Alex Smith is here and yet he is not.
The Washington Redskins injured quarterback still lingers around the team’s practice facility, coming to meetings, talking to players and walking the field before every game. He is unable to play this year, or perhaps ever, though teammates say he remains a trusted voice, a treasured colleague and a face of calm during a tumultuous season.
But he isn’t where the Redskins need him most. Monday will be exactly a year since the Houston Texans’ Kareem Jackson and J.J. Watt stormed through the Redskins’ line, driving Smith to the ground and snapping his leg with such violence that the bone punctured the skin. At the time, Washington was 6-3, seemingly headed to the playoffs for the first time in three seasons. Then, in an instant, everything collapsed.
The Redskins have played the equivalent of a full, disastrous season since Smith went down, going 2-14, with the only two victories coming against two of the NFL’s worst teams. In that time, they have gone through five starting quarterbacks, fired Coach Jay Gruden and watched their fan base’s frustration grow. This week, they announced that Dwayne Haskins, the player drafted to replace Smith, will start the season’s final seven games. But Haskins is a 22-year old rookie, and still learning. At 1-8, it feels like the Redskins are far from winning again.
“A lot of people say we haven’t been the same since we lost Alex,” linebacker Ryan Anderson said.
Alex Smith has barely spoken publicly in the year since he was hurt. As his recovery has progressed, going from a wheelchair to standing with a scaffolding-like brace around his cast to walking with crutches to finally walking normally in September, news conferences with Smith have been loosely scheduled only to be canceled with the same explanation: That he isn’t ready.
Little was perfect about Smith’s eight and a half games with the Redskins, after he came from Kansas City in a January 2018 trade. Much like now, Washington’s offense was riddled with injuries, its defense was solid but not dominating, and Smith himself struggled to grasp Gruden’s offense, throwing for exactly 178 yards in three of four games during one stretch.
Still, the Redskins won, often in ways that made little sense, drawing Joe Theismann, the franchise’s all-time leading passer and its preseason television analyst, to recently ask a question that has loomed over the team since Smith was hurt: “Did Alex hold things together when things appeared as bad as they do now?”
The answer seems to be yes.
“It’s very unique that one player can be that much of a transformational difference-maker,” said CBS analyst Rich Gannon, a longtime NFL quarterback who was the league’s MVP in 2002.
Gannon tried to describe the way Smith affected all three of the teams he played for during his 13-year career, the calm Smith brought to chaos, the feeling of control that he gave without throwing for all the gaudy yards that many of the league’s top quarterbacks do.
“Not many players have a sudden, significant impact on everything that happens,” he finally said.
But the Redskins players immediately noticed a change when Smith arrived last offseason. He had an easy, warm confidence. He was inclusive and self-deprecating. In practices, he fought with a startling fierceness, impressing many when he started diving for first downs during offseason sessions.
“He was never going to take a sack on third downs,” said Nick Sundberg, the long snapper whose locker is next to Smith’s. “It’s third-and-three and we’re either getting a first down or he’s throwing the ball away or whatever. But we’re never losing yards, that’s such a confidence booster for the punt team.”
Over the years, the biggest criticism of Smith is that he has been a “game manager,” someone who must play within a coach’s system. He has never been a superstar like Aaron Rodgers. He’s not thrilling like Patrick Mahomes, who replaced him in Kansas City, or dynamic like Colin Kaepernick, who took Smith’s job in San Francisco. But he’s been careful and meticulous and mindful of little details.
When the Redskins blew a lead in their opening game this year, players and coaches moaned about the tiny details missed among penalties, broken plays and wayward passes. They might as well as have been talking about Alex Smith.
“Alex could manage a game like all good quarterbacks do,” Gannon said. “How many games did they win after he went down? I think that speaks volumes.”
Though they immediately were forced to deal with new calamities in the days after Smith’s injury, including the worried reports from doctors about his infection, and the broken leg Smith’s backup Colt McCoy had two games after Smith’s injury, Washington’s coaches were often left to wonder: What if?
Within weeks of the injury, many around the Redskins were saying what Theismann — who had the same injury on the same day 30 years before — had predicted. Smith would never play again. The break, combined with the infection and all the surgeries related to the infection, were going to make it impossible for him to come back.
“He will have a normal life,” is what one person with knowledge of his recovery said at the time, adding that “normal” is not trying to evade an NFL pass rush.
For the first nine months after his injury, whenever Smith would be seen at practices or in public, he moved awkwardly in his wheelchair and then on crutches. He had to hobble around training camp workouts, and the spring-loaded doors to the Redskins’ Ashburn locker room often slammed against his cast as he tried to maneuver in and out. But now that he is walking again, the narrative has slowly changed.
Several times in the last month he has been spotted on the facility’s distant fields, lofting long passes. He has been needling linebacker Reuben Foster, a frequent rehabilitation partner, even though Foster’s recovery from a torn ACL is progressing faster than his. In his few interviews he has insisted he wants to play again, and more and more the players in the locker room watch him moving around and say that, yes, maybe he can return.
“I think he will be playing again sooner or later,” Anderson said.
It’s a hard thing to imagine, after everything that’s been lost.