One of the few things I imagine most of us would agree on is that Alex Smith didn’t need to jog onto the field Sunday against the Rams to earn the Comeback Player of the Year Award.
I’d like to think he’s had it all along, since the moment he skirted death in the hospital, the moment he rehabilitated a horrifically broken leg, the moment he stunned us all and decided he wasn’t done playing football and the moment he threw his first pass in practice. If anything, the award would be too small a gesture to signify what his return to the field means for those around him.
Still, there he was in the driving rain, replacing an injured Kyle Allen while his family watched on. It’s difficult to understand what that moment must have been like, especially given that, for the lot of us, it elicited the kind of big emotions that don’t normally pour out of a milquetoast 1 p.m. laugher in Landover, Md. Seeing Smith convert a first down was pure joy. Seeing Smith get sacked was pure anxiety. Seeing the smile that appeared to exist underneath it all, like one from a little kid who had been let loose on a field with all his friends, was as good a glimpse at a mental triumph as we’ll see on a football field today, tomorrow or 10 years from now.
If there were any remaining holdouts, it’s safe to assume the ballots were finalized moments into his first series.
There is no telling where this goes from here. Washington’s quarterback room has been quietly chaotic for weeks now, as Ron Rivera tries to find the person who can hoist this middling roster into contention amid a horrific season in the NFC East, where no team seems interested in pulling itself out of the muck. Dwayne Haskins’s developmental track was pulled from underneath him. Allen was inserted to provide a spark from someone allegedly more intimate with the offense. But now, it’s difficult to see a situation where Smith is not that person for the long-term if he can maintain his health.
It’s one thing to return under idyllic conditions, but Smith came back to football with a perforated offensive line, facing the best defensive player in football (Aaron Donald), in a monsoon so thick that he had to throw on a second glove just to shotput the ball downfield. Imagine nearly losing your leg in a football-related accident and volunteering for something like that. Imagine being one of Smith’s teammates and not feeling like, on every single play, you had to plow through a brick wall for your quarterback.
Rivera may ultimately be misguided in his attempt to microwave this roster in his first season in an attempt to win a bad division. Maybe under different circumstances, we wouldn’t even be talking about a cattle call of veterans replacing a struggling first-round pick. There is no right answer when wrestling between a systematic rebuild and taking a chance when opportunity presents itself. For that reason, Smith’s season may not continue to be the kind of warm, Disney story arc he deserves, especially if Washington's defense cannot turn in similarly heroic performances on a weekly basis.
But, at the very least, Smith already has Comeback Player of the Year in the bag.