SALT LAKE CITY — No matter what happens the rest of the season, no matter what anyone else does, Alex Smith should be declared the Comeback Player of the Year. The NFL should give him the award right now, even if Ben Roethlisberger and Matt Stafford throw a hundred touchdown passes.
The moment Smith stepped onto the field Sunday, the award was his. Or should be.
“Alex Smith just played football in the NFL again ... absolutely INSANE,” tweeted analyst and former player Pat McAfee.
Exactly. The word spread quickly via social media: Smith was in the game. He was actually playing again.
It marked the first time that had happened since he suffered a gruesome leg injury two years ago — 693 days to be exact — that left doctors scrambling first to save his life and then his leg.
The stage was set for his return last week when Washington coach Ron Rivera benched starter Dwayne Haskins, the team’s 2019 first-round draft pick, in favor of Kyle Allen. Then Allen was injured late in the second quarter, which is when Rivera sent Smith onto the field.
It was a moment that should have been heralded with music and confetti and a full stadium of applause. Instead, because of the pandemic, there were only a few thousand people in the stadium. Smith’s entrance into the game did draw a standing ovation — from his wife, their three children and his sister.
No one cared that Smith didn’t play well and apparently that included his coaches. They let him play the entire second half even though Allen was cleared to return to the game in the third quarter, and even though Smith completed just 9 of 17 passes for 37 yards, no touchdowns and no interceptions in a 30-10 loss. The most frightening stat of the day: He was sacked six times.
And his repaired leg — the one that required 17 surgeries, as well as screws and rods and prayers, to fix — held together. Whew!
There have been poignant moments previously in the NFL — among them, Gale Sayers’ Brian Piccolo speech, the return of Eric Berry from cancer, Brett Favre’s inspired play the day after his father died, and Washington’s gesture to honor murder-victim Sean Taylor by lining up only 10 players on the first play of their next game — but Smith’s return might top them all.
On Nov. 18, 2018, he was sacked, resulting in spiral and compound fractures to the two bones in the lower leg (tibia and fibula), which broke through the skin. Doctors speculate that perhaps the exposure of the wound to grass and dirt on the field might have led to the subsequent infection — no one can know for sure. All of this was chronicled in graphic detail in the “Project 11” documentary. Doctors stated their priority was to save his life and then his leg, in that order. Doctors considered it tantamount to a war injury.
The injury is so gruesome that midway through “Project 11” viewers are met with this warning: “The following segment contains graphic images. Viewer discretion is advised.” Viewers see the horrible damage to Smith’s leg and the suffering he endured for weeks. Anyone who watches the video comes away with a deep respect and affection for Smith, who exhibits courage, humility, gratitude and determination.
The injury is strangely similar to the one that Joe Theismann, who famously broke his right ankle in front of millions on Monday Night Football. Both were quarterbacks for the same Washington franchise and both broke their right tibia and fibula on the same date 33 years apart. Both injuries occurred near the 40-yard line and the final score was the same, 23-21. Both injuries were caused by a three-time NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year while Washington’s All-Pro left offensive tackle was on the sideline with an injury.
“ … The similarities are incredible,” Theismann told USA Today, but he added that there were some big differences — “I had one operation; Alex had 17. He had four different flesh-eating bacteria that he had to deal with. He came within a 24-hour period of losing his leg, as well as possibly his life … .”
Another difference: Theismann’s injury ended his career. Smith’s injury should have ended his career, as well.
In the late stages of the documentary you are shocked when it becomes clear that Smith is serious about returning to football. Anyone who has seen the documentary must wonder why he would do so. He’s had a tremendous, if underappreciated, career — his 34,105 passing yards rank 34th all time. At 36, he plays for a poor organization and a team that has no chance of winning the Super Bowl now or in the near future. He plays behind an offensive line that has lived up to its preseason billing as one of the worst in the league. And he’s playing on a leg that was rebuilt with metal.
In the documentary, Smith himself says, “This has been such a long road. I’m thinking about my kids and the rest of my life as a husband and father and being able to do things with my kids … I’m excited for when that day comes. I’m feeling pretty good about the rest of my life regardless of what happens with football.”
But there he was, back on the field Sunday. It will be difficult for some of us not to avert our eyes when the pass rush is bearing down on him.
Theismann told USA Today, “(Smith) has fought through so much, and to see him be able to go out and throw the ball around, it’s heartwarming. To me, he should be Comeback Player of the Year no matter what.”
He said this in August, before the season even began.