. He looked like a quarterback: He dropped back, went through his progressions and yes, got hit.
Over the past few months, when Smith’s return to action started to look like a reality, the looming question was how would the three-time Pro Bowler respond when he was hit for the first time.
Not long into his first drive, Washington found out: defensive tackle Aaron Donald collapsed the pocket and jumped on Smith’s back to bring him down on third down. The few fans on hand — Washington allowed a capacity of 250 of close family members for players, coaches and employees — held a collective breath, but Smith bounced up in a hurry — trotting back to the sideline as if nothing happened.
Behind a shaky offensive line, Smith was sacked a total of six times. Donald, a two-time defensive player of the year, had three. Each time, however, Smith got up and appeared fine.
Cameras caught Donald’s surprise on the sideline.
“That [expletive’s] leg is strong,” Donald appeared to say.
“For me, I had been waiting for that for a long time,” Smith said of getting hit. “The first one felt good. It was nice to obviously know you’re fine.”
By the time Smith had entered the game, Washington was already facing a steep 20-7 deficit. Washington’s defense had no answer for Rams coach Sean McVay, a former Washington offensive coordinator, in his first game back to FedEx Field.
McVay schemed up a game plan that quarterback Jared Goff executed to near perfection. Goff hit his first 10 passes for 141 yards and a touchdown before he threw his first incompletion in the second quarter. Washington’s defense again gave up a touchdown of over 50 yards — marking the fourth time that’s happened in five games.
Goff finished with 309 yards and three touchdowns (two passing, one rushing). His seeming lone error was a poor throw right to Washington cornerback Kendall Fuller at Washington’s 41-yard line, setting up Hopkins’ field goal.
The mistakes have left Rivera and his team frustrated. The 58-year-old coach knows there are a lot of areas to clean up in order to take advantage of a three-game divisional stretch in which Washington faces the Giants, Dallas Cowboys and Giants again. The NFC East’s struggles — the division-leading Philadelphia Eagles dropped to 1-3-1 with a loss Sunday to Pittsburgh — are partly why Rivera said he demoted Haskins in the first place.
For next week, Rivera will turn back to Allen to lead them — if Allen is healthy enough to start. Before the quarterback’s injury, Allen played well as he went 9 of 13 for 74 yards. He scrambled for a 7-yard touchdown.
Smith, Rivera said, will return to being the backup. In doing so, Haskins will remain with the third-string. The 23-year-old wasn’t at Sunday’s game as he was dealing with a stomach virus that doctors urged him to stay home.
Smith said he’ll accept any role.
“It was great to be out there,” Smith said. “The range of emotions — the good and the bad — is why I fought so hard to come back. Sometimes you can take it for granted and certainly being away from it for a couple years — I’ve missed it.”