Opinion: Returning to the field two years after gruesome injury, Alex Smith proves triumphant even in Washington loss

Alex Smith played out his return countless times in his mind during the 693 days following the gruesome 2018 leg injury that nearly cost the quarterback his right leg and threatened his life.

It wasn’t enough that he fought the infection that coursed through his body and caused doctors to worry that they might have to amputate his leg. It wasn’t enough that he endured a total of 17 surgeries to walk again and regained the ability to play with his kids again. 

Alex Smith — the No. 1 overall pick of the 2005 draft who had overcome embarrassments, unfair treatment, personal attacks and unfair treatment to resurrect his career once already — dreamed bigger. So although he had already defied the odds by making Washington’s roster this summer, he remained unsatisfied. And he didn’t envision his comeback story including him coming off of the bench thanks to the injury of a teammate.

But there he found himself on Sunday, next man up after a hard hit knocked starter Kyle Allen out of the game. There Smith found himself, trotting onto a rain-soaked gridiron in a virtually empty FedEx Field with his team trailing by double digits with two minutes left in the first half. 

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Alex Smith of the Washington Football Team walks off the field in the fourth quarter against the Los Angeles Rams at FedExField on October 11, 2020 in Landover, Maryland. (Photo: Greg Fiume, Getty Images)

His wife and children were indeed in attendance; amid the COVID-19 pandemic, only family members of the home team were permitted. At least that part of his visions came to fruition. And Smith could faintly hear their cheers. 

His first football action since breaking his leg on Nov. 18, 2018, started with promise as Smith sparked his struggling team while directing a scoring drive that culminated in a 48-yard field goal before halftime.

But the feel-good vibes ended shortly after. A challenging second half that featured more sacks (five) than pass completions (four) ended with a 30-10 loss to the visiting Los Angeles Rams and left Smith with what he described as “no question, a bitter taste in my mouth.”

Sunday was both a fairytale comeback and a stiff punch to the face from reality.

Smith could have done without the latter.

But whether he chooses to view it this way, the 36-year-old Smith did prove triumphant. Yes, the fierce competitor had envisioned reclaiming his job outright, delivering all kinds of heroics in an authoritative victory. But what really matters is that he has now succeeded in achieving what once seemed impossible.

A month and seven days shy of the two-year anniversary of the day that a sack left the lower portion of his leg disfigured and shattered, requiring medical workers to cart him off the field and rush him from Washington’s stadium to a nearby hospital, Smith came full circle.

For two minutes, Smith offered his team and fans a reprieve from the distressing state of the franchise. And as he repeatedly picked himself up off of the ground, shrugging off one big hit after another, Smith answered the question that his coaches and fans may have had about his durability and ability to protect himself. Most importantly, he re-established the level of internal and physical strength he possesses.

Family was the driving force as Smith first embarked on the comeback. Smith wanted to provide his three children a life lesson that no nightmare is too great to overcome. As they watched anxiously on Sunday, the Smith children saw their doggedly-determined father at last live out that lesson. 

It didn’t take long Smith's right leg, in which doctors had to insert a titanium rod, to receive its first real test. Until Sunday, Smith still had never been tackled or even hit since the day he broke his leg.

But on Smith's third play of the game, Rams defensive lineman Aaron Donald — one of the NFL's fiercest pass-rushers — fought through a flimsy block, engulfed Smith and jumped on his back.

Smith remained upright briefly before crumpling under Donald's weight. Then, Smith got right up and jogged to the sideline. 

As Donald sat on the bench and watched the replay of the sack seconds later, he remarked to a teammate “That (expletive)'s leg strong!”

Smith’s heart is even stronger, as the last two years had already proven.

The second half still seemed like extreme cruelty. Washington’s patchwork line proved woefully inept as Donald and his teammates repeatedly stormed into the backfield, leaving Smith little time or space to operate. 

Coach Ron Rivera described it as “almost unfair,” considering the kind of welcome Smith had received. Until Sunday, Smith hadn’t even dressed for a game. Instead, he was on the weekly game-day inactive list until the coach decided to bench Dwayne Haskins, elevating Allen to starter and Smith to backup. To date, Smith had received scarce practice reps in Washington’s system. His rust was evident as his passes often missed their marks. But those transgressions were forgivable considering the circumstances. 

As Sunday’s offensive struggles revealed, Washington’s problems run much deeper than its quarterback play. Not only is the offensive line inept against elite defensive fronts, but inexperience also is handicapping the young receiving corps and secondary.

Rivera benched Haskins while professing a belief that a change to Allen and Smith could give Washington a better chance to compete for a divisional title in the beleaguered NFC East. However, Rivera and his staff may soon realize their roster isn’t capable of competing for much more than a premium draft position.

Rivera predicted that if Allen has recovered from the shoulder injury that knocked him out of the game, the passer will reclaim his starting job this coming week. But if the coach does have hope that one of his quarterbacks can help mask the many deficiencies of his offense, Smith could be his best bet given his understanding of coverages and proficiency for taking care of the football, something Allen has struggled with in his limited playing time. Smith’s leadership also could provide a badly needed steadying force.

Smith said he will fill whatever role his team needs, but it was clear he’s not at all satisfied with simply checking off the box of having returned to the football field.

He wants to prove he can still play at a high level, and he wants to prove he can defy odds and lead even this shoddy Washington roster on a winning campaign. 

But he has indeed delivered a moving and inspiring display of courage and determination.

Sunday’s return to action may not have played out the way Smith had envisioned it hundreds of times over the last 693 days. He didn’t envision coming off of the bench. He didn’t envision taking six sacks or generating only 37 passing yards on nine completions in a blowout defeat.

That’s reality. Or, that’s football.

But from the standpoint of real life, and the why at the center of Smith’s quest, the quarterback indeed returned triumphantly.

Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Mike Jones on Twitter @ByMikeJones and listen to the Football Jones podcast on iTunes.

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