ASHBURN, Va. — In one interview after another this offseason, Washington Football Team quarterback Alex Smith sounded like someone who was ready to keep playing. He had proved a point by returning to the field; he also discovered there was more he felt he could do.
Washington released him on Friday, freeing up $14.9 million of salary-cap space in 2021 with the move, and will continue its quest to find a long-term solution at quarterback. But that doesn’t mean Smith’s football journey has ended.
Some teams make sense for him: the Jacksonville Jaguars, where he could be reunited with his college coach, Urban Meyer, and help mentor projected No. 1 overall pick Trevor Lawrence; the Chicago Bears, where he’d be paired with Matt Nagy, one of Smith’s coaches for five seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs; or even the San Francisco 49ers, his original team.
As one NFL coach said, a team that views itself as a title contender and needs a solid backup also would make sense.
In a GQ magazine article last month, Smith said, “I got more left … At some point, I’m obviously going to have to sit down with my wife [Elizabeth] and have a very real conversation, and do we want to do this? She deserves a ton of input. So we’ll see.”
Assuming he doesn’t retire, his next stop will continue an incredible comeback story. Here’s a look back at his memorable moments the from the past three years.
The trade: Jan. 30, 2018
Washington decided to move on from Kirk Cousins; the sides were far apart on a deal and didn’t want to apply the franchise tag to Cousins for a third year. Washington traded a third-round pick and young cornerback Kendall Fuller to Kansas City to land Smith, who agreed to a four-year extension worth up to $94 million.
“You have a chance to get an established quarterback,” then-coach Jay Gruden said. “It was a no-brainer.”
The injury: Nov. 18, 2018
Midway through the third quarter of a game against the Houston Texans, Smith was under pressure from a blitz and sacked by defensive end J.J. Watt, suffering a broken tibia and fibula. The injury happened 33 years to the day that former Washington quarterback Joe Theismann suffered a similar injury in a game against the New York Giants. Theismann was in attendance for the Texans’ game.
En route to the hospital, with a bone protruding through his skin, Smith asked his wife, “How is [backup QB] Colt [McCoy] doing?” and, “What’s the score?” He also wanted details about formations.
Without Smith, Washington went from 6-4 to finish the season at 7-9.
Leaving the hospital: Dec. 16, 2018
After nearly a month and multiple surgeries to stem an infection, Smith headed home. Elizabeth posted a message on Instagram that read in part: “This last month has been a difficult ride. Our family is beyond happy to have this man with us and home.”
Ten days before he left, the team released a statement for the first time about the injury, calling it “serious.” During his hospital stay, a group of players rented a bus and visited him. Because there were so many players, Smith was wheeled into another room where all could gather.
“We all just assured him, ‘Hey, we’re praying for you, man,'” running back Adrian Peterson said.
Fixator removed: July 15, 2019
For eight months, Smith needed to wear an external fixator on his leg — a halo-like device attached to his bone to keep it in place, allowing it to heal. Several weeks before it was removed, Smith told Fox 5 DC’s Angie Goff he planned to return to the NFL.
“I’ve got to conquer some more steps before I get there, but, yeah — learn to run again. I feel like throwing’s not a problem,” Smith said. “The stronger I get every week, the more I do, the more hopeful I am that that’s a real possibility.”
Project 11 documentary: May 1, 2020
Stephania Bell’s E:60 documentary for ESPN took viewers through his journey: from the hospital to the near amputation to him going to the Center for the Intrepid, working alongside veterans wounded in war. It pushed him; it also humbled him. It was evident in the show that, even if others weren’t, Smith was feeling more confident about a return.
After seeing the graphic images of Smith’s right leg in the documentary, one Washington employee said, “What doctor would clear him to play after seeing that?”
Placed on PUP: July 27, 2020
Shortly before training camp opened, Washington placed Smith on the physically unable to perform list. Three days earlier, his doctors, including the team’s head orthopedist, Robin West, had cleared him to return, but the coaches wanted more time to evaluate him from a football perspective and not rush him.
Smith told Bell of his doctors clearing him: “To get the green light that I could practice, get contact, that I had healed up, that much was pretty wild to hear. I didn’t know if I would ever hear those words.”
Seven months later in GQ magazine, Smith said he felt unwanted by the team at the time and that it didn’t plan on his return. One team source said that before camp there weren’t many discussions about Smith; the team couldn’t believe he’d be ready. Entering camp, Washington viewed 2020 as a rebuilding year. A 36-year-old coming off 17 surgeries didn’t quite fit into a rebuild.
Activated off PUP: Aug. 16, 2020
Elizabeth’s Instagram post showing Smith’s family dousing him with champagne as he came home the night before tipped off the news: Washington would be activating him off the physically unable to perform list. Late in the summer, shortly before final cuts, Smith convinced the coaches to give him a shot in full-team 11-on-11 sessions to prove what he could do.
Makes roster: Sept. 5, 2020
Smith made Washington’s 53-man roster, a feat Elizabeth let those close to them know the previous night via text messages and phone calls. Smith lobbied the coaches to keep him on the roster, knowing that they were considering putting him on injured reserve. Had they done that, he would have been done for the season. Smith’s point: He wasn’t hurt. They listened.
First game: Oct. 11, 2020
Smith spent the first four weeks as the No. 3 quarterback. But with Dwayne Haskins Jr. benched, Smith was elevated to Kyle Allen‘s backup. In Allen’s first start, he was injured late in the first half against the Los Angeles Rams, putting Smith in the game.
On Smith’s third play, he was sacked by Aaron Donald, who jumped on the quarterback as he stood in the pocket. Donald’s 280 pounds caused Smith to fall, but more importantly, Smith got right back up and ran off the field. The Rams sacked him six times and he completed 9 of 17 passes for 37 yards.
An NFL Films video showed Donald on the sideline telling a teammate of Smith, “That motherf—ing leg is strong.”
First start: Nov. 15, 2020
Nearly two years to the day after his injury, Washington needed Smith to start because of Allen’s season-ending broken ankle. Washington fell behind 24-3 on the road against the Detroit Lions, but Smith responded by throwing for a career-high 390 yards and driving Washington to a late game-tying field goal. The Lions won, but Smith played well, completing 38-of-55 without a touchdown or interception.
Washington won the next four with Smith starting, including a road win against the Pittsburgh Steelers (11-0) after trailing by 14. In that fourth straight win, against the 49ers, Smith suffered a bone bruise and couldn’t play after halftime. He then missed three of the last four games, including the playoff loss to Tampa Bay.
Comeback Player of the Year Award: Feb. 6, 2021
Smith received 49 of 50 votes as the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year with one voter opting for Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. While others played better than Smith, his journey was tough to match. He finished with subpar numbers: six touchdowns and eight interceptions; a Total QBR of 38.8 as a starter, ranking 31st in the league during that period.
But his impact was real for his teammates: Washington went 5-1 with Smith starting and 2-9 with anyone else. During his time in Washington, the team was 11-5 with Smith starting and 6-27 with the rest. This award, though, wasn’t about the numbers. During the season, Chad Pennington, who won the award twice, said he agreed with those who suggested naming the award after Smith.
“The mental grind is harder to overcome,” he said. “For [Smith] to fight through that, knowing what he experienced and went through, is remarkable. My jaw drops to even see him out there. It’s an amazing story.”