Many people know former Washington Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann had the same compound leg fracture as the team’s current quarterback, Alex Smith. How could they not? His leg, broken on national television, has lived for the past 33 years as a grotesque clip forever flipping the stomachs of those especially squeamish.
What is less known, however, is that Theismann also had a broken fibula just like the one suffered by Smith’s backup, Colt McCoy. It happened in 1972, when Theismann was playing in the Canadian Football League for the Toronto Argonauts. He planted his foot on artificial turf during a game against the Montreal Alouettes and, as he turned his body, his cleat stuck in the plastic grass. That’s when he felt the bone snap.
“People tell you it’s a non-weight-bearing bone and it isn’t that bad, but it hurt,” Theismann says.
But, like McCoy, who recovered so quickly from his Dec. 3 injury that he might have played in Sunday’s season-ending game against Philadelphia if the Redskins were still in playoff contention, Theismann was soon back from his broken fibula. He remembers missing just six weeks.
“The bone heals from the outside,” Theismann says, adding that calcification starts from the outside and then rapidly fills in the empty spaces inside. “If Colt had six weeks, he would have been back.”
Then Theismann said this: “Colt could have righted the ship when Alex got hurt.”
Theismann’s injury history gives the Redskins' all-time leading passer a unique perspective on the men whose status will dominate the team’s offseason. Theismann never played again after the New York Giants’ Lawrence Taylor sacked him Nov. 18, 1985, breaking his lower right leg in two, with one bone piercing the skin. Now a similar fear exists for Smith, whose broken right leg bones also penetrated the skin on the same day 33 years later, during a loss to the Houston Texans.
The Redskins aren’t sure that Smith will return from his injury. Few around the team will talk about the quarterback’s condition, respecting his family’s wishes for privacy. When they do, it is usually with expressions of relief that he is expected to recover and live a normal life.
But a normal life does not mean dropping back in the pocket, facing a blitzing linebacker and trying to evade a pass rush. The team hopes Smith can come back, believing in his determination and willingness to undertake a grueling rehabilitation, and yet the evidence says his return might not be possible. The most anyone says about his injury is that it is bad.
“Alex is a big question mark,” Theismann says. “I was so excited to see him get out of the hospital [two weeks ago]. The infection is the biggest concern with that injury. I don’t know about ligament [damage], but you’ve got to be able to control the infection because the fracture opened the skin. Now it’s just a question of the healing.”
Theismann, who adjusted to a broadcasting career after football and whose new movie, “SnowComing,” debuts on the Hallmark Channel on Jan 26, says the first thing Smith will face is atrophy in the leg. Smith has spent so much time in a hospital bed and then sitting down that he will have to work to build up strength in the leg. Theismann wonders how this will affect Smith’s ability to plant his leg and throw.
“Mobility was a key to Alex’s game,” Theismann says. “Will he be able to move? He will have had eight or nine months before training camp, but will that be enough?”
The Redskins are not sure. A lot of decisions face the team, which has won just once since Smith went down, losing its lead in the NFC East, tumbling from an almost-certain playoff spot to last weekend’s elimination from postseason contention. Owner Daniel Snyder fired the Redskins’ newly hired marketing executives on the day after Christmas. What remains uncertain is whether those were the only changes he will make. Will team President Bruce Allen go back to running the football and business operations, as he did before this season? Will he move to the business side or leave altogether? Will Coach Jay Gruden remain after failing to win a playoff game in five seasons?
The injuries to Smith and McCoy have complicated the evaluations of Gruden and the rest of the football staff. How do you decide on the future of a coach whose team lost two quarterbacks as well as six starting guards and never had all the key playmakers healthy for even one game? For the past month, the Redskins have been forced to run a stripped-down game plan with a simplified offense.
But if Gruden returns — and there have been no indications that he will be fired — who will be the quarterback? Theismann, who is close to management as well as the coaching staff, has been impressed with Josh Johnson — the quarterback signed after McCoy’s injury who led the Redskins to a victory at Jacksonville and a near-win at Tennessee. But Johnson is 32 and hadn’t thrown a pass in the NFL in seven years before taking over for Mark Sanchez during a blowout home loss to the New York Giants.
“If you had to say, ‘What’s next year going to look like?’ I’d say it’s Colt McCoy and Josh Johnson, and then the Redskins have to get one,” Theismann says.
He compares the Redskins' situation to what the Dallas Cowboys faced a few years ago, when they brought in several quarterbacks to fill in for the oft-injured Tony Romo before they drafted Dak Prescott in 2016 and established him as their quarterback.
The key will be finding their version of Prescott. The 2019 draft is not heavy with top quarterbacks. The passer many expected to be taken first, Oregon’s Justin Herbert, announced he is returning to school, leaving several players, including Missouri’s Drew Lock, Duke’s Daniel Jones and West Virginia’s Will Grier, in the mix to become the top QB selected. Of that group, Grier — who has skills that should translate to today’s NFL — might be the best prospect.
But finding a quarterback in the draft is an issue for another day. Theismann’s thoughts remain with Smith, whose recovery is still something of a mystery. In the few photographs that have emerged of Smith, the quarterback is sitting in a wheelchair, his legs covered with a blanket. He looks far from ready to return. It’s an image Theismann knows well.
He never made it back into an NFL game after his injury, and while he knows medicine has advanced a great deal since 1985 and players today can return from injuries that athletes even a decade ago wouldn’t have recovered from, he also knows Smith faces immense odds — not to mention the severe mental toll of working alone, far from your teammates.
“You feel like you don’t belong anymore,” he says.
When Theismann came back to practice three weeks after he was injured, he found a replacement, Steve Bartkowski, sitting at the locker that had been his for 12 seasons. He had never cleaned it out in that decade with the team, letting old shirts, chin straps and photos pile up. Then, with one break of his leg, it was gone. He found what he calls “12 years of my life” packed in boxes and stashed in the trainer’s room.
“That’s the reality of this game we play,” he says.
Even if Smith returns, what impact will he have? Before his injury, players praised Smith’s leadership and the way he brought the team together in offseason workouts and during training camp. And yet he was still the new guy, slowly bringing his presence into the locker room. On the field, he was adjusting to the Redskins' offense just as the coaches were learning about him. They finally felt they had figured out which plays worked best for him when he went down.
One of the biggest things lost with the injury is the growth he would have had in the offense. Normally coaches and quarterbacks sit down after the season and study what went right and wrong and then adjust the system in offseason workouts. With Smith far from being able to step on the field, they won’t be able to make those adjustments until training camp at the soonest — if at all.
But then, Theismann says, Smith will constantly worry about his leg, wondering whether it will hold up.
“Alex sort of brought some stability,” Theismann says. “Kirk [Cousins] was there [in previous years], but there was always the question of ‘Are you always going to be here?’ I didn’t think he was going to stay."
Smith, he says, was going to be part of the team for at least three or four years. Now, no one knows. At 34, Smith is two years younger than Theismann was when Theismann had the same injury. And the infections have set Smith back in whatever recovery he makes.
“Age is not on his side,” Theismann says.
Which could make this winter a complicated one for the Redskins.