The details of his story are known, but after Smith’s even performance in Washington’s 23:17 riot against previously undefeated Pittsburgh on Monday night, they’re worth repeating. Every time he falls back, remember that he has a titanium rod in his right leg. Any time he feels the weight of 300 pound linemen weighing on him but still keeping an eye on his eyes, remember that most people would have chosen to have that leg amputated. Every time he makes a handover, keep in mind that the number of players who would have opted for another snap can be counted on one hand – and maybe one finger.
“Literally every week I make the most of it,” Smith told reporters Monday night. “I live as if it were my last and enjoy this attitude.”
Something tells you he is serious. He stared right at the end of his career – and worse – and whipped it all back. He is 36 years old. He is only more than two years away from the compound fracture of his right leg that could have cost him either his limb or his life. He’s not an elite quarterback. That he even plays is breathtaking. That he is now 3-1 as a starter for a team in Washington that suddenly feels … good, if not downright good, at least dangerous – that is hard to believe.
There are reservations about what played at Heinz Field on Monday, starting with the fact that Washington had 10 days between games and Pittsburgh only four. The victory makes Washington only 5-7 – in most years in the middle, connected with the New York Giants on the NFC East in this strange one. The Giants own the tiebreaker due to two narrow wins against Washington, so Washington’s road to the postseason is still difficult.
Still, there are two indelible images of Washington’s biggest win since the 2012 season finale against Dallas. The first came towards the end of the first half when blood was running down Smith’s leg – his left leg, luckily because what would we have thought if it had been the leg that doctors had performed 17 surgeries on? That wasn’t a scratch. The scene could have been in a Stephen King book.
“As a quarterback, you get kicked in a heap, especially on the front leg,” said Smith. “You somehow get used to it, numb to it.”
He described it like describing eating a bowl of cereal or pumping a tank of gasoline. The timing was lucky, he said, because he could stick it on at halftime. No problem. On to the next piece.
The second moment came when Washington made its comeback after trailing 14-0. Smith faced a blazing Steelers defense and stepped in, stood, stood … and threw himself left, where Logan Thomas waited for his close end.
Coaches will tell you that a key quality in a quarterback is the ability to keep your eyes on the background even if your pocket collapses, even if danger is imminent. This was Smith at his best in the field, and tells you a little bit about how Smith handled his life: don’t worry about the noise around you. Rather, consider the opportunities that lie ahead of you.
Thomas caught the touchdown pass that tied the score. Smith was struck down on both sides.
“Very proud of him,” said coach Ron Rivera.
In many ways, Smith doesn’t feel like a Washington story – although he was injured here, although he rehabilitated here, although his comeback will benefit the team here. His toughness and class are better known in San Francisco, where he faced the test of first choice on draft, was felt as disappointment, suffered an injury that cost him a season, and came back to a 13-3 Campaign. Then he lost his job in the middle of the Super Bowl – a career arc in eight years. He didn’t complain about any of this.
Smith’s talent and leadership skills are better known in Kansas City, where he played as a starter between 50 and 26, led four teams to the playoffs, and won division titles there in the last two of his five seasons. During that senior year with the Chiefs, he knowingly but gracefully prepared his successor for a job he was unwilling to give up. That player, Patrick Mahomes, is now the best in football. Smith went quietly elsewhere.
Now he is setting an example for others to follow, just as he has always set an example for others to follow. Don’t complain about your circumstances, whether they’re fair or not. Focus and work. Work and focus.
Of course, part of observing Smith in the present must be worrying about his future. There are realities. It seems that his ability to uncork the deep ball is limited. He seems comfortable falling on his back pretty quickly. His numbers as a starter are fine, nothing more – a completion rate of 69 percent and 250 yards per game with three touchdowns and two interceptions.
“He was patient and he took what they gave us and that was probably the greatest,” said Rivera. He commented on Smith’s performance on Monday night, but it actually describes Smith’s strength as a quarterback. He can’t do the pieces that Mahomes or Kyler Murray or Aaron Rodgers can do. So he does the pieces he can.
Washington could be on the verge of becoming a team that opponents don’t like to play. This is important not only for the postseason, but also for establishing itself as a threat in 2021 and beyond. It’s hard to see that Alex Smith is the quarterback of the future at 37 and 38. Until that question is resolved and there is stability – and even fame – in the most important position in sport, any rebuilding under Rivera will be incomplete.
But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t any elements to enjoy right now. “I’m not looking past the next launch and trying to take advantage of and enjoy it with all I have,” said Smith. We should all be guided by how he acts and reacts. Not only is he the best NFL story in an uneven season. He’s the NFL’s best example of how to carry yourself whatever the circumstances.