Maybe the NFL should rename its Comeback Player of the Year Award for a certain soon-to-be free agent – after all, given what Alex Smith has overcome, he’s at least the Comeback Player of the Century for a league with 101 seasons in the books.
That was my first thought regarding Smith after news emerged Monday that the Washington Football Team plans to let him go after he helped them to the NFC East crown in 2020 following a two-year hiatus when he bravely rehabbed a life-threatening injury – and underwent 17 surgeries – after his right leg was shattered by a J.J. Watt sack Nov. 18, 2018.
I mean, comeback honors are usually conferred upon those who rebound from torn ACLs or shoulder surgeries. Sometimes, the selection is reserved for guys who bounce back from subpar seasons (Philip Rivers, Ryan Tannehill). Remember when poor Chad Pennington won the “award” twice in three years from 2006 (New York Jets) to 2008 (Miami Dolphins) for all of the above?
Rarely, you get a really heartwarming story – like when Kansas City Chiefs safety Eric Berry was recognized in 2015 after beating back cancer or even when Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Tommy Maddox came back in 2002 from a brief career as an insurance agent and XFL castoff.
But Smith? He’s only officially been the comeback player once, but he’s spent his entire NFL career getting off the mat.
I remember meeting his aunt at the 2005 NFL draft – now infamous for the San Francisco 49ers’ decision to draft Smith No. 1 overall instead of Aaron Rodgers. But she was so excited for her nephew that day, when Smith exuded a similar sense of optimism while giving off the vibe he was a genuinely nice young man.
Over the years, he admittedly struggled with anxiety while trying to live up to his No. 1 billing for the Niners, a terrible team for much of his tenure and one that hardly provided stability around him. It didn’t take long for the “first-round bust” label to stick.
However in his seventh season, newly hired coach Jim Harbaugh turned things around while doubling down on his beleaguered (fellow) quarterback. Smith responded with his best season to that point, helping the 49ers reach the 2011 NFC championship game.
He was playing even better the subsequent year – before suffering a concussion in November of 2012 that gave Colin Kaepernick an opportunity to play and effectively cost Smith his job, forced to watch in a baseball cap while San Francisco rolled to Super Bowl 47.
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Smith was traded to the Kansas City Chiefs in 2013, the chosen quarterback for newly hired coach Andy Reid, and was part of a revival that put Chiefs Kingdom in the playoffs four of the next five seasons. But Smith knew he was on borrowed time on the way to the AFC West crown in 2017 even as he mentored his successor, first-round pick and future MVP Patrick Mahomes.
Then it was off to Washington, where a team that’s reached double-digit wins once since 2005 was off to a 6-3 start before Smith’s frightening injury – which occurred 33 years to the day after former team quarterback Joe Theismann suffered a similar fate on “Monday Night Football” after getting blindsided by Lawrence Taylor in 1985.
Theismann never played another down, and very few expected Smith would.
But he did, welcomed back last October by a vicious sack from Rams All-Pro Aaron Donald – not even two years after he’d crumpled to FedExField’s turf and endured so many operations while rehabbing with injured military veterans coping with wartime injuries that resembled Smith’s.
Along the way, he emerged as one of the game’s premier class acts. I remember interviewing him about topics that didn’t spotlight him – whether it was his demotion following Kaepernick’s ascendance or the importance of serving as an adviser to younger quarterbacks, even when it was obvious Smith would be replaced by one.
Yet he was always unfailingly polite and insightful, almost regardless of the question posed. It’s a feeling that’s almost unanimously shared by reporters throughout the NFL’s landscape.
Will Smith return for more in 2021? He told “GQ” in an interview published last week, “(F)ootball-wise, I got more left.
“So I really do really wanna get in the meat of this offseason and see where I’m at and push it. I want to push my body harder. I want to push my leg harder. … At some point, I’m obviously going to have to sit down with my wife and have a very real conversation and, do we want to do this? She deserves a ton of input. So we’ll see.”
Smith turns 37 in May and was limited by the aftereffects of his injury last season, including dropfoot. It’s unlikely another team will want him as a starter … unless, say, the Chicago Bears’ Matt Nagy, Smith’s last offensive coordinator in K.C., comes calling.
However there could be two dozen clubs that take a look at him for their backup post – he’s already proven he can still be highly effective in that role after winning five of six starts in 2020, when he began the season as Washington’s third-string QB behind Dwayne Haskins and Kyle Allen.
Heck, if you’re new Jacksonville Jaguars head coach Urban Meyer – he helped turn Smith into a star at the University of Utah in 2004 – who better to backstop and guide Clemson star Trevor Lawrence, widely presumed to be the Jags’ pick atop the 2021 draft?
But considering what Smith has already scaled, anything else he accomplishes on an NFL field or contributes off of it is gravy.
The NFL’s Man of the Year Award was renamed “Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award” after the philanthropically focused Hall of Famer’s death in 1999 at age 45 from liver disease and bile duct cancer.
Hard to imagine Smith has a Canton bust in his future, and one can only hope he doesn’t suffer a sudden demise like Payton.
But after 16 years in the league, a man that’s made the Pro Bowl three times while surmounting so many obstacles has certainly carved out a decidedly unique NFL legacy for himself – one that’s worth perennially celebrating with the “Alex Smith Comeback Player of the Year Award.”
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis.
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