Smith was right when he told GQ that he was the “leftovers” and “this liability” for Rivera when he returned to Washington last summer. Rivera was building for the next 10 years. The last thing the coach needed was a 36-year-old quarterback with a titanium rod in a hollowed-out leg hobbling from the painful past onto the new landscape he is seeking to create. At a moment when Rivera needed simplicity, Smith’s surprise return made things complicated.
Rebuilding from a disaster often brings awkward choices. Rivera is hardly the first football coach to declare himself the leader of a new era. The game is filled with men who have been far more extreme, pulling old pictures from the office walls, declaring the team’s records now start with them. Rivera came with a reputation for creating a different culture. Part of installing a new culture is forgetting the old one.
But in removing Smith — his predecessor’s $94 million bet on a franchise savior who became the unfortunate victim of a devastating injury — Rivera is tossing out the player who might have done the most to create the positive, fighting culture he is trying to implement. Nothing could be better for a fledgling team, desperate to understand the heart of a battle, than the quarterback whose career had been left for dead, coming in midseason to win five games and lead it to the playoffs.
Through a tumultuous autumn, Smith’s football miracle and Rivera’s cancer fight ran together as the NFL’s best stories, and for a time there was room for both tales in Washington. Smith got the team to a place Rivera wouldn’t have been able to had the old quarterback not shown up to the shock of all on the eve of training camp.
Of course, the limitations were always there. This Smith couldn’t move as well as the previous one. He wore a special brace around his right leg just to keep his foot from dropping flat to the turf. And no engineering, no matter how amazing, could recover that lost step. He was no longer elusive. The bone bruise that kept him from two of the season’s final games and the playoff loss to Tampa Bay was a warning to all that he probably can’t be the starter even for another year.
In just the past month, two former NFL general managers and a former coach have said Smith is all but done. One used the word “regression” to describe Smith’s current skills. It was a cold assessment but an honest glimpse into the bottom-line world of football executives who strip players to a basic truth: Can he play?
Still, there was no doubt Washington was a different team with Smith at quarterback. The players revered how he took control of games, how calm he was in the huddle, how he got back on the field when no one believed he would play again after 17 surgeries. Without saying a word, he taught them about belief.
Rivera needs his quarterback of the future, the player who will be for him with Washington what Cam Newton was for him with Carolina. He needs his leader for the 2020s, and to find that he has to cut as many connections from the 2010s as he can. He, Marty Hurney and Martin Mayhew are scrambling to find his Washington Newton. Given the run they made at Matthew Stafford before the Detroit Lions traded him to the Los Angeles Rams, it seems clear they are looking for someone experienced and not trying to gamble on the draft.
The danger in falling for a quarterback with what the football people call a “big arm” is that Rivera, Hurney and Mayhew also must replace the thing Smith brought most of all: a presence. Washington can’t try to find someone gifted and hope that player can learn to be a leader. The new person will have to fill a room.
A lot of good things can happen in the new era Rivera is trying to forge. Releasing Smith will save about $15 million against the salary cap, giving Washington roughly $53 million of cap space to bring in a new quarterback as well as add playmakers and solidify the offensive line on a team that already has one of the league’s best defenses. The future could be bright.
But even if this new quarterback eventually takes Washington to the Super Bowl, no one should forget the player who did more than anyone to bring back winning and instill the strong culture: the inconvenient liability who helped salvage what could have been a lost first chapter in the history Rivera is writing.