It happened in the blink of an eye.

On Nov. 18, 2018, Alex Smith’s life turned upside down.

Washington was playing the Houston Texans. In the third quarter, facing a third-and-9 and down 17-7, Smith drops back. Kareem Jackson rushes him, untouched by Washington’s offensive line. He tackles Smith, along with J.J. Watt. His leg is caught, Watt lands on top of his leg and, immediately, something is wrong. Smith tries to push himself up off the ground and collapses. He takes off his helmet, then pulls his jersey over his eyes.

He’s carted off the field and will later be diagnosed with a compound fracture that broke his tibia and fibula in his right leg. Smith arrives at the hospital and has surgery to repair the fracture. It’s pretty commonplace for an athlete. The surgery is successful.

But Smith’s journey would just be beginning.

Back in the NFL? Alex Smith continues to be a miracle man

As detailed in the ESPN documentary “Project 11”, what happened next nearly claimed Smith’s life.

After his surgery, Smith kept getting worse. His wife, Elizabeth, recounts that his leg turned black. There’s an infection in Smith’s leg. Four bacteria, including necrotizing fasciitis, a flesh-beating bacteria, are present in his leg. The bacteria is eating away at his leg, leaving a trail of dead skin and muscle from his calf to his thigh. Smith is septic and his life is in danger.

The doctors gave Smith two options: amputating the leg or debridement — removing the dead tissue and skin from the wound. After the eight debridement surgeries, the front of his leg is practically just bone. Smith is lucky to be alive and luckier to still have his leg. In order to restore function of his leg, subsequent surgeries moved part of his calf muscle and part of his quad muscle from his left leg to the front of his right leg to start to rebuild his leg.

He finally heads home with a metal device around his leg which stabilized his leg while it healed. He could barely walk around his house. Smith received special clearance to rehab his leg at a military medical center in San Antonio — The Center for the Intrepid — since his leg was so ravaged that it resembled a military blast injury.

At this point, no one would have blamed Smith if he rehabbed his leg and retired from the NFL. But he doesn’t do that. Instead, he fully rehabs his leg, gets the metal frame off, gets a metal rod placed in his tibia, and is finally able to walk without assistance. He continues to train for football action and is fully cleared to play on Aug, 16. He returns to Washington practice and with 2019 first-round pick Dwayne Haskins and Kyle Allen ahead of him on the depth chart, it looks like the only NFL action Smith would see would be perhaps an end-of-game kneeldown.

After four weeks, with Washington sitting at 1-3, Haskins is benched. Haskins’ quarterback rating is 30.6, worst in the NFL, and he has a 61% completion percentage and a 4:3 touchdown-to-interception ratio. He’s not even second string — he’s been sent to the end of the bench, third string, which means Allen starts week 5 for Washington, with Smith as his backup. Allen suffers an arm injury in the week 5 matchup against the Los Angeles Rams.

Here comes Smith.

Washington Football Team quarterback Alex Smith (11) looks to throw against the Dallas Cowboys in an NFL football game in Arlington, Texas, Thursday, Nov. 26, 2020. | Ron Jenkins, Associated Press

Incredibly, after everything he had gone through over the past two years, Smith is in an NFL game. His wife and kids are there, cheering him on. He gets sacked by two-time NFL Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald, his leg holds up and everyone breathes a sigh of relief. After the first sack, and Smith was OK, it was like a weight had been lifted.

Smith goes 9-for-17 passing in his first game back and leads a field goal drive as Washington loses 30-10, but playing in an NFL game is a win for Smith.

‘I’ve missed it’: Alex Smith’s return to field marks celebratory moment in improbable journey

Allen’s injury is minor and he returns for the next two games, but in week 9 against the Giants, Allen suffers a gruesome, season-ending ankle injury late in the first quarter. Smith watches as Allen is carted off, just as he had been two years earlier. Smith enters the game again and goes 24-for-32, throwing for 325 yards and a 68-yard touchdown. He does throw three interceptions and Washington comes up just short, losing 23-20. Washington’s record falls to 2-6.

In a normal division, a 2-6 record would usually mean the playoffs were off the table. Not in the NFC East. Following the loss, Washington was still in second place, just behind the 3-4-1 Philadelphia Eagles.

The next week, Smith is named the starting quarterback and in his first start of the year, he makes strides. He goes 38-for-55, throwing for 390 yards, a career high, including leading a field goal drive to tie the game with 16 seconds left. Detroit kicks a walk-off 59-yard field goal for the win and Washington falls to 2-7, but Smith is settling in.

Washington starts a two-game win streak by beating the Cincinnati Bengals 20-9. Smith is 17-for-25 for 166 yards, a touchdown and an interception in the win. Washington capitalized on that performance with its best win of the season by far, a 41-16 trouncing of the Dallas Cowboys on Thanksgiving. Smith didn’t have the best showing on Turkey Day, throwing for 149 yards, a touchdown and a pick, but Washington’s run game got going, with running back Antonio Gibson rushing for 115 yards and three touchdowns.

With five games left in the 2020 season, the Giants and Washington are tied atop the NFC East standings with identical 4-7 records. Both teams have won three of their past five games. In the weak NFC East, even Philadelphia (3-7-1) and Dallas (3-8) are within a game of the division leaders.

The Giants hold the tiebreaker over Washington for the NFC’s fourth playoff seed — New York won both of their matchups this season — meaning Washington will need to have a stronger finish than the Giants to realize its postseason hopes.

Smith now has five games to lead Washington to its first playoff berth since 2015. At 36, coming off of a harrowing leg injury, Smith has been the leader Washington needs.

He’s thrown for over 1,000 yards in five games (three starts, with a 2-1 record) and has a completion percentage of 69%. He’s thrown three touchdowns and five interceptions and according to Pro Football Reference, his quarterback rating is 81.3, putting him at 26th in the league, ahead of Nick Foles, Cam Newton, Daniel Jones, Carson Wentz and others. Having a 15-year NFL vet known for usually making the right decisions at quarterback is a major plus for Washington.

Head coach Ron Rivera has raved about Smith’s veteran savvy.

“It really is about getting to the line of scrimmage and looking at the matchup — ‘Is that what I’m looking for? Is that what I’m looking at?’ — and then just cutting it loose,” Rivera told The Washington Post after the win against Cincinnati. “That’s something that you, as a veteran quarterback, you’re always looking for. … We see it in practice. But I think a lot of it has to do with his savviness and his understanding of coverages to look at certain elements and say: ‘OK, we’ve got this route combination against that coverage. I’ve got this matchup versus man.’”

“I think just that innate trust, no self-doubt, going out there playing loose and free is the biggest thing. I really feel like I have the last few weeks. I feel like I’m going out and playing quarterback and executing the offense.” — Alex Smith

His teammates have noticed a difference since Smith has been back, too.

“Having a vet at the quarterback position changes (things) dramatically,” running back Gibson told the Post. “He’s been there and done that, so there’s not too much pressure on him. He relaxes in the huddle, I feel like for me, anyway.”

Receiver Terry McLaurin said Smith is “always trying to figure out ways to make it easier on us as receivers.”

Smith is getting back into his groove as of late, showing glimpses of his old self.

“I think just that innate trust, no self-doubt, going out there playing loose and free is the biggest thing,” Smith said. “I really feel like I have the last few weeks. I feel like I’m going out and playing quarterback and executing the offense. Certainly there’s a chunk of the game that’s choreographed and there’s a big chunk that’s not. I think that’s the part I feel better and better with the more reps I get, that I do feel confident in all those situations.”

Though it is surprising that Smith is finding success so quickly again after such a bad leg injury, he’s simply picking up where he left off after his injury.

In 2018, Washington was 6-3 and leading the division. Smith was clicking with the team and looked to have them in a great position to make the playoffs before his injury,

So with five games left, will Smith be able to guide Washington into the postseason? If prior experience is any indication, he certainly has a shot.

Alex Smith is NFL Comeback Player of the Year — right now

Prior to the NFL, Smith was a national sensation at Utah, leading the Utes to a 12-0 season and busting the BCS, helping Utah become the first mid-major team to play in a BCS bowl game. Smith was simply phenomenal at Utah, throwing for nearly 3,000 yards with a 32-to-4 touchdown-to-interception ratio. Utah, coached by Urban Meyer, dominated nearly every game it played, culminating in a 35-7 win over Pittsburgh in the Fiesta Bowl. He was a Heisman Trophy finalist.

He was the perfect quarterback for Meyer. After he left Utah to coach at Florida, the first thing Meyer did was look for the “next Alex Smith.” He got that in Tim Tebow and the first thing Meyer assigned Tebow to do at Florida was watch Smith’s 2004 game film, over and over.

“Gosh, it’s hard to even kind of put into numbers how many hours of film I watched of Alex running all of the plays that we were going to run at Florida,” Tebow told The Athletic. “We went over so much of Alex’s film. The way that Urban and Dan Mullen talked about him … the gold standard.”

“Yeah, (Alex) became the prototype. He became the guy that we’ve been recruiting,” Meyer said.

After his junior season at Utah, Smith was taken No. 1 overall by San Francisco in the 2005 NFL draft, but had some rough years. He struggled for his first five seasons with a revolving door of offensive coordinators — a new one every year. He was routinely booed at home, something he asked the crowd to do when he gave the commencement speech at the University of Utah in 2014. In 2011, he led the 49ers to their first playoff win since 2002, connecting with Vernon Davis on a last-second touchdown. Though the 49ers lost by three points in the NFC championship game, Smith and the 49ers were finally showing their potential, something that continued into the 2012 season.

In 2012, Smith and the 49ers were 6-2-1 under Smith, who was a top-five quarterback that season, playing some of the best football of his life, before he got a concussion. Colin Kaepernick replaced Smith as the starting quarterback while he was out, but after Smith was cleared to play, coach Jim Harbaugh stuck with Kaepernick. Suddenly, after finally coming into his own following years of heartache in San Francisco, Smith was on the bench. There was nothing he could do but watch as Kaepernick led the 49ers to the Super Bowl, which they lost to the Baltimore Ravens.

In 2013, Smith was traded to the Kansas City Chiefs. Prior to Smith’s arrival in Kansas City, the Chiefs hadn’t won a playoff game since 1993. A string of playoff losses stretched two decades. Kansas City went 2-12 in 2012 under head coach Romeo Crennel, tied for the worst season in franchise history. The franchise was simply broken in 2012 and in need of a fresh start. Kansas City got it in Smith and head coach Andy Reid, who joined the team in 2013.

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The Chiefs, led by Smith, instantly turned around. In just one season, they went from being the worst team in the league to a playoff team. Kansas City started the season 9-0, and although the season ended with a heartbreaking 45-44 loss to the Indianapolis Colts in a wild card game — the 28-point comeback by the Colts is the the second-largest playoff comeback in NFL history — the Chiefs were finally back and competing. Smith threw for a then-career best 3,313 yards and made the Pro Bowl.

Over his five years in Kansas City, Smith made the Pro Bowl three times and led the Chiefs to their first playoff victory since 1993 when Kansas City beat Houston in a 2015 wild card game. In 2017, Smith had arguably his best year ever as a pro, throwing for over 4,000 yards and 26 touchdowns. Though the end of his Chiefs tenure was marred by tough playoff losses — a 27-20 loss to New England in 2015 , a 18-16 loss to Pittsburgh in 2016 and a 22-21 loss to Tennessee in 2017, Smith proved he was able to come in, turn around a franchise, and lead them to the playoffs, as he proved in both San Francisco and Kansas City.

With five games left, Smith will have the opportunity to add a third franchise to that list. Washington has not made the playoffs since 2015 and last won a playoff game in 2005. Washington’s remaining schedule is tough — they play the undefeated Steelers this week on Monday night, then 5-6 San Fransisco, 8-3 Seattle, and 4-8 Carolina before the season finale against 3-7-1 Philadelphia that could decide the NFC East.

Smith is already a shoo-in for the NFL’s comeback player of the year, and getting Washington to the playoffs would be the storybook ending on a miraculous return to the field.

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