What was going to happen when blitzes came and the pass rushers poured in? Could he escape? Even after proving again and again that he can be slammed to the ground and stand back up, the question of his elusiveness has followed him through these past few weeks.
Earlier this season, when asked what trait is most essential for quarterbacks to succeed in this league, Arizona Cardinals Coach Kliff Kingsbury didn’t hesitate. “Can they get you out of a bad place?” he said. “When the play breaks down … can they move around and extend the play?”
For most of his career, extending plays was one of the things Smith did best, scrambling from disaster, dancing around tacklers’ hands just enough to make a throw. In the early winter of 2017, when Washington was considering Kirk Cousins’s replacements, it was Smith’s gift for escape that made him its first choice of available quarterbacks.
Now, five games into the unlikeliest of comebacks, with a titanium rod in a right leg cut open by surgeons 17 times and missing the nerves that keep his foot upright, Smith’s elusiveness remains the great uncertainty. It has been better than anyone could have expected, but is it good enough?
The conversation about Smith has advanced from adjectives such as “astonishing” and “miraculous” to whether he can lead this 4-7 team to the playoffs and perhaps be its quarterback next fall — and the fall after that. That’s why the next two games might be his most important tests yet.
Washington doesn’t need to beat the Pittsburgh Steelers on Monday and the San Francisco 49ers the following Sunday to win the NFC East. Chances are good that the division champion will have just six victories, and Pittsburgh and San Francisco are two of the tougher games remaining on Washington’s schedule. Smith won’t have to be great against two of the league’s most aggressive defenses.
But he will have to show he can escape a good pass rush, something he hasn’t done in his first three starts, yet something that will be imperative Monday against the Steelers and T.J. Watt, who might be the NFL’s top rusher. Already this season, Watt has 35 quarterback hits — a figure surpassed through 11 games by only one other player since 2006 — T.J.’s brother J.J. of the Houston Texans.
While Pittsburgh lost its second-best pass rusher in Wednesday’s win over the Ravens when Bud Dupree tore his ACL, the Steelers still lead the league with an average of 12.8 quarterback pressures and 9.5 quarterback hits per game as well as 41 sacks. Smith’s one game against a top pass rush happened to be his first since his gruesome broken leg in 2018, when he replaced an injured Kyle Allen midgame in a loss to the Los Angeles Rams.
Smith looked helpless against the Rams’ pass rush that day, getting sacked six times in little more than a half. Since then, he has been sacked only nine times in four starts and part of another — not an insignificant number but an improvement over his first game.
“I’m feeling better and feeling more comfortable,” Smith said on a video conference this week. “Definitely, that’s one thing — the ad-libbing, the escaping — that was in the back of my head because it’s really hard to simulate in practice with the jerseys on and the rush. It really is a game-time thing.
“To finally get those reps and opportunities and feel more and more comfortable doing it, I do feel better and feel good. I feel good about still having the ability to do that to the left end or the right. The more comfortable you get, the more willing you are to use it.”
Even if Washington’s run at winning what could be the most absurd division title in modern football history falls short, the team has a lot to figure out at quarterback. At some point, it can’t just hope Smith will win enough games to push the season past the first Sunday in January. It has to know whether Smith is going to be good enough to win 10 or 11 games in next season’s NFC East.
Will Smith be Washington’s quarterback for the next year or two? Should it go back to Dwayne Haskins in the season’s final weeks? Does it need to pick another quarterback in the first round of next year’s draft? Does it need to make a trade or sign a free agent?
A lot of those answers might come Monday against the league’s best pass rush and the following Sunday against one of the NFL’s top passing defenses. Already, Smith has defied what many believed possible. These next two games could say a lot about his future as Washington’s quarterback.
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