With live events paused, our sports intake comes in varying forms. We’re watching tales of Michael Jordan in his prime, newly formatted drafts and re-runs of old games; all to restore some type of normality.
Among this was an E:60 documentary on former Washington quarterback Alex Smith. The one-hour special titled “Project 11” premiered Friday and graphically detailed Smith’s Nov. 18, 2018, injury, a compound fracture to his right leg. Smith sustained the injury during the first possession of the second-half matchup between the Redskins and Texans at FedEx Field. It was Smith’s 10th game with the team, his third in six years.
In the span of four days, Smith’s medical team went from leg-saving mode to life-saving mode. He had developed a deadly infection, necrotizing fasciitis, more commonly known as flesh-eating disease. Smith was septic. Eventually, his infection was under control and after 17 total surgeries, Smith was walking on his own.
It begs the question, one he's asked himself: Can he play quarterback again? Can he push it that far?
Most people knew the severity of Smith’s injury at the time. But the shocking details of how bad things got in the span of days, hours even, were difficult to process. Smith remained calm describing the difficult decision to save his leg via a muscle transfer or have it amputated; something only time and good perspective can bring. Football seemed to be in the back of his mind while trying to walk again. He emphasized the importance of regaining function in his leg to be able to perform everyday tasks, be a present husband and father. A year after the initial injury, Smith was again working on throwing motions.
The highly touted passer out of Utah was the first-overall pick in the 2005 draft; besting the likes of Aaron Rodgers. He struggled early in his career on a losing 49ers team and injuries, along with fresh-faced talent in Colin Kaepernick and Patrick Mahomes, benched Smith in San Francisco and Kansas City. He was putting up some of his better numbers through the first half of the 2018 season and led Washington to a 6-3 start and first place in the NFC East.
In a first-hand account of Smith’s injury and recovery, his wife, Elizabeth, shared intimate details, including the ambulance ride to the hospital for the first in over a dozen surgeries:
“As we ride in the ambulance, Alex says, ‘Pull up the score. How's [Washington backup] Colt [McCoy] doing?’ He wants to know all the formations. This is typical Alex.”
Smith began transitioning into more football-orientated exercises in November 2019.
"I'm working on my own, doing some of that stuff, so it's kind of the next phase in this," Smith said at the time. "It was always lurking to kind of graduate out of everyday stuff and try to get into some athletic stuff and try to push that."
In ESPN’s documentary, he was seen squatting without assistance and going through various throwing motions in an effort to get back into football shape, but I can’t imagine Smith ever taking a snap again. If he does, we’ll be watching with our collective breaths held and looking through our fingers, wincing any time he could potentially take a hit.
Smith has three years remaining on his contract. He’ll earn $16 million in 2020, which was fully guaranteed after the fifth day of the 2019 season; Smith’s 2021 salary is $19 million and it increases to $21 million in 2022. Washington could part ways with the veteran passer, who will turn 36 this week, after the 2020 season; it would save $13 million in 2021 and $21 million in 2022 in cap space.
Newly minted coach Ron Rivera hasn’t ruled out a potential competition for QB1 between Smith and second-year passer Dwayne Haskins, but can Rivera put Smith on the field knowing one hit or even one move in a live NFL game can undo two years worth of progress. Smith can certainly get into football shape, but throwing a ball in a rehabilitation setting is much different than lining up against opposing defenses.
"I also don’t want to forget Alex Smith," Rivera told Team 980 in January. "Here’s a guy that’s doing everything he can to come back, and if Alex can come back and be the player that he was we have a good situation, we have competition at that position."
While Smith battled previous injuries and gave way for a new class of quarterbacks, he stepped into a mentor role. Mahomes, who was selected 10th overall in the 2017 draft, credited Smith for teaching him “invaluable” lessons.
"It gave me a blueprint, and it was something that helped me out a lot early in my career," Mahomes said before leading Kansas City to a Super Bowl victory against San Francisco. "Just knowing what film I need to watch on what day and how to go out there and practice the right way."
Haskins credited his development in the second half of last season to Smith, tweeting, Smith helped him “tremendously the back end of the season on and off the field.”
Smith hasn’t addressed returning in another role. When rumors of joining Washington’s front office rose, Smith said his “focus is to get out there and play again.”
Returning to the field could be used more as motivation to get through the tedious, probably excruciating, rehab process; seeing him on the sidelines, suited up could be as far as Smith’s career goes from here.