Not even Alex Smith expected to be back on a football field after suffering a compound leg fracture in November 2018, his right leg ravaged and his career seemingly over just 10 games after coming to Washington.
The 2005 No. 1 draft pick out of Utah, who had already played 13 seasons before his comeback, defied the odds last season to restore not only his career but also Washington’s playoff hopes, going 5-1 in his six starts to help the team claim the NFC East title and a postseason berth for the first time in five years.
His impending release will save Washington close to $15 million under the salary cap, bringing the team’s total cap space to roughly $53 million, the fourth most in the league. It will also leave Washington with an uncertain future as it searches for its next franchise quarterback — and with few clear options. The team re-signed Taylor Heinicke to a two-year deal after his standout performance in a first-round playoff loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and it will probably retain Kyle Allen on a minimal one-year exclusive rights free agent tender.
Three years ago, Smith was Washington’s long-term answer. But in recent weeks, Smith’s departure from Washington appeared more probable, both because of his contract — he had two years left and a cap charge of $23.3 million for 2021 — and lingering uncertainty over his durability and mobility.
Smith suffered a bone bruise to his surgically repaired leg late in the season that kept him from playing in two regular season games and Washington’s playoff loss. Even when healthy, his ability to escape the pass rush was diminished. Smith, who will be 37 in May, has foot drop because of the injuries and the 17 surgeries it took to repair the bones and clean out a bacterial infection. He can no longer lift his foot up toward his shin, and while he wears a light brace to help him overcome the deficiency, his mobility appeared limited during the season.
The news of Smith’s impending release, which was first reported by NFL Network, comes less than a week after a candid interview he gave to GQ magazine, in which Smith said his comeback last offseason “threw a wrench” into Washington’s plans under Coach Ron Rivera. He said the team “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” last summer as he attempted to complete his comeback from his injury.
“Mind you, it was a whole new regime. They came in, I’m like the leftovers and I’m hurt and I’m this liability,” Smith added in the interview. “Heck no, they didn’t want me there.”
But Smith was added to the initial 53-man roster in September and soon became a vital piece of Washington’s success.
“We sat down with him — myself, [quarterbacks coach] Ken Zampese and [offensive coordinator] Scott Turner. He was very passionate about wanting the opportunity to play again, very passionate about making this football team,” Rivera said last year. “That really stood out to me because it really just showed, mentally, I think he’s past the hurdle. … But always in the back of your mind you always wonder about the mental aspect. How is he going to be with it? I just loved his response. I loved the way he went at us about wanting to do specific things.”
Smith leaves Washington with an 11-5 record as a starter. He arrived in 2018 via trade with the Kansas City Chiefs, and after leading Washington to a 6-3 start that year, he was injured on a sack in Week 11 against the Houston Texans. Smith’s right leg snapped under the weight of Houston defensive end J.J. Watt and safety Kareem Jackson, and his bone broke through the skin.
“That entire time, especially the good first six months after the injury, you build up a lot of walls in your head when you’re in the hospital and you’re wheelchair-bound and I’m in a walker,” he said last year. “You build up a lot of walls in your head as far as what you’ll ever be able to do again, and then you finally get over that crest and start trying to knock those walls down slowly as they come. … It took a long time before I could even look at my leg.”
Smith’s leg and his life were saved by the procedures, but he had no guarantee that he would walk normally again, let alone play football. It wasn’t until he visited the Center for the Intrepid, a military hospital in Texas, that he turned his eye toward a comeback.
For weeks, Smith traveled back and forth between his home in Northern Virginia and the facility in San Antonio to recover from his injuries alongside wounded veterans.
“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.”
In July, just days before the start of training camp, Smith was cleared by his own medical team, led by surgeon Robin West, who also serves as Washington’s team physician.
After spending the first two weeks of camp on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list, he was activated and began to take limited reps. He began the season as a backup, and his first hit didn’t come until Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald jumped on Smith’s back for a sack — the first of six taken by Smith in a Week 5 loss that he entered after an injury to Allen.
“The first one felt good,” Smith said after the loss. “It was nice to know you are fine going out there. It was nice to knock the cobwebs off, so to speak.”
Five weeks later, Smith got his first start and posted career highs in passing yards (390) and attempts (55) in a close loss to the Detroit Lions. And a week after that — almost two years to the day that he suffered his injury — Smith earned his first win as a starter since his return, wearing the same throwback uniform that had to be cut off in an ambulance.
“One thing I could say about Alex is he never makes it about him,” wide receiver Terry McLaurin said after the game. “He has every reason to kind of [say], ‘Look at my comeback story; look what I’ve done,’ but he makes it about the team.”
With Smith at the helm, Washington won four consecutive games. Just when Washington claimed the top spot in the division, however, Smith was sidelined with the bone bruise. His absence in Weeks 15 and 16 nearly cost Washington a playoff spot. But Smith was unwilling to miss the regular season finale with the division and the playoffs on the line.
When Rivera met with West, the team doctor, the day before, she looked at him and told him Smith planned to be out there — no matter what.
Smith played through his injury to guide Washington to a 20-14 win over the Philadelphia Eagles to clinch the NFC East. In his postgame news conference, Smith, wearing a burgundy T-shirt that read “WON NOT DONE” in block lettering, was asked what it meant to him.
“All I care about is that it says division champs,” he said with a wide grin as he looked down at his shirt.
But after the team’s loss to Tampa Bay, the focus quickly shifted to the future. Rivera said Smith’s future as a starting quarterback depended on his health.
“Really the only person that can tell you that is going to be Alex,” he said.
Smith told reporters that he planned to take some time to mull his options, but it wasn’t long before he started to strongly hint about wanting to play. He said in an interview with “60 Minutes” that his season “only emboldened me that I can play at this level,” and in his interview with GQ that he has “more left to go gain.”
Smith, it appears, is not done — even after a near two-year recovery from a life-threatening injury, after a roller-coaster career in which he was twice replaced by younger quarterbacks he helped mentor, after building a reputation as a respected teammate, and after proving what so many believed was impossible.
“You get away from it all, you miss the edge that this game gives you week in and week out,” he said the week after the division-clinching win over Philadelphia, “of really having to toe the line every single game day, every single Sunday, putting yourself out there, being accountable to your teammates, the challenge of finding a way, a formula to prepare and go out there and win week in and week out. … That feeling that it gives you, though, when you’re away from it, you certainly cannot find it anywhere else. You can’t duplicate it. You get away from it, and you miss it quick.”
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