As the Washington Redskins drifted into their Ashburn locker room Monday morning it was hard not to notice the one stall that went untouched. If any of them needed a reminder that quarterback Alex Smith was going to be gone for a long time, the vision of his empty stool was it.
On two rows of couches, not far from where Smith normally dressed, sat several unemployed quarterbacks who were once deemed the futures of other teams, in town to audition for the open backup role in Washington. EJ Manuel lounged next to T.J. Yates talking to Josh Johnson about California fires, while Kellen Clemens chatted with former Redskins star Chris Cooley. All were left waiting for Mark Sanchez, who had been whisked away by team employees only to be signed an hour later.
Around this strange scene, the rest of the Redskins lingered at their lockers, trying to pretend that everything was normal while trying to forget the image of Smith’s lower leg snapping the afternoon before. But a season that seemed to be moving toward an improbable division title is suddenly in chaos following Smith’s injury, a two-point loss to Houston on Sunday and a game Thursday afternoon against the Dallas Cowboys, who are only a game behind Washington in the NFC East.
“That Dallas game is way bigger than it was before,” running back Chris Thompson said.
But these Redskins have had a strange ability to sidestep disaster this year. Moments that might have broken past Washington teams – a blowout loss in New Orleans, the decimation of the offensive line to injuries, a 24-point loss to the Atlanta Falcons – have been followed by stirring victories. At many points this season the Redskins' hold on first place has come from their ability to survive disasters.
So as much as they could they made Monday a normal day. As Thompson glanced toward Smith’s locker, looking past the line of prospective teammates, he shook his head.
“I think the quick turnaround helps us to not think this is going to be bad,” he said. “We don’t have time to mourn [Smith].”
He paused for a moment, parsing the word “mourn,” wondering if it sounded too maudlin for a player who won’t return for six-to-eight months after breaking the fibula and tibia in his lower right leg.
“We lost Alex, but we don’t have time to deal with that yet,” Thompson continued.
Such was the manner with how things went around team headquarters Monday. Sanchez was quickly signed, Coach Jay Gruden said, partly because of the quarterback’s familiarity with offensive coaches Matt Cavanaugh, Bill Callahan and Kevin O’Connell from their time with the New York Jets, as well as the fact Sanchez has played in playoff games, including leading New York to back-to-back AFC championship games. Then talk turned to the huge game that looms in Dallas, and the quarterback who will be asked to lead the Redskins to the playoffs: Colt McCoy.
The team’s longtime backup has saved it before in a similar situation, taking over as the starter in a game at Dallas in 2014, leading Washington to a 20-17 victory. But so many things are different now. That season was a lost year for the Redskins, Gruden’s first with the team that started badly and spiraled to 4-12. This time, Washington is in first place with six games remaining. McCoy hasn’t started six straight games since his second season in the league.
Gruden fondly remembered that 2014 game and said he loved the way McCoy made “big throws in that game despite being under a lot of pressure.” He said it was an example of “the toughness [McCoy] has.”
“I just feel very comfortable with Colt McCoy,” Gruden said. “It’s a luxury to have him as a backup quarterback.”
But even Gruden had to admit that everything now is an uncertainty. He said McCoy knows the offense as well as any quarterback possibly can given his four and a half years with the team, and while he believes McCoy will play well, he is a backup who has thrown just 32 regular season passes the last three years.
Gruden expects to continue running the team’s regular offense, and yet he will have to be more conservative on Thursday, removing plays that gave Smith the option to run because he can’t risk McCoy getting hurt with only Sanchez to back him up.
Sanchez, who has not thrown a pass in the NFL since he was a reserve with the Cowboys in 2016, will be given a small package of plays that the coaches think he will be able to learn in three days. If the worst happens and McCoy goes down, Sanchez will at least have something to use in the game.
That is, if Sanchez is ready to play in a real NFL game. When asked Monday what he has been doing this fall, Sanchez – who was heading out of the locker room to sign his new contract – shouted over his shoulder, “I’ve been working out.”
Such is the state of the NFC East’s first-place team three days before Thanksgiving. Somehow everyone pretended everything is normal, even though it is not.
“They have no choice,” Gruden said. “We’re all sick and heartbroken over Alex. He’s such a great guy and leader and teammate and a great joy to coach, but when something like this happens you have to move on, and we are going to move on. Colt’s going to do just fine, and I know the players will respond to him.
“We still have a chunk of our season left. We still have a lot to play for. We are in first place in our division still. We have a game on Thursday night and “Monday Night Football” coming up. We got the Eagles twice coming up and obviously a lot of other key matchups coming up.”
And so on the day after Alex Smith went down, the Redskins tried their best to move on as if nothing had happened.