And yet his start Sunday is very much an experiment. Smith is 36, with a right leg that will never look completely normal, and no one knows what he has to give this team. His return feels like a week-to-week pursuit in which breaths are held each time he gets hit. For a team trying to win a broken NFC East and figure out who will be its quarterback for the next few years, he is an unknown.
Which is what makes Haskins so important now. He is Smith’s backup following the season-ending injury to Kyle Allen, just weeks after he was benched as the starter and dropped to third string for inconsistent play and practice habits.
“He’s got the skill set,” Washington Coach Ron Rivera said this week. “I’m telling you, the arm is legit.”
This is Haskins’s time. Not in the games but away from the cameras, on the practice fields and in the halls of the team’s practice facility. If Smith is getting a second chance at football after a devastating leg injury appeared to take his career away, Haskins is getting another opportunity after a very public demotion.
While a person with knowledge of the situation said the coaching staff was irritated with Haskins for not arriving at the building early, arriving late to some meetings and not preparing enough for games — leading to on-field mistakes — Rivera also did not want to give up on him. Two people familiar with the situation said Rivera was not interested in trading Haskins, hoping instead that his second-year quarterback would take the benching as a challenge.
Rivera often likes to see how people around the team handle difficult situations, sometimes using the word “test.” It’s hard not to view these past few weeks as a sort of test for Haskins, a chance to gauge whether he will grasp the habits the staff is asking him to adopt.
Much of the problem for Haskins and Washington is that Haskins started only one season at Ohio State and didn’t come to the NFL with the same understanding of game preparation as college quarterbacks who started for two or three years. Both of the coaching staffs Haskins has played for with Washington have encouraged him to study the examples of veteran quarterbacks who have been on the team in that time, such as Smith, Kyle Allen, Colt McCoy and Case Keenum.
But those examples haven’t always been easy for Haskins to follow, multiple people familiar with his time in the NFL have said. They describe a player who is bright and cares and wants to be good. Some theorize that because he’s always been one of the most talented players wherever he has been, the obsessive preparation NFL quarterbacks must put in each week has not come naturally to him.
There are signs that things have changed. While Haskins was described as being devastated by the demotion, he began coming to the facility early and doing extra work in the weight room. In recent days, Rivera has said Haskins has worked harder in practice, maximizing reps in drills that the quarterback hadn’t before. This week, the coach seemed happy that Haskins would get to see Smith — a quarterback long regarded as one of the league’s most diligent workers — preparing for games.
“It’s something that some guys grow and develop and understand how important it is,” Rivera said this week when asked whether players can learn how to prepare for games. “A lot of times, guys will rely on their great talent. That talent will get you by for a while, but there’s a point in everybody’s career where everything catches up to talent. The only thing that separates it are the guys that work the hardest.”
One person with knowledge of the situation said a big reason Rivera didn’t want to trade Haskins is that the coach believes he can work with the quarterback — not only in the second half of this year but in the offseason as well. Haskins is, after all, a first-round pick, not even halfway through his rookie contract. Unless traded or released, he will be a part of the team for at least two more seasons.
“The question we have to answer as coaches: ‘Is our franchise quarterback here, is he on the roster, is he being developed, or is he somewhere else?’” Rivera said.
Who knows how long Smith can continue his most improbable of comebacks. No one can assume he will last the season, let alone be counted upon for next year or the year after. But after what had to be a humiliating demotion, Haskins is still here, a step away from being the starter again. What happens now, behind the scenes, could say a lot about his own Washington comeback. One that might have seemed as unimaginable as Smith’s just a few weeks ago.