Smith likely will be Washington’s No. 3 quarterback, at least for now, which means he would be inactive during the regular season, as coach Ron Rivera said Smith is still rusty. Dwayne Haskins will start; Kyle Allen is likely the No. 2 quarterback.
Rivera said Smith’s spot became more of a reality in the past week. It wasn’t just the progress in his game; it was also Smith’s mental state.
Rivera said he met with Smith by himself for 30 minutes on Tuesday, then followed that up with another meeting the next day with Smith, offensive coordinator Scott Turner and quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese.
“He was very passionate about wanting to play again,” Rivera said, “very passionate about making this team. That stood out to me. Mentally, I think he was past the hurdle. I talked to the doctors he worked with, the people he had worked with from the military and our doctors. Everyone was positive where he was physically. To me, the mental aspect, he answered it the other day.”
Rivera said they “threw him into the fire” in practice on Thursday and Friday, handling more 11-on-11 work for backups, as well as scout team work. There was one day the players were in full pads; one day it was just shells. But the pace was good, allowing the staff to accurately gauge Smith’s development in the pocket.
“People were flying all over the place and he stood tall,” Rivera said. “That was the biggest hurdle for me personally. … I’m fired up for what he could be. This gives us a chance to continue to work on football movements. You can tell there are some things where he still looks rusty.”
It was a final step for Rivera, who had said the coaches would want to see Smith in full-team work to best assess his movement in the pocket — and his ability to protect himself. Prior to Thursday, Smith was limited to five passes over two 11-on-11 sessions with no pads.
But coaches were pleased by how he moved in other drills, including 9-on-9 situations in which he faced two pass-rushers and was forced to move in the pocket. On one occasion, he sprinted away from the rush to his right and fired a pass.
Washington quarterback Alex Smith details how he felt stepping on the practice field for the first time since his leg injury in 2018.
Saturday caps quite a journey for Smith. He had suffered a broken tibia and fibula in November 2018, leading to 17 surgeries, near amputation and many questions surrounding his future. Before training camp began, multiple team sources expressed severe doubts about his ability to earn a roster spot. Or that any doctor would clear him for full contact.
Throughout the process, many people in the organization refused to dismiss his chances — mostly out of respect for him. They knew the work he was putting in to return. The common line delivered by multiple sources with Washington: “If anyone can do it, Alex can.”
His team of doctors cleared him for full activity in late July, although he opened training camp still on the physically unable to perform list. But word quickly spread that coaches were pleasantly surprised by how he was moving, and Washington removed him from the PUP list on Aug. 16.
But there was still doubt as Washington weighed whether to keep him around.
“I was skeptical to begin with,” Rivera said.
But he said he researched Smith’s recovery and talked with his doctors. It also mattered to him that Smith didn’t have any residual pain the day after a workout. They never had to give him a long period off.
When Smith was hurt in 2018, Washington was 6-3 and in first place in the NFC East. He had modest stats — 10 touchdowns and an 85.7 passer rating — and was struggling to master the offense. But teammates credited his leadership and his ability to avoid trouble — only five interceptions — as a key reason for that success. At season’s end, multiple players bemoaned the loss of his leadership.
In 13 years, Smith has started 161 games and thrown 193 touchdowns to 101 interceptions. The No. 1 pick in the 2005 draft spent seven seasons with San Francisco before being traded to Kansas City. The Chiefs traded him to Washington in the 2018 offseason, opening the door for Patrick Mahomes to start. Mahomes has credited Smith for providing a blueprint on how to prepare to play quarterback in the NFL. Smith also became a mentor to Haskins last season. But even while discussing his impact on Haskins, Smith said he could have a bigger impact if he were actually preparing to play and not just dispensing advice. Smith can do that now. Even he had wondered where his recovery would take him.
“You naturally build up a ton of walls, wondering what you’ll ever be capable of again, wondering what life will be like,” he said. “I’ve spent a long time thinking about those things, that inner voice in your head. Ever since I’ve been on the road to recovery, to see what I can do and to knock down those walls. Obviously, started with my first step as I kind of re-learned to walk, and progressed from there.”
That progression, highlighted in the ESPN E:60 documentary titled Project 11, took him back to the NFL.
“This is one of those ones where you wonder if I’ll be able to do it again,” he said. “When you get closer and closer to it, I think it just fuels it even more. I think it’d be like running a marathon and getting close to the end of the race. I think even more that competitiveness kicks in, and I want to see if I can do it.”
Former Washington quarterback Joe Theismann, who had to retire after a similar injury in 1985, told ESPN last month that he was living vicariously through Smith.
“I was pulling for him from day one,” Theismann said. “In the beginning, everyone said he’ll never play again. I never bought that. Knowing Alex as I’ve come to know him and the determination he had … when you watch the show Project 11, the way the show ends, he was so much further ahead than where that show ended. Now he has a chance to go out and do certain things.”