Sports columnist

They had the ball and the lead when the clock neared zero, and Alex Smith had earned the right to take the snap and then take a knee. No victory in the NFL can be counted before time’s up, certainly not for the Washington Redskins, so the still-new quarterback cradled the ball carefully until it was official. He then tossed it gently to an official, accepting hugs and congratulations all around.

For all the toughness this team showed in clinging to a 23-17 victory over the Carolina Panthers on Sunday at FedEx Field, there’s fragility here — and plenty of it. That’s not a unique quality in the NFL, which appears designed to keep, say, 26 teams squished together between 7-9 and 9-7. But it’s true about this Washington team — and its offense in particular.

“Oh, I feel like we’re very untapped offensively,” Smith said afterward. “A lot of potential.”

That’s the optimistic view, and on a day they squeezed out a win to hold the lead in the NFC East — with their first division game coming up at home against Dallas — why not be cheery? They won Sunday without the services of third-down back Chris Thompson and possession receiver Jamison Crowder, both potential weapons, both out with injuries. Untapped? A quarterback who’s only five games into his tenure with his new team ought to say that and mean it.

But here’s the problem: On Sunday, Washington made a concerted effort to make tight end Jordan Reed the featured element of its attack, as he should be, targeting him nine times. It got 97 tough yards on 17 efficient carries from banged-up, 33-year-old running back Adrian Peterson. It got 10 gift points off three first-half Carolina turnovers. It led 17-0.

Coach Jay Gruden and Alex Smith talk things over on the sideline during the win over the Panthers. “He protected the football,” Gruden said of Smtih, “and did some good things.” (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

So much went right. Yet, with less than a minute left in the game, Carolina quarterback Cam Newton had three shots. Gain five yards and get a first down, with enough time to try again. Gain 16 and score the go-ahead touchdown, leaving Washington devastated.

Washington’s defense hung on. But Smith and the offense could have put this away long before any of those histrionics.

“We had a chance to do a lot better,” Coach Jay Gruden said.

That’s the nature of this: survive and improve. They were better, of course, than that embarrassment last Monday night, when they got blown out in New Orleans, 43-19. But offensively, how much better? They gained 283 total yards against the Saints, and Smith was 23 for 39 for 275 yards, no scores and an interception. They gained 288 yards against the Panthers (who ran up 350), and Smith went 21 for 36 for 163 yards, two touchdowns and no picks.

Now, for sure, there were protection issues against Carolina, and Washington is still asking starting center Chase Roullier to fill in for injured guard Shawn Lauvao, with backup Tony Bergstrom slotting in at center. The absences of Thompson and Crowder certainly had an impact.

But the nagging question early in Smith’s stint in Washington is: What if a limited offense led by a limited quarterback ends up being . . . well, limited?

Be honest here: Do you glance at the Minnesota results, even click through to the box score, to check on the Vikings’ new quarterback? No shame in doing so. Kirk Cousins had a very Kirk Cousins game Sunday against Arizona, going 24 for 34 for 233 yards. He threw for a touchdown and ran for another. But he also threw a pick and was stripped for a fumble that was returned for a score.

Is Washington better off with Smith? That’s a hard TBD at the moment.

What we know: Smith is smart enough, experienced enough, disciplined enough and athletic enough to be a winning quarterback in this league — which is what he has been. But in two cases, the team that employed him felt it had a more dynamic option and moved on — San Francisco to Colin Kaepernick, Kansas City to current “it” boy Patrick Mahomes.

Which puts Washington in the spot of wanting the steady hand Smith can provide but perhaps needing more than mere steadiness. There’s no assailing Smith for preparation and poise.

“The game was over,” said wide receiver Paul Richardson Jr., who caught the second of Smith’s two touchdown passes. “I’m over there telling Alex, ‘Hey, don’t be mad at me at some of the things I did.’ He’s like, ‘Don’t worry about it,’ and he’s over there talking about what we need to do in practice this week.”

Which is admirable and what a leader should do. But professionalism can’t magically turn into explosiveness. Washington’s longest play from scrimmage Sunday was Smith’s first-quarter scoring pass to veteran tight end Vernon Davis. It was a well-designed play called at the right time, when the Panthers had one safety deep, and he shaded the wrong way. It covered 22 yards.

Maybe, with more work and familiarity, the speedy Richardson finds a way to consistently stretch defenses. Maybe Reed, the player on Washington’s offense you most likely would pay good money to see, will stay healthy and figure out a way to deliver results even when he’s the focus of every defensive game plan. Maybe Peterson will continue to go untouched by the hands of time. Maybe Thompson and Crowder will return healthy. Maybe, maybe, maybe.

“I say ‘untapped,’ ” Smith said. “I just think, kind of, as we continue to find out who we are, our identity as an offense.”

Their identity will be shaped in large part by Smith. Not because he’s far and away their best player. But because they have no obvious choice for that role, and he plays the most important position. On Monday night, he and his team were rattled and rolled in New Orleans. On Sunday, they got up. Smith didn’t stand out in the win. But he didn’t cause a loss.

“He protected the football,” Gruden said, “and did some good things.”

That’s kind of the high-end hope for Smith, isn’t it? Protect the football. Do some good things.

But is that enough to lift an offense, a team, that needs lifting?

More than an hour after Smith took that game-sealing knee, he, his wife and their three young children went back out onto the field. The kids took turns tackling each other while their dad looked on, smiling. When it came time to head home, the quarterback walked slowly back toward the tunnel. A lingering fan wearing a No. 11 Washington jersey called out. He wanted a picture. Smith obliged.

It was a nice little moment on a lovely autumn evening when the home team won, so the quarterback was accepted as one of the reasons. But as he exited that tunnel, with Dallas up next, Alex Smith understood the week-to-week nature of his job. This is fragile, and all the pieces must fit together perfectly for Washington to succeed.