Long before Alex Smith almost lost his right leg, and his life, he stood in the center of the Superdome in New Orleans in January 2013, a few weeks after he had lost his job. Smith had been the San Francisco 49ers’ starting quarterback for the team’s first nine games that season, leading them to victories in six of them, before he suffered a concussion and coach Jim Harbaugh replaced him with Colin Kaepernick. Now the 49ers were about to play the Baltimore Ravens in Super Bowl XLVII, and on media day, Smith, still wearing hubcap-sized headphones for a radio interview he had just finished, answered question after question about Harbaugh’s decision to bench him not because he had been playing poorly, but because he had gotten hurt.
“There are no brain transplants I’ve ever heard of,” he said. “Not something to mess around with. Things happen in sports. This is the deal. To me, it’s just being ready for the next opportunity. That’s what I can control.”
Smith is likely to start Sunday night against the Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field, and the opportunity before him, to win the NFC East for the Washington Football Team, still seems too wild to be true. His return from that grotesque and deadly leg injury in November 2018 – when a compound fracture, the bones blasting through his skin, exposed him to an infection that doctors feared would kill him – has made him a shoo-in for the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year award. A calf strain in that same leg has him listed as questionable for Sunday’s game, and if he were to play through it and help Washington qualify for the playoffs, the achievement would be the stuff of movie and book deals with inspirational Hallmark/Rocky plotlines. It would also add another ironic and unsatisfying dynamic to the Eagles’ season: If they win Sunday, they’ll ruin the best story in the NFL. Go get ‘em, guys.
That ordeal, from the injury through 17 surgeries on his leg through the grueling rehabilitation, will forever stand as the truest test of Smith’s character and spirit. In the hospital, he told his wife, Elizabeth, “Millions of people would love to be where I am right now. Do you know the life that we live and the blessings we have?” But for anyone who closely follows professional football and the Eagles in particular, for even Carson Wentz and Jalen Hurts themselves, Smith’s entire 16-year career is a lesson in patience and diligence and, above all, understanding and accepting who a player is and who he isn’t.
Start with that small scene in the Superdome. Smith had been the No. 1 pick in the 2005 draft, and for his first six years with the 49ers, he pretty much had been written off as a bust. Then Harbaugh – a coach who knew what he was doing, or at least knew more than Smith’s previous coaches – arrived, and Smith’s career took off. The 49ers reached the 2012 NFC championship game, and over a 26-game regular-season stretch, Smith threw 30 touchdown passes and just 10 interceptions and rushed for more than 300 yards as the team went 19-5-1.
Smith’s concussion, though, gave Harbaugh the chance to see what Kaepernick – bigger, faster, and with a stronger arm than Smith – could do. When Harbaugh decided to anoint Kaepernick the starter, it turned out to be the right decision, at least for that season. Kaepernick was statistically better than Smith, and the 49ers came within one play of winning Super Bowl XLVII.
The benching established the template for evaluating and judging Smith: smart, versatile, athletic, tough, doesn’t make dumb mistakes, will run the offense the way it’s supposed to be run, but not quite good enough to be a franchise quarterback. A similar scenario played out for him with the Kansas City Chiefs, after Andy Reid traded for him. The Chiefs reached the playoffs four times in Smith’s five seasons there. In 2017, he threw for 4,042 yards and led the league in passer rating (104.7) and yards per attempt (8.6). Yet all that excellence did was reaffirm to Reid that the Chiefs’ offense would be even better if Patrick Mahomes were the starting quarterback. And Reid was right.
So Smith went to Washington, and for all its numbskullery, that team was 6-4 in his first 10 starts before he broke his leg. He wasn’t spectacular in those games, just competent and confident and aware, at all times, of what he could and should do and what he couldn’t and shouldn’t. Is it better to have a quarterback with fewer limitations? Of course. But it’s amazing how damaging it can be to have a quarterback who plays as if he doesn’t have any.
“There’s probably been a lot of things said and piled up upon him over his career that he can’t do this, he can’t do that,” said Eagles coach Doug Pederson, who was the Chiefs’ offensive coordinator for Smith’s first three years with the team. “But, bottom line, he’s a proven winner in this league at quarterback. That is what you are measured by, and I have a lot of respect for him.”
Smith’s statistics this season are not eye-popping; they’re barely mediocre: four touchdowns, six interceptions, a yards-per-completion average, 9.7, that would be the lowest of his career. But Washington is 4-1 in the games he has started and 2-8 in the others. Too much can be made of a quarterback’s win-loss record, but too little can be made of the stuff that Smith, by all available evidence, has, the stuff that can’t be seen. Wentz and Hurts might not be of a mind to do it, but each of them ought to pause Sunday night for a good long look at their counterpart on the other sideline. Then they ought to consider why he’s there, and everything it took. Things happen in sports. Alex Smith dealt with them. In their careers, they could do worse. Just about anyone could.