- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 7, 2021

Alex Smith was seen as such a lock to win the NFL’s comeback player of the year, the common refrain during the season was that the league should just rename the award after the Washington quarterback for his return from a life-threatening leg injury.

So it wasn’t a surprise Saturday when Smith officially earned the honor during the league’s annual awards show. But in a twist, the 36-year-old wasn’t the unanimous choice — one rogue voter went with Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger.

With all due respect to Roethlisberger and his previous elbow injury, no one questioned whether he could play football again. Or even have a normal life, for that matter.

Smith overcame a number of well-documented hurdles to step on the field and help lead Washington to the playoffs. And now, the quarterback will have to decide if that’s the end of his football journey — or the beginning of a last act.

When accepting the award, Smith made no reference to whether he wants to continue his career in 2021. Smith, though, has hinted a return could be in play. He told celebrity chef Rachel Ray in late January that he’s excited to “see what I can go do — football and everything else” in the offseason.

If Smith plans on returning, there’s no guarantee that it’s in Washington. Though the three-time Pro Bowler has two years left on his contract, Washington coach Ron Rivera gave no assurances that Smith would be on the roster next season — telling reporters the team had to explore “all options” for the position. Washington can cut Smith to save millions and has already swung big in the team’s pursuit of an upgrade, missing out on Matthew Stafford.

Should hit Smith hit the market, then he’ll be one of the many signal-callers available on this year’s quarterback carousel — with plenty of teams in need for a quarterback.

“Two years ago, I was sitting in a wheelchair wondering, ‘Had my life changed forever?’” Smith said Saturday in his acceptance speech. “Anger. Pity. Self-doubt. These were feelings I had throughout my career, but this time it wasn’t about football. It was bigger. … My goal was football, not because I actually thought it was a reality, but because I knew my life would be better because of it.”

Of course, Washington could ultimately decide to keep Smith if the quarterback wants to return. New executives Martin Mayhew and Marty Hurney had nothing but glowing praise for Smith when speaking with reporters last week. They praised his 5-1 record as a starter. “We were extremely impressed,” Mayhew said.

But Washington will have to decide if Smith can truly withstand the grind of a 16-game season. The team was put in a tough position when Smith was sidelined for a few weeks with a strained calf down the stretch, an injury that kept Smith out of the team’s playoff loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The injury resided on Smith’s surgically repaired right leg, complicating matters.

Smith’s health will also likely be a question for any team, not just in Washington. Would a team be hesitant in signing Smith given his injury history?

Say Washington moves on, there are still teams that would make sense for Smith, health concerns aside. Chicago Bears coach Matt Nagy was Smith’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach when the two were in Kansas City from 2013 to 2017. The Bears desperately need someone new under center after Mitchell Trubisky and Nick Foles flamed out in 2020.

Outside of Chicago, the Jacksonville Jaguars hired Smith’s former college coach, Urban Meyer. The Jaguars hold the No.1 overall pick in April’s draft — meaning they’ve won the Trevor Lawrence sweepstakes. Smith, however, could make for an intriguing backup option, given his experience of mentoring Patrick Mahomes with the Chiefs.

Nagy and Meyer both congratulated Smith recently for winning comeback player of the year.

“This just doesn’t surprise me at all,” Nagy said in a video message to Smith. “You’re a freaking warrior, and so is your wife, Elizabeth. You know I get asked all the time around the league, ‘Can you believe what Alex came back from?’ And you know my answer: Yeah, I can believe it. And to tell you the truth, I would be shocked if you didn’t.”

“You’re an inspiration to me and you’ve always have been,” Meyer said. “From that skinny 195-pound quarterback that took over and became the best player in college football in 2004, so love ya. I always knew you were extremely tough, but I had no idea until I saw that documentary about you and your family and how you overcame this. I can’t imagine there’s a bigger fan club than the Meyer family out there for Alex Smith.”

Those messages were part of a package of video clips that were shown to Smith. With a separate camera, Smith’s reaction was filmed. At the end of the video, Smith looked up from the tablet he used to watch the messages, stared into the camera and smiled.

Smith didn’t say anything. He didn’t need to. His reaction said it all. But eventually, Smith will need to make his plans clear — one way or another.

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