LANDOVER, Md. — Alex Smith proved he could make a roster, throw for a lot of yards and withstand a pounding. He can finally add something else to the story of his comeback from a gruesome leg injury: a win.
Smith won a game for the first time since Nov. 11, 2018 — one week before he broke the fibula and tibia in his right leg. Washington beat Cincinnati 20-9 in a game in which Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow was carted off the field with a left leg injury.
“Another step, another thing I never thought I’d be doing again,” Smith said. “It’s one thing to come out and get that first playing time and a whole other deal to play winning football as a starter. It’s amazing to get a win.”
With the win, Washington moved within a half-game of the lead in the NFC East. Washington plays at Dallas on Thanksgiving Day. The team is tied with New York at 3-7, but the Giants swept the season series and therefore hold the tiebreaking edge. Washington has a shot in part because of Smith.
“When a guy like Alex who has gone through what he has gets this opportunity to get back on the field and play well, that’s pretty cool,” said Washington coach Ron Rivera.
It was Smith’s second start of the season, but fourth appearance. And while his numbers didn’t pop as they had the past two weeks — when he threw for a combined 715 yards — Smith was his old self. He was efficient and effective.
He completed 17 of 25 passes for 166 yards and a touchdown. He did throw an interception on a pass that was tipped high into the air over the middle. But Smith was otherwise effective, which has been the hallmark of a career that has now seen him win 95 starts. In those wins, Smith has thrown for 200 yards or fewer 42 times.
His win also occurred while Washington wore its throwback jerseys — the same one he was wearing when he was injured. The injury occurred four days before a Thanksgiving Day game at Dallas.
Smith said it was weird during the week seeing the jerseys in the equipment room.
“The last time I wore them I got them cut off me in the ambulance,” Smith said. “It’s fun to be where I am now. The week before Thanksgiving and the same uniforms, I’m grateful to be here today.”
Smith did connect on one long throw, hitting Terry McLaurin on a deep pass down the middle for 42 yards. But for the most part it was Smith doing what he has done best in his career: moving the chains on short and intermediate throws.
He did find Steven Sims for a 3-yard touchdown pass in which he needed to be patient. The receiver, running a crossing route, had plenty of open space but he had to work through the middle. Despite the rush pushing him back, Smith was able to wait and connect for the score.
“It’s a different feeling when he’s back there,” Sims said.
Players say they feed off his calm demeanor.
“One thing I could say about Alex is he never makes it about him,” McLaurin said. “He has every reason to kind of be, ‘look at my comeback story, look what I’ve done,’ but he makes it about the team. … He tries to keep everyone even-keeled and focused on the task at hand. To see him come back and get a win as a starter … that’s not only a motivation to us as players but motivation to everybody that has watched that [injury].”
Smith has overcome a number of hurdles in the past few months. He had to win a roster spot and then a starting job. He accomplished the former, but only got the latter through a benching (Dwayne Haskins) and an injury (Kyle Allen). In his previous two outings, Smith piled up yards and led comebacks — from 17 and 21 down. But there were no wins.
Earlier in the week, Smith didn’t quite celebrate another milestone but he did reflect on it — on Wednesday it was two years to the day he was hurt.
“You just take a moment when you do to certainly appreciate everything about where we are, certainly as a family how lucky we are,” Smith said. “I’m grateful for so many things. Certainly, to be in this position again I didn’t think was ever possible for a long time. It is a good reminder to look around at how lucky you are, how lucky I am.”