If Alex Smith plays a single down for the Washington Football Team this season, he deserves the Comeback Player of the Year Award.
Even if he takes the field in Week 17 late in the fourth quarter with Washington losing by 24 to the Eagles and does nothing but kneel to kill the clock to end a 4-12 regular season, they should hand Smith the award right then and there and be done with it. League brass could fly the trophy into the stadium via drone if we are still worried about social distancing by then.
Smith's return from a severe leg injury and nearly two years of surgeries, infections and complications promises to be the feel-good story of an NFL season that will need as many of those as it can get, even if his comeback amounts to little more than some token snaps. But Smith could emerge this year as much more than a glorified quarterback coach with a helmet.
"If Alex is healthy and continues to get healthy and we do activate him, he's going to be in the throes of this competition," head coach Ron Rivera told reporters Sunday (quotes via Nicki Jhabvala of the Washington Post).
The 36-year-old Smith as a starter again? Why not? Washington's other quarterbacks are Dwayne Haskins Jr., coming off a bad rookie year; Kyle Allen, coming off an even worse year as Cam Newton's replacement in Carolina; and undrafted rookie Steven Montez from Colorado. It's an undistinguished, relatively inexperienced group. The Washington offense appears unlikely to score many points in Rivera's first season as a coach.
But here comes Smith, riding to the rescue of a team with no name on a horse with no name while looking a little like Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name: grizzled, battered and scarred, with a way of getting the job done that isn't often pretty. But Smith has always overcome the odds, defied the skeptics and found a way to simply survive.
Smith should be a distant memory for NFL fans by now. The first overall pick in the 2005 draft, he spent three seasons struggling for a terrible 49ers team, going 11-19 as a starter and throwing more interceptions (31) than touchdown passes (19). He then missed all of 2008 with a broken bone in his shoulder, a likely exacerbation of an injury he suffered and tried to play through in 2007.
That should have been the end: after three bad years and a major injury, it's time for a top prospect to bounce around the league as a backup for a few years and then vanish. Smith had already lost his starting job to journeyman J.T. O'Sullivan, and he appeared to have exhausted all of head coach Mike Nolan's patience. But Mike Singletary replaced Nolan in 2008, and Smith got another chance. Unfortunately, he responded with two more unimpressive seasons in which he battled Shaun Hill and Troy Smith for the 49ers' starting job.
That really should have been the end: two coaches, one major injury, a half-decade of inability to wrest a starting job away from a who's who of rookies and randos. But Jim Harbaugh replaced Singletary, introduced creativity to the offense and competence to the organization, and by the end of Harbaugh's first season Smith was leading a thrilling playoff comeback against the Saints.
But Harbaugh and Greg Roman's scheme made such great use of both Smith's arm and his legs that the 49ers proved even harder to stop when the faster, stronger-armed Colin Kaepernick was in the huddle. Kaepernick quickly earned a promotion from Wildcat wrinkle to starter, Smith slid to the bench, and the 49ers came within a fourth-quarter goal-line stand of winning Super Bowl XLVII.
Getting benched and upstaged during a Super Bowl run really, really should have been the end. But new Chiefs head coach Andy Reid needed a quarterback, so he traded two second-round picks for Smith. The smart, mobile, experienced Smith was a great fit for Reid's evolving West-Coast-meets-spread-option offense. Smith led the Chiefs to the playoffs four times and earned three Pro Bowl berths. But along came Patrick Mahomes.
Smith was shipped to Washington, went 6-3 as its starter in the first half of the 2018 season and then suffered compound and spiral fractures to his tibia and fibula in a collision with J.J. Watt and Kareem Jackson. That injury was followed by sepsis, necrotizing fasciitis ("flesh-eating disease"), skin grafts, the transfer of muscles and serious talk of amputation. Smith spent months undergoing surgeries and wearing what looked like steampunk contraptions on his leg.
That really, really, really should have been the end. Yet here we are: A healthy Smith really could be the best quarterback on the Football Team's roster.
Smith's latest comeback puts his entire career into perspective. At his best with the Chiefs and 49ers, he was underappreciated and labeled as a system quarterback with a pea-shooter arm, someone just good enough to lose wild-card games. At his worst during the long early phase of his career, he was written off as a first-round bust when he was really being held back by gruff, defensive-minded coaches while trying to push himself through injuries. For 18 months, he's been little more than a background presence seen hobbling around team facilities on crutches, spoken of in glad to see him walking terms, not can't wait until he's back on the field terms.
Smith is the ultimate survivor. He's persevered through just about everything the NFL could throw at a player for 15 years. He's thrown for 34,068 yards, gone 94-66-1 as a starter and led six playoff runs. He's no all-time great, but there have been few quarterbacks in history quite like him. That makes it a bad idea to underestimate him or cast his latest comeback as just an inspirational tale.
Forget Comeback Player of the Year: Alex Smith should be eligible for a Comeback Player of All Time award. But he could do much more this season: win a starting job, win some games, lead by example (who better than Smith to teach Haskins that as a top prospect he may have to battle both competition and organizational turmoil for years?), help Rivera set the tone for a young roster and give fans a reason to watch a team that can't even be bothered coming up with a name.
Smith still faces an uphill battle to become anything more than a veteran benchwarmer for a rebuilding team. But he's been climbing uphill since the moment he entered the NFL. Don't think for a moment that he's going to give up now.