It was impossible to avoid getting caught up in the heartbreak. You had to feel for Smith, who is already a beloved teammate and trusted leader in his first season as the Washington Redskins' quarterback. You had to feel for the team, which ultimately might lose a division title to a rash of injuries. You had to feel for yourself because, just when it seemed safe to invest a little faith in this team, something devastating happened. Oh, it felt hopeless in the moment.
It may be too soon for the mood to shift, but with a Thanksgiving matchup against Dallas looming 10 seconds from now, the mind needs to transition. If you can look at this in a more calculated manner, here’s the conclusion: The season didn’t end because Smith broke his leg. Washington’s playoff hopes didn’t die with one horrific play. Without question, the mission became more difficult for a team already lacking dimensions on offense. But it’s also true that the team has scrounged up success this season without stellar play from Smith.
It has been a year of minimized quarterback dependence for Washington. Of the 11 starting quarterbacks who have winning records this season, Smith ranked last in passing yards (2,180) and in passer rating (85.7). He is lauded as a winner, and as someone who follows the team closely I will agree that there is something about Smith beyond statistics — the way he relates to people, the steady and confident manner in which he communicates, his willingness to do whatever helps his team — that influences success. But the cold numbers also say Smith has been the least productive and efficient of all the winning quarterbacks this season. Delve into why, and we’re back to a familiar argument: The supporting cast lacks quality weapons to help Smith put up numbers.
The larger point is that, in this year of minimized quarterback dependence, it’s an overreaction to panic and suggest the season is over all because the minimized quarterback has gone down. It’s logical to think the Redskins (6-4) have too many injuries to keep it together. It’s fine to wonder whether the team can survive if Colt McCoy manages to be less productive and efficient than Smith. But, “QB gone, team done” is too flimsy a conclusion to make.
Washington won without Smith carrying it, and now that McCoy is the starter, the directive will remain the same. There’s no stepping up for a Redskins quarterback this season, not in the traditional sense. It’s more like stepping to the side. McCoy, who is much more of a gunslinger and prone to commit more turnovers, has to play a simple game.
McCoy doesn’t have to imitate Tom Brady or Drew Brees for the next six weeks because the Washington offense isn’t designed to have a Brady or Brees. McCoy has to manage the game and while many deride Smith for being a game manager, there’s an art to it. Coach Jay Gruden has a ball-control offense that limits turnovers. The philosophy won’t change with McCoy. Gruden wants to establish the run. He’ll want to use McCoy’s mobility from time to time. And he needs McCoy to make a few plays in the passing game without increasing risk.
The challenge is that McCoy must remain steady for at least six games. If he had to do this for three or four games, I’d consider it a no-brainer. But he has to hold the offense together for a long stretch. That’s a long time to try to be invisible. He’s capable, however.
“He’s a good quarterback,” Houston defensive end J.J. Watt said of McCoy. “It’s not like there’s a massive drop-off there.”
At the end of a long and jarring Sunday afternoon, McCoy stood in a quiet locker room and offered some simple, confident words to his teammates: “You’re in good hands with me.” That’s all they needed to hear, apparently. During interviews, several players repeated McCoy’s words as fact.
“I know we are in good hands,” linebacker Mason Foster insisted.
During the 23-21 loss to Houston on Sunday, McCoy had some good moments. He completed 6 of 12 passes for 54 yards. He rushed for 35 yards on five carries. Most importantly, he helped Washington rally from a 17-7 deficit and eventually take a 21-20 lead. It was the first time this season that the team had experienced a lead change in a game. Washington had either jumped ahead and stayed ahead, or it had fallen behind and fallen apart.
McCoy understands the system better than Smith because he has been with Gruden for five seasons. He is likely to be more ambitious and attempt to make bigger plays. But in pursuit of more, Washington can’t become a turnover machine. McCoy likes to hold onto the football, and he has a history of taking a lot of sacks. Those aren’t good traits for a team that values ball security. He has to protect the football. If he does, Washington might be able to continue to grind through games.
McCoy has thrown 23 passes since 2014. He has waited a long while to get another opportunity. Somehow, he has to shake off the rust and ramp up the dependability. Even without great production, Smith helped Washington with his patience and willingness to make the smart play, even if it looked ugly.
“I think, most importantly, I’m more mature,” McCoy said. “I played my first three years in the league as a young guy, and sometimes that can be challenging, and it certainly was for me. But I think I’ve grown up. I’ve grown up a lot. I feel comfortable in this system and how we execute our offense. I’m very well coached, so I think I’m just going to try to go out there and compete and make good decisions and let the calls fall as they may.”
There is a lot of Smith in McCoy’s temperament, actually. The team will miss the person more than his numbers. McCoy might even be able to exceed Smith’s level of productivity right away, but it won’t matter if he commits more turnovers.
This is a job for a savvy quarterback, not an aspiring savior. As McCoy takes over, he shouldn’t feel the pressure to do more. He has to feel comfortable doing what he can. It’s not a good long-term strategy for a quarterback, but it was working for Smith this season. There’s no need for a backup to rewrite the script now.
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