At the snap, Smith immediately turned and threw a short pass to the flat for Cam Sims, who easily turned upfield and picked up 12 yards and a first down.
On the surface, the play appeared menial. Forgettable, even. But not to Rivera and Washington’s offensive coordinator, Scott Turner.
Washington had a different play set, but Smith noticed before the snap that LeShaun Sims had the deep third of the field covered, so even though they were backed up and in a second-and-long situation, he checked out of the play and threw to Cam Sims.
“I hear Scotty in my headset when he makes the play: ‘That’s a heck of a decision,’” Rivera recalled in a video news conference with reporters Monday. “Those things are invaluable because when they talk about that, the other quarterbacks will be in the room and they’ll hear what’s being said about those plays. The rest of the team will hear that, and they’ll know and have trust in what Alex can do for them — do for us, I should say.”
As Smith continues his storied comeback from a compound leg fracture he suffered in 2018, his knowledge of the game has been as valuable, if not more so, than his physical ability at quarterback. There’s almost nothing he hasn’t already seen in his 15-plus years in the NFL. He can process what a defense gives him, mentally run through his options, then physically go through his progressions in a matter of seconds.
Sure, that is expected of quarterbacks. But the task can often be delayed for younger, less experienced players who simply haven’t had the reps.
And for Washington, that experience — combined with Smith’s attention to detail, his work ethic and his approach that has won praise from teammates past and present — has helped to stabilize a young offense that has already endured a lot of change.
“Having a vet at the quarterback position changes [things] dramatically,” running back Antonio Gibson said. “He’s been there and done that, so there’s not too much pressure on him. He relaxes in the huddle, I feel like for me, anyway.”
Wide receiver Terry McLaurin, who has played with five different quarterbacks and two different schemes since he was drafted last year, said Smith is “always trying to figure out ways you can make it easier on us as receivers” and the offense as a whole.
In between series, Smith is often found along the bench talking to his young receivers, relaying what he sees from the defense, how they should run certain routes or simply offering encouragement when pressure builds.
Undrafted rookie wide receiver Isaiah Wright has said Smith helps slow the game for him, sometimes by telling him what the play is so he’s not held back by overthinking.
Over the past three games, Washington has scored at least 20 points, a feat it hadn’t achieved since the middle of the 2018 season — before Smith was injured. Though he is only two starts into his comeback, his comfort level improves with every outing.
“I think just that innate trust, no self-doubt, going out there playing loose and free is the biggest thing,” he said Tuesday. “I really feel like I have the last few weeks. I feel like I’m going out and playing quarterback and executing the offense. Certainly there’s a chunk of the game that’s choreographed and there’s a big chunk that’s not. I think that’s the part I feel better and better with the more reps I get, that I do feel confident in all those situations.”
Although the “game manager” label often carries a negative connotation for quarterbacks, Smith has found success in his methodical approach. Since returning, he has also surprised by completing eight passes for 25 yards or more, a sign of his strong connection with Washington’s young receivers.
“It really is about getting to the line of scrimmage and looking at the matchup — ‘Is that what I’m looking for? Is that what I’m looking at?’ — and then just cutting it loose,” Rivera said Tuesday. “That’s something that you, as a veteran quarterback, you’re always looking for. … We see it in practice. But I think a lot of it has to do with his savviness and his understanding of coverages to look at certain elements and say: ‘Okay, we’ve got this route combination against that coverage. I’ve got this matchup versus man.’”
Smith’s start at Dallas on Thursday will be his first on Thanksgiving Day for Washington. Dallas has won eight of its nine games against Washington on Thanksgiving, but a win for Washington would do more than turn the tide; it would put Washington in first place in the tight NFC East division race.
“It’s nice knowing that we’re in it, but I think for us it’s more important to work week-by-week,” Smith said. “Division games are huge. This is a big division game on the road. Special circumstances, playing Dallas on Thanksgiving. There’s a lot on the line. I don’t think we need to look past that at all.”