It took Alex Smith nearly two years to return to the starting lineup. It took him only two games to inject himself into the conversation over whether he can be Washington’s future quarterback.
But after throwing for a combined 715 yards in Washington’s last two losses — and nearly leading comebacks from large deficits each time — Smith has returned to a place few thought he would reach again. In Sunday’s 30-27 loss to the Detroit Lions — Smith’s first start since breaking the fibula and tibia in his right leg on Nov. 18, 2018 — he completed a career-high 38 passes for 390 yards. Washington tied the game after trailing by 21 points in the second half only to lose on a last-second field goal.
On Monday, Rivera said Smith could “possibly” be viewed as a long-term answer at quarterback for Washington.
“That’s something we as coaches and as an organization have to talk about most certainly if he continues to play at this level,” Rivera said.
If nothing else, though, Rivera said Smith has proven a point.
“He’s back as a player,” he said.
With seven games remaining, there’s a lot for Washington to analyze and discuss about the starting quarterback’s job. Dwayne Haskins opened the season as the starter, but was benched after four games. Kyle Allen replaced him, but dislocated his ankle in a Week 9 loss to the New York Giants. That provided Smith an opening.
Allen was placed on injured reserve Monday.
The reality is, Smith is 36 years old and would count $23.3 million against the salary cap in 2021. That’s not a bad sum for a starting quarterback in the NFL, but it will factor into Washington’s decision.
“You’ve got to look at how much longer you think he can play, how much longer does he want to play?” Rivera said.
In late August, it was debatable whether Smith would even be on the 53-man roster. In the week before final cuts, Smith lobbied hard in two different meetings with coaches to stay on the active roster and not be placed on injured reserve. That would have ended his season. But his point to the coaches was simple: He’s not injured.
The coaches found value in keeping Smith around, hoping he would serve as an example because of his work ethic and as an inspiration because of what he’s overcome — the 17 surgeries and near amputation of his right leg.
Lately, though, Smith has helped with his performance. There have been holes — he threw three interceptions two weeks ago against the New York Giants. And he has just one touchdown pass in 104 attempts this season.
Also, Washington is expected to closely monitor the college quarterbacks for possible long-term solutions. Rivera has said he’s not writing off Haskins, either. But they would need to see a change in his approach — and then see it translate on the field — for him to fully re-enter the discussion.
Smith has played in three games this season. In a relief appearance against the Los Angeles Rams in Week 5, Smith was under heavy pressure and struggled to move the ball. He completed 9-of-17 passes for 37 yards. But in nearly three quarters of play in relief of Allen against the Giants, Smith threw for 315 yards as Washington tried to rally from a 17-point deficit. Two late Smith interceptions dashed those hopes.
But Smith also showed he could be decisive — and that his leg could withstand getting hit often. After being sacked six times against the Rams, he’s been sacked a combined four times the past two games.
“That was the scary part is how normal it felt [Sunday],” Smith said. “I’ve got to pinch myself how lucky I am to feel that way. I’m lucky to progress this far and that I am where I am.”
A week ago, Rivera was asked whether Washington’s roster contained its quarterback of the future. “Well, that’s the question we have to answer as coaches,” Rivera said. “Is our franchise quarterback here? Is he on the roster? Is he being developed, or is he somewhere else? Again, we’ll continue to go through that and look at it and evaluate it and see exactly where we are.”
Regardless, Smith has helped a young offensive roster — Washington has five skill players in their first, second or third seasons playing key roles. The lone third-year player, Cam Sims, has 13 career receptions — 11 this season. Of Smith’s 71 completions this season, 43 have gone to one of these targets.
“It’s a young group,” Rivera said. “The only way they get better is to get their chances to learn and grow. Alex has done a good job distributing the ball.”
Smith said, “There is so much youth and energy and personality, it’s fun to see those guys make plays. As an old guy it’s contagious and I love it.”
Undrafted rookie receiver Isaiah Wright said Smith constantly communicates with the young wideouts — in practice and during games. It also helps that he’s seen every look imaginable and can work through his progressions at a more rapid pace. Rivera said it helps let the young wideouts know that they must run their route correctly because the ball might come their way.
“Being a young guy sometimes things move fast and I can’t slow the game down by myself,” said Wright. “I can count on Alex to slow the game down. … It’s subtle conversations or helping me by telling me exactly what the play is so I don’t have to think and [he’ll give] suggestions and pointers and pull me aside. It helps slow it down because I’m not nervous.”
As Rivera said, there’s more that Smith can do to help the offense. He’s already become a pleasant story because of the comeback; Washington must decide if he can become more than just a feel-good story. Rivera said he doesn’t want to get caught up in the emotion of Smith’s story as he considers the future.
“You judge him by his performance,” Rivera said. “You don’t get caught up in his story, you don’t get caught up in his age. Now, when you talk about going forward, now you talk about these other things.”