The particulars of his story are well known, but in the wake of Smith’s evenhanded performance in Washington’s 23-17 upset of previously unbeaten Pittsburgh on Monday evening, they’re worth restating. Every time he drops back, remember that he has a titanium rod in his right leg. Every time he feels the weight of 300-pound linemen bearing down on him but still keeps his eyes downfield, remember that most people would have chosen to have that leg amputated. Every time he so much as makes a handoff, remember that the number of players who would have decided to take another snap can be counted on one hand — and maybe one finger.
“Literally each and every week, I’m making the most of it,” Smith told reporters Monday night, “living like it’s my last and enjoying that mind-set.”
Something tells you he means it. He stared directly at the end of his career — and worse — and flogged it all back. He is 36. He is just more than two years removed from suffering the compound fracture of his right leg that could have cost him either his appendage or his life. He is not an elite quarterback. That he is playing at all is staggering. That he is now 3-1 as a starter for a Washington team that suddenly feels … well, if not downright good, at least dangerous — that’s not to be believed.
There are caveats about what played out Monday at Heinz Field, starting with the fact that Washington had 10 days between games and Pittsburgh just four. The victory makes Washington just 5-7 — middling most years, tied with the New York Giants atop the NFC East in this strange one. The Giants, by virtue of two narrow wins over Washington, own the tiebreaker, so Washington’s path to the postseason is still difficult.
Still, there are two indelible images from what is, arguably, Washington’s biggest victory since the 2012 season finale against Dallas. The first came near the end of the first half, when blood gushed down Smith’s leg — his left leg, thankfully, because what might we have thought had it been the leg on which doctors had performed 17 surgeries? This wasn’t a scratch. The scene could have been in a Stephen King book.
“You get stepped on a bunch as a quarterback and especially that front leg,” Smith said. “You get kind of used to it, numb to it.”
He described it as he might describe eating a bowl of cereal or pumping a tank of gas. The timing was fortunate, he said, because he could get it taped up at halftime. No biggie. On to the next play.
The second moment came as Washington completed its comeback from what had been a 14-0 deficit. Facing a blitzing Steelers defense, Smith stood in, stood in, stood in … and threw to his left, where tight end Logan Thomas awaited.
Coaches will tell you a key quality in a quarterback is the ability to keep his eyes downfield even as the pocket is collapsing, even as danger is imminent. This was Smith at his best on the field and tells you a bit about how Smith has handled his life: Don’t worry about the noise all around. Rather, consider the possibilities ahead.
Thomas caught the touchdown pass that tied the score. Smith got crushed from both sides.
“Very proud of him,” Coach Ron Rivera said.
In a lot of ways, Smith doesn’t feel like a Washington story — even though he suffered the injury here, even though he rehabbed here, even though his comeback is benefiting the team here. His resilience and class are better known in San Francisco, where he faced the scrutiny of being the first pick in the draft, was perceived as a disappointment, suffered an injury that cost him a season, came back to lead a 13-3 campaign, then lost his job in the midst of a run to the Super Bowl — an entire career arc in eight years. He complained about none of it.
Smith’s talent and leadership are better known in Kansas City, where he went 50-26 as a starter, led four teams to the playoffs and won division titles in the last two of his five seasons there. That final year with the Chiefs, he knowingly but gracefully groomed his successor for a job he wasn’t ready to yield. That player, Patrick Mahomes, is now the best in football. Smith quietly went elsewhere.
Now he is setting an example for others to follow, just as he has always set an example for others to follow. Don’t complain about your circumstances, whether they’re fair or not. Focus and work. Work and focus.
Of course, part of watching Smith in the present has to involve wondering about his future. In doing that, there are realities. He is limited, it seems, in uncorking the deep ball. He quite quickly seems comfortable dumping down to a back. His numbers as a starter are fine, nothing more — a 69 percent completion rate and 250 yards per game with three touchdowns and two interceptions.
“He was patient, and he took what they were giving us, and that was probably the biggest thing,” Rivera said. He was commenting on Smith’s performance Monday night, but it actually outlines Smith’s strength as a quarterback. He can’t make the plays Mahomes or Kyler Murray or Aaron Rodgers can make. So he makes the plays he can.
Washington might be on the cusp of becoming a team opponents don’t relish playing. That’s important not just in this drive for the postseason but in establishing itself as a threat in 2021 and beyond. It’s hard to see Alex Smith, at 37 and 38, being the quarterback of the future. Unless and until that question is resolved and there is stability — and even stardom — at the most important position in sports, any rebuild under Rivera will be incomplete.
But that doesn’t mean there aren’t elements to savor right now. “I’m not looking beyond literally that next start and trying to take advantage of it with everything I got and enjoy it,” Smith said. We should all take our cues from how he acts and reacts. He is not only the NFL’s best story in an uneven season. He is the NFL’s best example of how to carry yourself regardless of the circumstances.