After leading the Washington Football Team to an unexpected NFC East title, quarterback Alex Smith and defensive end Chase Young were voted the NFL’s comeback player of the year and defensive rookie of the year, respectively.
In a season unlike any other because of the coronavirus pandemic, Smith and Young came to embody Washington’s attempted culture change — one as the experienced and respected veteran, the other as the fiery but coachable face of its future.
Smith, a reserved 36-year-old, achieved the unthinkable by returning from a compound leg fracture and life-threatening infection he suffered in 2018 to go 5-1 as Washington’s starter. Young, a vivacious 21-year-old whom the team drafted No. 2 overall in April, led all rookies with 7.5 sacks and helped Washington’s defense become one of the NFL’s finest, ranking second in total yards and passing yards allowed.
The two, while different in nearly every facet, were locker-room neighbors who converged to lead Washington to its first postseason appearance in five years.
For Smith, who received 49 out of a possible 50 votes, the honor is the latest of many after his long journey back to the field. After suffering a compound fracture in November 2018, Smith endured 17 surgeries to repair the bones in his lower right leg and to clear out an infection that destroyed much of the surrounding tissue.
“Alex’s injury was not just a run-of-the-mill tibia fracture,” said Air Force Lt. Col. Matthew Schmitz, the chair of orthopedics at Brooke Army Medical Center. “After the infection set in, it was truly like the blast injuries that we see in wartime trauma.”
When faced with the difficult choice of amputation or limb salvage, Smith chose the latter and began an arduous and risky journey to recovery. Muscle from his left leg was transferred to his right leg, a titanium rod was inserted in his tibia, and for months he wore a metal external fixator — which has since been transformed into the shape of the Lombardi Trophy.
After relearning to walk, Smith regained his strength and desire to play again at the Center for the Intrepid, a military hospital in San Antonio, where he rehabbed alongside wounded combat veterans.
And then, one by one, he beat the odds not only to play again but make Washington’s roster again, get hit again (courtesy of Los Angeles Rams star defensive tackle Aaron Donald), start again (a Week 10 loss at Detroit) and win again. Wearing the same throwback uniform on the same field where he suffered his injury two years earlier, Smith led Washington to a 20-9 victory over the Cincinnati Bengals to begin a four-game winning streak.
“When Alex got hurt and he was going through the surgeries, I didn’t know if he was going to play or not or if he was going to take one snap and say, ‘Peace out,’ ” Washington guard Brandon Scherff said at season’s end. “But then when I was sitting at home, and he came in for the Rams game and took that first hit and got up, I said, ‘Wow, that is truly remarkable.’ He’s an inspiration for all of us about never giving up.”
Another right leg injury, later reported to be a bone bruise, sidelined him for two games, Smith returned for the regular season finale in Philadelphia. While clearly still hampered by the injury, he finished out the win to get his team to the postseason.
Although Smith was sidelined for Washington’s playoff game, a first-round loss to Super Bowl LV-bound Tampa Bay, by then he had already proved he was back. He defied his own odds as well as everyone else’s. He had returned from the unthinkable to become once again a starting NFL quarterback — and a division champion, no less.
“My goal was football, not because I actually thought it was a reality, but because I knew my life would be better because of it,” he said during the NFL Honors broadcast. “Fighting the fear surrounding my new leg with the pursuit of something bigger, and a life lived without regret.”
For Young, the award capped a highly anticipated debut season. He is the first player in Washington history to earn top defensive rookie honors, and the first in the NFC East since New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor won it in 1981.
Young was the odds-on favorite to win the award since he was drafted, but his joyful and disruptive play surpassed even those expectations. His 7.5 sacks and 10 tackles for loss were tops among rookies, and he added 44 tackles, four passes defensed, four forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries. His signature moment might have been a scoop-and-score touchdown against the San Francisco 49ers in Week 14.
Still, it was an uneven season. In Week 1, Young started fast with 1.5 sacks against Philadelphia, but he felt hampered by hip and groin injuries. In Week 10 at Detroit, he committed a roughing-the-passer penalty that set up the Lions’ game-winning field goal. A week later, against Cincinnati and No. 1 pick Joe Burrow, everything changed. Young felt 100 percent, led the team’s pregame circle for the first time and forced a fumble on a Burrow scramble near the goal line.
After the win, Washington began its surge to the NFC East crown with Young as one of its most prominent voices. His combination of skill and intangibles cemented him as a cornerstone of the new era in Washington.
Defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio described Young’s natural leadership as authentic, noting there is a “humility but also a strength about him, a confidence about him that was not a false front.” He pointed out Young was willing to listen and be coached.
“And that was a great place to start,” Del Rio told The Washington Post this past week. “When young players that are taken high come in with that mentality, they’re easily accepted in the locker room. Guys respect that. It was such a good foundation for him to set, to come in the right way, so he got off on the right foot.”
The honor for Young could become one of many in his career. The honor for Smith joins a large collection of accolades earned in his 16 years in the NFL. But on Saturday night, as Young enjoys his first NFL offseason and Smith mulls his future, their awards were an acknowledgment of how far both had come — and perhaps how far their team can go.
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