ASHBURN, Va. — Washington Football Team quarterback Alex Smith has gone from possibly losing his right leg to being one snap away from returning to game action. Which means he’s one snap away from this question being answered: What happens if he gets hit?
After all, it hasn’t happened since he broke his fibula and tibia on Nov. 18, 2018. Seventeen surgeries and one documentary later, Smith will be in uniform on the sideline for the first time since his injury when Washington (1-3) hosts the Los Angeles Rams (3-1) on Sunday (1 p.m. ET, Fox).
“I have no trepidation having him come in and play if that’s what happens,” Washington coach Ron Rivera said.
In benching Dwayne Haskins, Washington not only elevated Kyle Allen to the starting job, it moved Smith to the No. 2 position. Smith had been inactive for the first four games. But Rivera said Smith’s knowledge of the offense — he has played in a similar system in the past — made him a better backup during a game than Haskins.
“He understands it and I want to put the ball back in the hands of somebody who’s been in it,” Rivera said.
But Smith’s right leg will be a point of fascination if he plays. He had a titanium rod inserted in his leg, and doctors have told him there’s no more risk for him than for another player. However, those other players aren’t coming back from what Smith has, nor have they participated in a documentary — an E:60 special dubbed Project 11 — that showed the gruesomeness of the injury.
Several members of the organization in the offseason wondered what doctor would clear Smith, 36, after seeing that documentary. Eventually the answer was this: his own doctors. And then Washington’s. But since training camp opened, Smith hasn’t been hit the way he would be in a game.
Washington defensive tackle Jonathan Allen said when a defensive player is on the sideline, they might cringe at the thought of hitting Smith knowing his injury.
“As messed up as it sounds, you have to be responsible to defend yourself,” Allen said. “If he’s not healthy enough to take a legal hit, then he shouldn’t be playing. He’s more than healthy enough to take a hit.
“There’s no nice way to do what we do. It’s a dangerous game. There’s no safe way to play it. If I’m not able to defend myself, then I shouldn’t expect opponents to take it easy on me. I know the risk. I know the reward. I know the danger associated with football and playing in the NFL. You have to ask yourself: Are you willing to risk?”
Smith has made it clear he wants to play again, whatever the cost. Washington strongly considered putting him on injured reserve this summer, but Smith lobbied against it — pointing out that doctors considered him healthy. Rivera said Smith was passionate about wanting to play again — and not just trying to prove he could return from such an injury.
That, plus what the doctors have told Rivera, makes him comfortable if Smith must play.
“If the doctor told me, ‘Oh, I wouldn’t put him out,’ I wouldn’t put him out there,” Rivera said.
In 2006, Smith played in San Francisco for offensive coordinator Norv Turner — the father of Washington offensive coordinator Scott Turner. It also helps that Smith has played 166 games and started 161 in the NFL. He has thrown 193 touchdown passes and 101 interceptions. He started 10 games in Washington before getting hurt.
If all goes well for Allen, then Smith won’t play. But if he does, it would cap a remarkable journey. Not even Washington anticipated him making it back. In late July, one source said Smith’s name was not coming up much in meetings when discussing plans for the season.
Washington quarterback Alex Smith details how he felt stepping on the practice field for the first time since his leg injury in 2018.
However, his team of doctors cleared him on July 25, right before he was supposed to report to Washington for workouts. He steadily progressed and was cleared by the team Aug. 16 to return to full football activity.
But since the season started, Smith has been relegated to occasional reps with the scout team, splitting those duties with Allen until this week. But Smith has maintained a leadership role.
“When guys have a mistake and he comes over and looks them in the eye and says, ‘It’s going to be OK, keep pushing, keep working hard,’ that means a lot,” Washington running back J.D. McKissic said.
Players see him as an inspiration.
“You’ve got to respect a guy like that,” McKissic said. “There are some crazy injuries in football, but I’ve never seen anything like what happened to him. For him to go through all that, I know it was very tough just to walk around. To see him scramble out of the pocket, fall and hop back up, I have nothing but respect for a guy like that.”