LANDOVER, Md. — It wasn’t the fairy-tale return he had hoped for. But if nothing else, Washington quarterback Alex Smith proved one thing Sunday in his first game back in two years after his gruesome leg injury: He can take a hit. Unfortunately for Smith, he proved that over and over.
With two minutes left in the second quarter, Smith entered Washington’s 30-10 loss to the Los Angeles Rams when starter Kyle Allen was hurt. He had a promising second series, leading Washington on a field goal drive. But from there it got worse — for him and Washington.
“Very surreal,” Smith said.
Smith completed 9 of 17 passes for 37 yards and was sacked six times in his first action since Nov. 18, 2018. Washington had a total of minus-6 net yards in the second half.
“It was great to be out there, the feeling, the range of emotions, the good and the bad,” Smith said. “It’s why I fought so hard to come back. Sometimes you can take it for granted. Certainly to be away from it for a couple years, I’ve missed it.”
Allen injured his arm and was cleared to return, but coach Ron Rivera said they kept him out for an “abundance of caution.”
Rivera said as long as Allen is healthy, he’ll return to the starting lineup with Smith remaining the backup. But the moment was less about Smith’s future than about his return from a two-year absence after breaking the fibula and tibia in his right leg.
“I realized the gravity of it,” Rivera said of Smith’s return, “but I also realized he’s a football player who has been waiting for his opportunity. He got his opportunity and he did a good job. I was very pleased with what I saw. He was put in a very difficult position, and I thought he handled himself very well.”
With family allowed to attend games for the first time this season at FedEx Field, Smith’s wife and children gave him a standing ovation in the rain as he sprinted onto the field following Allen’s injury.
Smith, a player once known for his mobility, was harassed in the pocket much of the time and struggled to escape the pressure. But he moved freely and didn’t flinch from the pressure, either. He moved up in the pocket and ran — and took one hit after another. A key moment: When Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald hopped on Smith’s back, collapsing him to the ground for a sack to end Smith’s first series.
“Well it was good to see, to be honest, because now you know he can handle it,” Rivera said of Smith getting hit. “That’s the one thing we couldn’t see in training camp was whether or not he could take the hit. He handled it very well. He’s done a great job and it’s a hell of a story.”
Smith said he had been waiting to get hit “for a long time,” adding, “It was nice to know you’re fine and it was nice to knock the cobwebs off.”
Those cobwebs were knocked off a few times as the Rams took advantage.
“We definitely were kind of licking our chops,” defensive lineman Michael Brockers said. “When he came into the game, we were saying like, ‘Man, this guy is not as mobile as he used to, so he’ll sit in the pocket or get the ball out.'”
But even Brockers appreciated what the moment meant for Smith.
“I took a step back when I got off the field and I was like, ‘Man, wow, this dude is really out there with us.’ He was so close to not even playing again,” Brockers said. “It’s impressive. Shout out for him stepping in there and taking a snap when everybody really counted against him.”
Rams linebacker Troy Reeder, who sacked Smith twice, said, “What an unbelievable comeback … that just tells you a lot about the type of guy and player he is, and I think that was pretty cool to see.”
Smith required 17 surgeries to repair his leg and to fight an infection that nearly caused doctors to amputate it. Smith, whose long road to recovery was documented in the E:60 special “Project 11,” had a titanium rod inserted in his leg, and doctors have told him there’s no more risk for him than for other players.
“Today happened so fast and just trying to fight and get through it,” Smith said. “Definitely frustrated there in the second half. That’s the lingering feeling more than sentiment of the last couple years. It’s never fun to go out and play like that.”
Several members of the organization wondered in the offseason, after seeing the documentary, what doctor would clear the 36-year-old Smith. They eventually got their answer: Smith’s own doctors, and Washington’s.
Washington had strongly considered putting Smith on injured reserve to open the season, but he made a strong pitch to the coaching staff that he not only wasn’t hurt anymore, but that he wanted to play — and wasn’t returning just to prove he could do it.
In late July, one source said Smith’s name was not coming up much in meetings when discussing plans for the season. However, his team of doctors cleared him on July 25, right before he was supposed to report to Washington for workouts. He steadily progressed and was cleared by the team Aug. 16 to return to full football activity.
Smith would have remained the No. 3 quarterback had Washington stuck with Dwayne Haskins as its starter. But Haskins was benched last week, and Allen was named the starter with Smith moving up to No. 2.
“I’d be lying if I said there weren’t a lot of days I didn’t think it was going to happen,” Smith said. “You’ve just got to keep pushing through. I always felt when I had my darkest moments, there was always something around the corner that happened and I kept plugging along. I’d make a big gain or big step or something clicked. … And for me the biggest ones were the last six to eight weeks, getting on the field and knowing I can do it and doing it consistently.”
Smith’s first pass completion came on his first snap — a 6-yard toss to running back J.D. McKissic.
“The work he had to put in wasn’t easy at all, but I’m not surprised,” McKissic said. “To come back in this game, in a rainy game, was amazing. For me to be the guy to catch his first pass, I’m excited and very appreciative for that guy.”
Rams coach Sean McVay, who coached seven years in Washington but left before Smith joined the franchise, appreciated the moment as well.
“You almost wish as a football fan that it was in a little bit better conditions,” McVay said, “as far as being able to play where you can throw and catch more easily than what some of those elements entailed. But weird saying that when it was our defense that made it difficult. Just impressed by him.”
In the end, the struggles of a young team that has now lost four games in a row by 14 points or more were overshadowed by Smith’s return. Even Smith toggled between what his story meant in the big picture and what the competitor in him felt like simply about the game.
“I still have a bitter taste in my mouth,” he said. “You never want to go out and play like that. Maybe down the line I’ll have a more positive spin on it.”
But the overall day was about more than the loss and his numbers. And it was a day for him to savor many parts of the game he had missed.
“Without a doubt,” Smith said. “Just the little things, putting on a uniform, pregame warm-ups, running out of the tunnel. All those things you take for granted sometimes. I wasn’t going to do it this time.”
ESPN’s Lindsey Thiry contributed to this report.