Smith’s impending release — which is likely to happen in the coming days — is somehow both monumental and trivial. His recovery from what should have been a life-changing leg injury was the feel-good story of the 2020 season, when he became the no-brainer choice as the NFL’s comeback player of the year, nothing short of an inspiration. If Tiger Woods, say, needs someone to model his recovery after following last week’s leg-shattering car crash, he could do worse than talking to Smith. The quarterback has come to represent something to a sporting nation: that wanting to prove something to yourself — more than to anyone else — is a powerful motivating factor, that being told a pursuit is unlikely doesn’t mean it’s impossible. That resonates, and not just in D.C.
But Smith’s release by Washington is a formality for the franchise, which needs to find a dynamic, reliable solution at the most important position in sports under second-year coach Ron Rivera. Smith couldn’t be that. His age wouldn’t allow it, because he is not Tom Brady. His frailty wouldn’t allow it, and it’s important to remember that even though Smith went 5-1 as a starter in 2020 — a remarkable stat, really — he suffered a bone bruise in his right leg in Week 14, and that injury ultimately prevented him from starting Washington’s playoff game against Tampa Bay four weeks later.
About that playoff game: It says something about Washington’s situation at quarterback that an Old Dominion math student named Taylor Heinicke, who was signed one month and one day before the game against the Bucs, started that game in Smith’s place and engendered more excitement about the possibilities at the position than Washington fans had felt since … Kirk Cousins’s record-setting seasons? Since — gulp — Robert Griffin III’s rookie year of 2012? That’s crazy talk, of course. But at this point in his trajectory, there’s upside and athleticism in Heinicke. At this point in Smith’s, there’s not much of either.
Smith’s story is staggering, but he no longer offers stability. And the fact that his release saves Washington $14.7 million against the salary cap is just practical, good business. Remove the emotions tied up in Smith’s comeback from his 2018 injury — remember, there were doctors who recommended his leg be amputated, and there was a point when saving Smith’s life became more important than saving his leg — and Rivera and Washington must do what’s best for their roster.
About those emotions: Starting NFL quarterbacks are automatically among the handful of most prominent athletes in a given city, so their departures are often teary-eyed and sentimental. After the Detroit Lions agreed to trade Matthew Stafford to the Los Angeles Rams in January, Stafford’s wife posted a long missive on Instagram that included, “We came here for football, but we are leaving with a sense of home and endearment.” In a post on his website shortly before he became a free agent in 2018, Cousins wrote, “[I]t’s hard to look back at all that’s taken place and not become emotional.”
Yet what emotions do Washington fans have wrapped up in Smith? His comeback story happened when he played for Washington, but it never really felt like a Washington story. He played 82 games for San Francisco, where he was the No. 1 pick in the draft and has a deep, complicated history. He played 81 games for Kansas City, where he made three Pro Bowls and four trips to the playoffs. By comparison, he was here for a minute — 10 games in 2018 before J.J. Watt crumpled his leg, and eight games in 2020 in which his successful return to the field became a national story.
The local angle? Well, that heated up last week, when GQ published a Q&A with Smith, whose exchanges with reporters are normally so antiseptic they can be fast-forwarded. Here, though, Smith was candid and critical. Though he admitted even he doubted his own chances of coming back — “I never thought it was actually going to happen,” he said — he also went out of his way to tweak the organization, which he believes welcomed him back with folded arms.
“They didn’t see it, didn’t want me there, didn’t want me to be a part of it, didn’t want me to be on the team, the roster, didn’t want to give me a chance,” Smith said.
Never mind that when Rivera was hired, no one — including Smith — knew that Smith would be cleared to play that fall. Never mind that it was Rivera and his staff who gave Smith the chance to be on the roster — and ultimately made him the starter. The comments weren’t as incendiary as they were … odd.
It’s hard to believe that interview had anything to do with the decision to release Smith. Rather, this is a team with an improving and increasingly dangerous defense that needs to explore all avenues for a starting quarterback. It already tried to trade for Stafford. It already signed Heinicke back on a modest two-year deal. It has to explore the remaining available trade candidates, up to and including Houston’s Deshaun Watson and Seattle’s Russell Wilson. It must consider the draft.
Alex Smith’s time with Washington is over. He will be remembered more for what he did to get back on the field, which was heroic, than what he did once he was there, which was limited. And with his departure, Washington is exactly where it seems to forever be: wondering who will play quarterback, next year and beyond.