Alex Smith gets off a pass just before he gets hit by Denver defensive end DeMarcus Walker during Friday’s preseason game. (John McDonnell/The Washington Post)

What does it say about preseason football when ambition is simply survival?

Redskins Coach Jay Gruden was not going to risk hobbling starting quarterback Alex Smith before the team plays a real game. After losing promising rookie running back Derrius Guice in the first quarter of the first of four meaningless exhibitions, he cannot afford more calamities.

“My whole intent is to get our starting group to [the opening game in] Arizona healthy,” Gruden said after Friday night’s 29-17 preseason loss to Denver.

By preserving the health of his most important players, he is sacrificing at least a little piece of something important: timing. Smith is going into his first season with Washington having played precious few minutes with the men who will block for him and the receivers who will catch his passes. This might be the price of a healthier roster, but because Smith won’t play in Thursday’s game at Baltimore, the totality of his first preseason with the team is one series in the second exhibition game and three during Friday’s third game.

Smith and his receivers were clearly off Friday night. While no one would say as much in the postgame locker room, there is a difference between running daily pass routes on a practice field where contact is rarely made and during a game in which a pass rush comes crashing through the line. Most of Smith’s throws against Denver’s surge were lofted just a bit too far or a little out of his teammates’ reach — the kind of thing that often is fixed by familiarity and repetition.

Timing is a complex concept. Finding it is not simple. So much of Smith’s game is built on quick, precise throws or openings created by his scrambles. All of these require a measure of synergy between quarterback and pass-catcher. Smith and his receivers may have built a connection in practice, but it’s hard to duplicate game conditions on the fields in Richmond and Ashburn.

In a not-too-distant past, Smith would have played more than the little over one quarter of preseason football that is his total this month. He might have had the equivalent of a complete game spread over three exhibitions. But teams don’t expose their top players to that much contact anymore. The first team Smith played with Friday wasn’t even his real first team. Three of the more important pieces of Washington’s offense — tight end Jordan Reed, wide receiver Jamison Crowder and running back Chris Thompson — didn’t play.

Going into Arizona, Smith will have thrown just 14 passes to his new teammates this preseason. The risk for the Redskins is that 14 passes are not enough for a new quarterback and his offense to properly prepare for the regular season. Yet weighed against the fear of injury in games that don’t count, 14 passes are all Gruden dared to attempt.

Smith spent much of his time Friday night handing the ball to new running back Adrian Peterson. It was the safest thing for him to do, and given the fact Peterson hasn’t played a game since last November, it was important for the team to see how its new running back would handle his first hits. But the handoffs to Peterson meant Smith built little continuity with his receivers. He was just 3 for 8 for 33 yards.

“I’m sure if we had four quarters to play we could have made up some of the things we weren’t able to capitalize on,” tight end Vernon Davis said.

Smith has been remarkably consistent throughout his career. History says he won’t need many throws for those passes that were inches away from his receivers’ fingers to start landing in their hands. The presence of Reed, Crowder and Thompson probably will make that transition easier.

“Any offense is going to be better with all the weapons out there, of course,” Smith said Friday night. “Hopefully we’ll have them all out and ready to roll [in Week 1].”

He didn’t seem too concerned about lost timing. No one around the team did. They appeared more relieved that nobody’s name landed on the injury report. They were glad to survive intact. Their mentality probably ignites a bigger debate about the validity of a four-game preseason that brings in more revenue but also exists as a way to get players hurt. Sometimes the cost of care is a lack of calibration in a complicated offense.

“I wish we had done a little better job on the passing game today,” Gruden said late Friday night.

He said this more as an observation than a statement of remorse. His overall mood was elation that he hadn’t lost another key player before the first kickoff. Timing will have to be perfected in the contact-free cocoon of practice. Such is the choice in modern professional football.