Alex Smith’s Return


I’m going to take a look at Alex Smith’s incredible journey, both in his playing career and his recovery from one of the most devastating injuries in NFL history. The point of this piece isn’t to look at Smith and his past performances. I’ll touch a bit on what I expect from Smith in 2020, assuming he remains Washington’s starter. 

However, I mostly want to appreciate all the hard work Smith did to reach this point. I’ve always been one of Smith’s biggest fans, and I’ve wanted to see him achieve his goal of returning to the field since his injury. When he took the field in Week 5, replacing Kyle Allen, I felt extremely happy for Smith, and that moment touched me. It was a different type of feeling from how I usually feel when watching football. I’ll remember that moment forever, whether Smith goes on to find success in the future or not.

Smith’s 49ers’ Career

Once again, I don’t want to go through Smith’s detailed statistics from his entire NFL career. But, he’s had a long road to get to where he is now. The 49ers selected Smith with the first overall pick in the 2005 NFL Draft. They decided to choose Smith over Aaron Rodgers because of Smith’s calm demeanor and his pro-ready nature.

Smith alternated starting with veteran quarterbacks Tim Rattay, Ken Dorsey, and Cody Pickett as a rookie. Honestly, Smith was horrible as a rookie, throwing one touchdown and 11 interceptions. But, the 49ers saw enough from Smith to make him their unquestioned starter going into 2006.

Smith made it through the entire 2006 season as the starter, playing in all 16 games. He played okay, but the 49ers limped to a 7-9 record. They focused their offense around featured back Frank Gore, placing Smith in a game-manager role. He threw 16 touchdowns and 16 interceptions. Not great, but far better than his rookie year.

Unfortunately, Smith then saw his first struggle with injury. He injured his shoulder during the 2007 season, which eventually forced him to injured reserve during 2007. Smith only played seven games during the 2007 season, and he then suffered a setback in his recovery. He missed the entire 2008 season while recovering from that setback.

Going into 2009, the 49ers wanted to keep Smith on the team, but he had to compete for the starting quarterback job against Shaun Hill. Smith lost the competition, and he saw no action through five games. However, in Week 7, Smith relieved an ineffective Hill. While he didn’t lead the 49ers to a win, head coach Mike Singletary named Smith the 49ers’ starter for the remainder of 2009. Smith had the best completion percentage of his career during his 2009 stint, although he never showed the promise the 49ers saw when they picked him first overall.

Smith continued his struggles in 2010, eventually losing the starting job to Troy Smith. Singletary had lost his patience with Smith, and he made it clear that he didn’t want him as his quarterback. Whether Smith was to blame or not, he only had a 19-31 record as a starter through 2010, and it seemed like Smith and the 49ers would part ways.

Luckily for Smith, the 49ers fired Singletary after the 2010 season, replacing him with Jim Harbaugh. Harbaugh brought Smith back to the 49ers, naming him as the starting quarterback for the 2011 season. In 2011, Smith finally flourished, leading the 49ers to a 13-3 record. 

Smith remained a game-manager, though. He threw 17 touchdowns compared to five interceptions, and he only totaled 3,144 passing yards. Smith set a career-high with 7.1 yards/attempt, but many thought that he was a product of Harbaugh’s system. The 49ers stuck with Smith for 2012, where he kept up similar play.

However, midway through the 2012 season, Smith suffered a concussion, and the 49ers replaced him with Colin Kaepernick. Kaepernick excelled in Smith’s absence, and he stole Smith’s starting job. The 49ers went to the Super Bowl under Kaepernick, although they lost to the Ravens.

Smith Traded to the Chiefs

With Kaepernick settled as the 49ers’ starting quarterback, the 49ers agreed to trade Smith to the Chiefs. In Kansas City, Smith became the starting quarterback for noted quarterback guru, head coach Andy Reid. Most people thought that the Chiefs had traded for a bridge quarterback until they could find a young quarterback with more upside than Smith.

Smith proved his doubters wrong, though. In five years in Kansas City, he started 15 or 16 games each season, compiling a 50-26 record. He completed 65.1% of his passes during that period, and he threw 102 touchdowns versus 33 interceptions. Smith also made the Pro Bowl three out of five years in Kansas City, leading the Chiefs to the playoffs in four of five seasons.

Also, Smith finally evolved into a true passer, working with dynamic receiving weapons like tight end Travis Kelce, speedster Tyreek Hill, and versatile weapon Jeremy Maclin. While some might say that Smith was again a product of a potent offense, he did have to make the throws in that offense. Smith also grew as a runner for the Chiefs, averaging 352 yards per 16 games. He had never had more than 179 yards in any season in San Francisco.

Smith Traded to Washington

Unfortunately for Smith, the Chiefs had drafted high-profile quarterback Patrick Mahomes with the 10th pick in the 2017 NFL Draft. While Smith remained the starter over Mahomes in 2017, the Chiefs wanted to get their future starter on the field in 2018. Of course, the Chiefs made the right choice, although it’s no slight to Smith. Mahomes is one of the most talented quarterbacks of all time, and the Chiefs needed to move Smith to make room for Mahomes.

The Chiefs traded Smith to Washington, who immediately signed him to a 4-year, $94 million contract extension. Smith’s new deal tied him to Washington through 2022 and contained $55 million in new guarantees. Based on the dead cap figures, Smith would likely remain Washington’s starting quarterback through at least 2020.

Smith played well for Washington during 2018, leading the team to a 6-4 record. He didn’t do much for fantasy owners, with only 10 touchdowns in 10 games. Smith seemed to have returned to his 49ers’ form, a decent real-life quarterback with little fantasy appeal.

The Devastating Injury and Road to Recovery

As most fantasy players know, Smith suffered a horrific leg injury during Washington’s Week 11 contest versus the Texans. After a sack from Houston’s Kareem Jackson and J.J. Watt, Smith finished the play on the ground, writhing in pain. Smith broke both his tibia and fibula, including a compound fracture. I won’t go too much into the medical details, but suffice it to say, it was a gruesome injury.

While Smith’s injury was severe, it shouldn’t have led to the type of complications he ended up facing. Smith developed an infection after his initial surgery, eventually requiring 17 surgeries to repair his leg fully. At points, Smith’s doctors believed that he might require amputation due to this infection’s life-threatening nature.

Smith missed the entire 2019 season recovering from this injury. He wore an external fixation device for most of that year to stabilize his leg. Smith could barely walk, and most people assumed he would never return to the NFL. 

However, Smith decided to make every effort to play football again and even to challenge for Washington’s starting quarterback position. Washington drafted Dwayne Haskins in the 2019 NFL Draft to be Smith’s long-term replacement. Haskins struggled as a rookie, but Washington re-committed to him for the 2020 season.

After 2019, Washington cleared house, bringing in former Panthers’ head coach Ron Rivera as their head coach. Rivera traded for his former quarterback Kyle Allen to backup Haskins, but he always included Smith in his quarterback plans. Rivera planned to utilize Smith as the third quarterback for the 2020 season, behind Haskins and Allen, assuming Smith could recover in time.

In May 2020, ESPN did a documentary on Smith’s recovery called Project 11, which chronicled his return to the field. During that documentary, we saw the details of Smith’s recovery, including some very tough to watch scenes. At that time, Smith’s return seemed like a long-shot, even though he had every intention of attempting a comeback.

In July 2020, Smith’s doctors cleared him to return to football activities, although Washington placed him on the PUP list to open their training camp. On August 16, Washington officially activated Smith from the PUP list, adding him to their active roster. As planned, Smith ran drills in training camp as Washington’s third-string quarterback, and he maintained that role entering 2020.

Smith’s Return to the Field

Smith had been a healthy scratch in each game through four weeks, as Washington kept Allen on the gameday roster as Haskins’ backup. But, after Week 4, Rivera decided to make a quarterback change, demoting Haskins to third-string. He named Allen as the Week 5 starter with Smith as Allen’s backup. Rivera mentioned that Allen would be on a short leash, opening the door to turn to Smith if Allen played poorly.

In Week 5 versus the Rams, Allen had to leave the game after taking a hard hit. Smith entered the game to replace Allen for a few plays. Rivera decided to stick with Smith even after Washington’s medical staff cleared Allen to return to the field. Smith didn’t play too well, only completing nine of 17 passes for 37 yards. He also took six sacks, losing 31 yards. Allen performed far better, going 9/13 for 74 yards and only taking two sacks.

Moving forward, it remains unclear whether Rivera will use Allen or Smith as his starting quarterback for the remainder of 2020. It’s pretty clear that Washington has no desire to keep Haskins, and I expect Washington to trade Haskins to another team before the trade deadline. Therefore, Smith and Allen will compete for the starting job for the rest of the 2020 season.

Fantasy Advice

Unfortunately, I don’t think Smith offers too much from a redraft or a 1QB dynasty perspective. Washington has almost no offensive weapons, with only Antonio Gibson and Terry McLaurin as even usable pieces. Even though I believe Smith is a superior quarterback to Allen or Haskins, I don’t think he can make something out of nothing. You likely won’t start Smith in any redraft or 1QB dynasty leagues.

However, in dynasty superflex leagues, Smith is currently a starting quarterback, making him valuable. He could present low-end QB2 value or at least play as a bye-week QB fill-in. Smith should have been on a roster before this week, but I would be willing to spend my entire FAAB budget to acquire him in a dynasty superflex league. Potential long-term starting quarterbacks aren’t on waivers very often, but Smith could be, as he went from third to first-string very quickly.

Thanks for reading this article. You can find me on Twitter at @DFF_Karp. I love to interact with anyone in the community, so reach out at any time! I take fantasy questions and help with all formats, so keep sending those questions my way.


Columbia SPS Sports Management graduate.

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