The line of selfie-seekers snakes around the perimeter of the Washington Redskins’ locker room at FedEx Field, funneling toward the large backdrop adorned with the team’s name in small lettering. One by one, 200 fans draped in burgundy and gold step forward, offering a handshake and even an occasional hug. They have come to lay eyes on the new face of the franchise, the new quarterback in Jay Gruden’s offense. To them, he is the future — and potentially Washington’s football savior.
The man who so many saw as expendable is again wanted. But Smith no longer is burdened by insecurity or in need of affirmation. The former No. 1 overall NFL draft pick already has been written off as a potential bust, twice been discarded for shinier, younger quarterbacks. He has been praised for leading the San Francisco 49ers to the NFC title game and derided as “a game manager” — a solid, dependable quarterback who can’t lift his team by himself. But none of that matters as he stands in his new locker room, surrounded by hundreds of fans.
“I don’t feel like I have to prove myself to anybody any longer,” Smith says shortly after the event has ended and fans and reporters have exited the stadium.
He is all but alone a few minutes later, sitting inside a coach’s office near the entrance to his new locker room. Those who know him best already have warned of his reticence around reporters. But he appears at ease as his 6-foot-4 frame slowly sinks into the upholstery of one of two chairs positioned side by side in the small room. He then engages in a delicate dance that toes the line between unfiltered vulnerability and cautious restraint. After everything he has endured in San Francisco and Kansas City, the three-time Pro Bowl selection knows who he is. But there still is that part of him that would prefer to avoid moments where he’s forced to pick at old wounds that have long since scabbed over.
“To be a No. 1 pick,” he says, emphasizing his words by tapping his fist against the wooden desk in front of him. “. . . To come with tall expectations . . . (tap) . . . and then, through those first four, five years, to not win games . . . (tap) . . . to not turn around the organization . . . (tap) . . . and certainly, statistically . . . (tap) . . . to not play that great . . . (tap) . . . to have stretches but, certainly as a whole, not to have played that great . . . that builds.”
It took years for him to achieve a level of inner peace, to put aside lingering resentment and stop questioning the business side of the game. Smith rather would focus on what lies ahead and how excited he is to be a part of Gruden’s “QB-friendly” system. But those moments of insecurity and self-doubt — and his journey to overcome outside perception of his worth — are vital to understanding Smith’s mental makeup, his 14-year journey in the NFL and why members of the Redskins’ staff are “tickled to death” to have this 34-year-old quarterback under center.
Pam Smith used to wonder whether her son was destined for a life of crime. There were epic tantrums, intolerable behavior. And by the time Smith was 3, his parents were debating whether it was even worth it to take him out in public.
“I used to say, ‘Alex will be a success at whatever he does because he is so focused and very stubborn. I hope he chooses something good versus robbing 7-Elevens because he’d be good at either,’” Pam recalls with a chuckle.
Smith is the third of their four children but was by far their “biggest challenge,” his mother says. During those early years, when Smith often was banished to a corner in a timeout, she encouraged him to channel that headstrong energy in a positive way.
That stubborn streak proved to be one of Smith’s greatest assets. The perfectionist in him could never tolerate mediocrity. He never will accept being outworked, be it in the classroom or on the field. Those same traits motivated him to sneak into coach Urban Meyer’s late-night game-planning meetings during his time as Utah’s starting quarterback.
Alex Smith won 21 of his 22 starts at Utah, which he led to a 12-0 record and a No. 3 Associated Press ranking in his junior season. After leaving school a year early, Smith was selected No. 1 overall by the San Francisco 49ers in 2005. (Photos by George Frey and Chris Trotman/Getty Images)
“I turn on the lights, and Alex Smith is just sitting in there with us,” says Meyer, who led the Utes to victories at the 2003 Liberty Bowl and the 2004 Fiesta Bowl with Smith as their starter. “. . . Not many players have I had that would do that.”
The resolve that led Smith to snub Ivy League interest because he was determined to play big-time college football was just as evident in his quest to transform his gangly, 185-pound underclassman frame into an NFL-ready specimen. “I remember forcing him to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and stick them in his book bag so he’d be eating all day long,” said Meyer, now Ohio State’s head coach.
Smith’s photographic memory (according to Meyer) and his high IQ earned him the nickname “Doogie Howser” — the child prodigy in a popular 1990s ABC sitcom — after he earned his degree in two years. His drive propelled him at age 20 to become the No. 1 pick in the 2005 draft.
“Everything he seemed to touch, he succeeded at,” says Dan Mullen, Smith’s position coach at Utah and Florida’s current head coach.
But nothing came easy for Smith in the NFL.
In seven seasons in San Francisco, he had seven offensive coordinators and three head coaches. The toxic culture permeating the franchise in the beginning of his tenure filtered its way from the 49ers’ fractured locker room and onto the field. Smith was besieged by doubt as the pressure mounted, and he was in need of reassurance.
“Probably several years back, I maybe needed to hear that,” says Smith, whose 49ers teams were 11-19 in games he started during his first three seasons before he missed all of 2009 with a shoulder injury. “I think maybe just from the hole I dug myself as a young player. . . . Maybe I needed to hear that, any kind of validation.
“I was on some bad teams, and I played bad as a young player, certainly, at times. And that all mounts,” Smith continues, staring ahead at the wall. “Yeah, that all mounts. The perception. Everything that goes into that. And so, yeah, I think to kind of get over the hump of that, to change perception, it can be difficult. It’s a tall task. And it takes a long time.”
The 2011 arrival of Jim Harbaugh as coach signaled a dramatic shift for the 49ers organization and for Smith, who went 13-3 and threw for more than 3,000 passing yards for the first time in his career to earn San Francisco its first playoff berth since 2002. The 49ers reached the NFC championship game, losing, 20-17 in overtime, to the eventual Super Bowl champion New York Giants. But the concussion Smith suffered midway through the following season paved the way for 2011 second-round pick Colin Kaepernick to assume the starting role even though Smith had led the 49ers to a 6-2 start.
Smith was traded to Kansas City in February 2013. Under Coach Andy Reid, Smith took a team that had tied for the NFL’s worst record the year before to the first of four playoff appearances in five years. The Chiefs were 50-26 in his starts, and he had a career-best 104.7 passer rating in 2017 that led the NFL. History repeated itself, however, when the Chiefs drafted quarterback Patrick Mahomes in 2017 following a pair of disappointing division-round playoff losses, and it was evident Smith was on borrowed time.
That played right into Bruce Allen’s hands. Eager to move on from quarterback Kirk Cousins after the 2017 season, the Redskins team president targeted Smith early in the offseason. Next was gauging Kansas City’s interest in trading him. “We called,” Allen said.
Alex Smith led the 49ers to six wins in eight games in 2012 before a concussion allowed Colin Kaepernick to assume the role as the starting QB. Smith was traded to the Chiefs in 2013, and he took a team that had tied for the worst record in the NFL the year before to the playoffs. (Photos by Ed Zurga and Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press)
On Jan. 30, the teams agreed to terms of a trade and a new contract for Smith: a four-year, $94 million deal that includes $71 million guaranteed.
Just like that, Smith was back to being The Guy.
“He’s a quiet leader, but there’s just something about him that makes you want to step your game up even that much more,” says Redskins running back Chris Thompson, who spotlights the quarterback’s assertiveness in the huddle and Smith’s low interception total (only five in 2017) rather than Smith’s 2-5 postseason record. “I can’t even pinpoint it. It’s just that it’s Alex Smith. You can’t help but to get excited about it.”
There’s a perceptible change at Redskins Park. “I’m big on having a feel for people, and it’s just different with him,” Thompson says. “The locker room feels different. The guys feel different.”
People always have been drawn to Smith.
He was the “pied piper” of the Utah football team, a magnetic force that could pull together a collection of Hawaiians, Samoans, kids from inner city Los Angeles and married Mormons, according to Mullen. “And that’s how you maximize the individual talents on the team,” Mullen says. “When you get them all working together because they can rally around this one person who unites them all.”
Says Meyer: “The minute I heard Alex Smith is not good enough, I thought to myself, ‘I will never, ever have a quarterback good enough then if this guy can’t play in the NFL.’”
Jim Tomsula reluctantly picks up the phone. He hates doing this, but he’s willing to make an exception for one special subject. “Yeah, I’ll talk about Alex,” the Redskins’ defensive line coach says gruffly. “That’s the only reason.”
For 13 minutes, the typically tight-lipped assistant fills the air with saccharine sentiments about Smith’s physical toughness and “pureness for playing football.”
“You can search all you want. You’re not going to find a negative thing,” says Tomsula, who served as a defensive line coach and interim head coach during Smith’s 49ers tenure. “I’m not trying to make this like a fairy tale or something, but I’m just telling you: This guy is absolutely the kind of guy I’d want my daughter to marry.”
Smith’s former coaches agree: He hasn’t gotten enough credit for what he has accomplished in his career. But Redskins staffers are eager to praise him. Defensive coordinator Greg Manusky, another former 49ers assistant, hails Smith as “a technician” when he picks apart defenses. Tomsula raves about the quarterback’s mental toughness, noting that Smith “was put into some extremely difficult situations and never blinked.”
According to Smith’s inner circle, he’s the same man he always was: Competitive. Brilliant. Driven. But it’s evident he now possesses a sense of self that can’t be rattled.
No longer is he carrying the burden of having to prove himself or questioning the course of his career. In what could be his final NFL act, he is embracing the opportunity to start anew in Washington. And he’s eager to take another team to the playoffs.
“I enjoy the challenge of winning football games more than I ever have,” Smith says. “I enjoy the challenge of coming together with my teammates and playing well for them. Maybe 10 years ago I needed to hear [validation]. But at this point, the focus for me is on ball, I guess.”