Washington Football Team quarterback Alex Smith, who completed a two-year comeback from a life-threatening injury, has been named Sporting News' NFL Comeback Player of the Year.
Smith, who played his first game since suffering a compound fracture in his tibia and fibula on Nov. 18, 2018, in Week 5 against the Los Angeles Rams, was named Washington's starting quarterback in Week 10 and went 5-1 as a starter. He completed 66.7% of his passes for 1,582 yards and threw six touchdowns to eight interceptions.
"He does it exactly how we ask him to do it, and then he does it with decisiveness," quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese said of Smith. "Everything's thought out. Every look is thought out. When I'm going to this guy and why. When it happens on game day, it's natural, it's quick, it's decisive, and it goes to where we said it was supposed to go. You love that as a coach. The things that you talk about during the week happen on game day—that's a huge positive. It makes you want to give more and more."
The story of Smith's return to the field is one of the most unique in sports history. After suffering his injury against the Houston Texans in 2018, he dealt with an infection that resulted in 17 surgeries. While the surgeries were ultimately a success, there were many who believed his career was over.
But as Smith began his rehab, there was a growing belief that maybe, with the right amount of work, he would be able to play once again.
"To watch him light up, to watch him get that inner drive again," his wife, Elizabeth Smith, said during the E60 documentary "Project 11." "He kept his gratitude, kept a good perspective, but not so much the drive. I saw it again."
Smith went through grueling hours of rehab, but he slowly began to improve. He moved from getting around with assistance to walking on his own. Then, nearly one year after his injury, he was incorporating football movements into his workouts, which included running and throwing passes to receivers.
As training camp for the 2020 season drew near, he received even better news: he was medically cleared for contact by both the team doctors and his own medical team. The team placed him on the Physically Unable to Perform list to continue to monitor his health and give him more time to get his body in shape.
It was not long before Smith was taken off the PUP list, and he was going through drills in training camp with a controlled pass rush. By the time camp was over, Washington had kept Smith on the initial 53-man roster as its third quarterback.
"We notice that he is getting stronger and stronger, His movements are all coming back," head coach Ron Rivera said Aug. 10. "But again, we don't want to put him on the field and expose him until the proper opportunity comes. We're trying to be smart. We're trying to be diligent in this situation because of Alex's circumstances. He's been tremendous right now and we expect him to continue to develop and grow. When the moment's right, at the appropriate time we'll make our decision."
Smith's next opportunity came shortly after he was named the backup against the Rams. Quarterback Kyle Allen had to leave the game with an injury, so with his family in the stands, Smith finished the game.
"It was great to be out there," Smith said. "The feeling, the range of emotions -- the good and the bad -- is why I fought so hard to come back. I think sometimes you can take it for granted, and certainly being away from it for a couple of years, I've missed it. So good to be back in it rolling, and like I said, we'll look at the film and get better and keep moving forward."
Nearly a month later, Allen had to leave again, this time for good with a season-ending leg injury against the New York Giants. Smith stepped into the starting lineup and threw for 325 yards. He was named the starter after the game and threw for 390 yards the following week, marking the first time in his career that he had thrown for back-to-back 300-plus yard games.
After that, Washington went on a four-game win streak, thanks in part to Smith's experience under center leading a young team. He received praise from teammates and coaches for his effort, and while his statistics were not eye-popping, the offense did enough to win.
"I think he's getting more and more comfortable back there," Rivera said. "[The] decision-making is getting quicker. He's seeing some of the really good decisions, some excellent throws, put the ball where he needed to. It was good to see. It really was. Going forward, he's really just getting stronger and stronger."
Smith was forced to miss most of the next three games after Washington's win over the undefeated Pittsburgh Steelers, but he returned for the team's win-and-in Week 17 game against the Philadelphia Eagles, which ultimately led to Washington winning the NFC East.
"I think it speaks way more about the team and the character we have," Smith said after the game. "You know everything stacked against us. Going obviously all the way to the offseason, coaching change, new staff. All the COVID stuff. For us to get off to the slow start that we did but to find a way to battle back. Then to finish it off like this I think says a lot about the character we have in the locker room. Good or bad, day in and day out, these guys come to work and put in the effort."