This much was important: Alex Smith appeared before the Washington Redskins faithful — and this crowd Thursday night at FedEx Field, they were the extraordinarily faithful. The new quarterback was in full uniform, helmet on. He crouched under center. He took snaps in the shotgun. It’s possible he even broke a sweat.
But what did we learn in Smith’s one-possession, 10-snap, six-pass appearance?
Not a heck of a lot, to be honest. Not a heck of a lot.
“You always wish you could play more,” Smith said. “It’s such a fine line.”
Check back on Sept. 9, really. That’s when Washington travels to Arizona for its season opener. That’s when the games count. That’s when the line is no longer fine.
This? This isn’t worth paying for, and it’s straight-up petty theft that the few thousand hard-working folks who showed up were asked to.
I guess this is the point when I’m supposed to put in the final score. Let me look that up.
Oh, right, here it is. Washington 15, New York Jets 13. Midway through the preseason, the Redskins pulled themselves to .500!
It’s worth noting that the two teams who showed up at FedEx are approaching the most important position in sports — NFL quarterback — from entirely different angles. The Jets unveiled rookie Sam Darnold, the third overall pick in last spring’s draft out of USC. They have two other established quarterbacks on their roster — Teddy Bridgewater and Josh McCown. Darnold is 21, and has never taken a regular-season snap in the NFL. He has to be exposed to all sorts of situations — situations Smith, he of 151 NFL starts, has seen over and over again.
Washington’s fans, though, are just getting introduced to Smith. Have you met him yet? He is 34. He played for Kansas City before his trade here, and San Francisco before that, and was at one point what Darnold is now — a high draft pick (No. 1 overall) selected to lift up a once-proud franchise (the 49ers). His arrival here, however, is why it was nice Coach Jay Gruden at least gave the people who opened their wallets to see some football a chance to see some of the people that will actually play the football once it matters.
So for a possession on offense, at least, that’s what happened. Well, except for Trent Williams, the left tackle who probably remains as Washington’s best offensive player. Oh, wait, unless that’s Jordan Reed, who also sat out. And Jamison Crowder, a key receiver.
Now, from a getting-ready-for-games-that-matter perspective, this makes perfect sense. Reed is frail and has missed so much time — he played just six games last season — that lining him up in one of these exhibitions would be ludicrous. Gruden said earlier in camp that Williams, entering his ninth year, is that rare kind of player who can prepare without full-on practice, and by this point in his career Williams has creaky knees. Rest, not violence, is prudent.
And then there’s Smith. Washington now has played two preseason games, and its undisputed starting quarterback has appeared on a single possession. The reality is that Washington’s joint practices earlier in the week with the Jets were more important to preparing Smith for what’s to come — which isn’t Denver next week or Baltimore the week after, but the Cardinals Sept. 9.
Those practices against the Jets were controlled. The two teams hit, but at any moment, Gruden and his counterpart, New York Coach Todd Bowles, could say, “Let’s have a quick whistle and play til contact.”
And so we come to another reality: football is too violent — too dangerous — to practice at full-speed. The stuff that can come up in any time in any sport appears with regularity. Why, look here Thursday night: There’s Washington running back Samaje Perine bursting into open space for 30 yards — a promising play after which the few spread out in the stands might say, “That’s what I came to see.”
But Perine suffered an ankle injury on that very run, and didn’t return. Maybe it’s nothing. Gruden said afterward it was just twisted. Phew.
Yet this is just a week after Colt McCoy, Washington’s backup quarterback who got the bulk of the work again Thursday night, handed off to a rookie running back named Derrius Guice, who burst and spun and stiff-armed his way to a 39-yard gain — and blew out his left knee. He’s done for the year.
What are coaches to do? They can’t know exactly how players will perform under pressure and at full speed unless they put them under pressure at full speed. But doing just that exposes them to injury — serious injury, the kind that can shape a team’s season.
So, then, Smith — in his entirety. A dump-off to new wideout Paul Richardson on which he absorbed a hit from Jets linebacker Jordan Jenkins that warranted a roughing-the-passer penalty. Smith’s response: a wide smile.
“We’ve been wearing those yellow jerseys too long,” Smith said. “It was nice to be a football player again.”
Being a football player is hazardous. Breathing again yet, Coach Gruden?
“I tried to call a simple play, a little bootleg away from all the pressure, and he got hit right in the mouth,” Gruden said. “So that was another great call by me.”
A play later, Smith hit veteran tight end Vernon Davis — an old favorite from their days with the 49ers — for 16 yards. He couldn’t connect with Rob Kelley out of the backfield, but then found Josh Doctson over the middle on third-and-9 for a nice conversion. He hit Kelley across the middle, and on third-and-goal from the Jets’ 4, had rookie wide receiver Trey Quinn on a slant route in the end zone. The ball fell to the turf.
Was the pass a little behind Quinn? Should Quinn have had it anyway?
Does it matter?
It doesn’t. What matters is that, as the field goal unit came onto the field and the first-team offense exited, Alex Smith ran to the sideline, still upright.
The fans in the stands at FedEx, they didn’t at all get what they paid for. But 10 plays is all a head coach can risk playing his unquestioned starting quarterback in mid-August, even if he’s appearing in his new digs for the first time.
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