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Former Utah QB Alex Smith Named AP Comeback Player Of The Year

The comeback story of Alex Smith is one that will be told for generations after he fought back from a near career ending/life threatening injury to not only return to the football field, but lead Washington to the playoffs as NFC East champions

When Tom Brady led the New England Patriots back from a 28-3 deficit to defeat the Atlanta Falcons in February 2017, many people believed it was the greatest comeback in NFL history.

But after what took place on nearly exactly four years later, there are some who may be changing their tune. 

Washington Football team quarterback Alex Smith won the 2020 NFL Comeback Player of the Year award, nearly unanimously sweeping the voting process by receiving 49 of 50 votes from a nationwide panel of 50 media members who regularly cover the league. Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger received the other vote.

It's nearly unfathomable to believe what Smith accomplished this season after the leg injury he sustained over two years ago.

Four days prior to that Thanksgiving in 2018, Smith tragically broke his leg, fracturing his tibia and fibula in his right leg when Houston Texans all-pro defensive lineman JJ Watt sacked him from behind and fell on his leg in an incredibly awkward manner.

When it was all said and done, Smith underwent 17 surgeries to control and stop the spread of the infection. He not only nearly had his leg amputated multiple times, Smith was close to losing his life.

But he eventually returned to the field this past fall and thrived, taking over a struggling Washington team and leading this a 5-1 record in games he's started, including winning his past five starts and the NFC East title.

“I had so much fun this year, especially given all the Covid stuff,” he said during a video conference call with reporters. “But to be back in the locker room, to be on the field with the guys, to be playing a game I love and to lose yourself in it, it’s one of the greatest feelings in the world. You cannot duplicate it outside of here. … My wife has been through a lot, and my family, certainly I’m going to take their input. But that’s something that right now I’m still just living in the moment and not getting ahead of myself. That is for another time and place.”

Jan 3, 2021; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA; Washington Football Team quarterback Alex Smith (11) walks up the field at the end of the third quarter against the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field.

Smith finished the season throwing for 1,582 yards, six touchdowns and eight interceptions, completing 66.7% of his passes.

Although the numbers aren't shockingly impressive and necessarily worth the $24.4 million he's due next year, his true value came within the locker room and the huddle according to head coach Ron Rivera.

“There’s an intangible that some guys have and possess, and Alex has it,” Rivera said. “Can it be replaced? Well, you’re going to have to find a guy that has that same type of intangibles, and those guys are special. They only come around once in a while. Alex has that type of intangible, and I think a part of it is because of the experiences that he’s had in his life, the games that he’s played and obviously what he’s gone through.”

The last two seasons of Smith's contract have non-guaranteed salaries for both the 2021 ($18.75 million) and 2022 ($20.75 million) seasons. If Washington elects to keep him on his current contract, he would have a $24.4 million salary cap hit next year. Should Washington choose to cut Smith before June 1, it would have only $10.8 million count against its salary cap due to his prorated signing bonus, but it will clear $13.6 million to be used in free agency.

He began the season as the third-string quarterback and was bumped to backup when starter Dwayne Haskins was benched in favor of Kyle Allen. Allen then suffered a serious injury and was ruled out for the season, promoting Smith to the starting role and essentially winning him the NFL Comeback Player of the Year award.

With Allen expected to make a full recovery and assume the starting role again next season, it could spell the end of the road for Smith in Washington. 

Will he retire or try and suit up for one more season — that's a decision that Smith is expected to come too over the coming weeks/months.

Jan 3, 2021; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA; Washington Football Team quarterback Alex Smith (11) passes the ball against the Philadelphia Eagles during the third quarter at Lincoln Financial Field.

In a recent feature on CBS' '60 Minutes,' Smith spoke in great detail regarding his comeback and everything he overcame to return to the field. Seated with him was his wife Elizabeth, who also spoke about the mental and emotional aspects of the comeback for not only Alex, but for her and the family as well.

Smith was an inspiration to nearly every player in the league, many citing his perseverance and resiliency to just play football again, let alone win.

"It is humbling when I hear that," Smith said. "I know for how long I spent thinking about and looking at the men and women who inspired me. I am stuck in the hospital bed, stuck in a wheelchair, spent countless hours googling and looking at videos of our service men and women going through the same rehab as I went through.

"So there were definitely people in front of me that I am so thankful for that allowed me to go down this path. And obviously I am humbled and I guess you hope that you can kind of be a link in that chain for anybody coming behind you."

Smith is potentially the greatest quarterback to play for the Utes, leading the team to a 2004 Fiesta Bowl victory over No. 19 Pittsburgh. That Utah squad was known as the original "BCS Buster," finishing the season 12-0 and No. 4 in the AP rankings.

He threw for 5,203 yards and 47 touchdowns to eight interceptions, completing 66.3% of his passes with a quarterback rating of 164.4. He added 1,072 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns on 3.5 yards per carry.

Smith then parlayed that success into a solid NFL career, playing with the San Francisco 49ers and Kansas City Chiefs before being traded to the Washington Football Team in 2018.

As of right now, he's thrown for 35,650 yards, completing 62.6% of his passes for 199 touchdowns to 109 interceptions and a career passer rating of 86.9. He's added 2,604 rushing yards (19th all-time by a QB) and 15 touchdowns, averaging 4.5 yards per carry.

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