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 as if 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.
Or as Gruden said the day he was fired: “We just couldn’t get over the Alex thing.”
Alex Smith did not want to comment for this story, “respectfully” declining an interview through a team spokesman. He 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 8½ 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.”
“Or the field goal unit,” said kicker Dustin Hopkins, who was standing nearby. “He would turn a 40-yard field goal into a 33-yard field goal.”
“It’s just a confidence booster not just for us [on special teams] but for the team in general,” Sundberg added. “With him under center, you’re just never out of it.”
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 has 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.”
Back at the Redskins’ facility, Anderson tugged on the straps of a backpack as he glanced toward Smith’s locker across the room.
“When you get a guy like that, they don’t come around too often,” he said.
One day early last summer, Redskins offensive coordinator Kevin O’Connell found himself making what he called “a cadence tape” to show the team’s quarterbacks. Among the many small things Smith did well was perfect the art of altering his voice before snaps, trying to draw defenders offsides — or at least keep them off-balance to slow their pass rush.
“In the Houston game, man, he had some great cadences,” O’Connell said. “Houston, Dallas, Green Bay … there’s some plays, man. He was a sneaky good guy to coach.”
Though Gruden’s offense was based on the same principles Smith used in San Francisco and Kansas City, it had many different dimensions. It was clear early in the season that Smith was not yet comfortable running it. Adding to the pain of Smith’s injury is that it came right as the team’s coaches thought the plays were coming naturally to him.
“We were fired up about him getting more familiar with our offense,” Gruden said not long before his firing. “… I thought we were going to hit a run the last six, seven games with him, but then he goes down.”
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 suffered two games after Smith’s injury, Washington’s coaches were often left to wonder: What if?
“I know we felt really, really good coming out of the Tampa game the week before [Smith’s injury],” O’Connell said. “We felt like we were starting to jell. … He was really starting to fit in.”
To date, Smith’s most revealing interview was with Yahoo Sports this past summer, during which he said he first knew he was in trouble that day against Houston when he “looked down and say my leg wasn’t straight.”
“I was in so much shock right away that I wasn’t in a ton of pain,” he said in the interview. “I kind of just really, to be honest, said: ‘Oh, wow, I’ll get put back together. They’ll do what they do. I’ll do my rehab . . . and I knew my season was done. I definitely knew that, but I had no idea — zero appreciation — for what a broken [tibia and fibula] is and what the recovery is like.”
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, suffered in May on the first day of organized team activities, 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 has been lost.