Joe Theismann didn't cringe, but he was curious to see how Alex Smith would react to getting hit. Smith had been waiting a long time for this moment — and that contact.
He didn't have to wait long after entering an NFL game for the first time since breaking his right leg in gruesome fashion 23 months ago. Following a standing ovation from his wife and children in the stands, he absorbed three sacks from Aaron Donald and six overall, got up each time and finished the game that Washington lost 30-10 to the Los Angeles Rams on Sunday.
“The first one felt good,” Smith said. “It was obviously nice to know you’re fine, and it was nice to kind of knock the cobwebs off, so to speak.”
Smith, 36, completed his remarkable comeback 693 days after a broken tibia and fibula, 17 surgeries and a life-threatening infection put his career in jeopardy. Watching on television, Theismann — who broke his right leg in eerily similar fashion 33 years to the day before Smith's injury — couldn't help but be impressed.
“The first time he stepped up in the pocket and I saw him move, I thought, ‘OK. He’s back,'” Theismann told The Associated Press by phone. “I think the question has been answered. He’s been sacked. He’s scrambled around a little bit. And in doing so, he’s answered the questions.”
Another question already answered is that Kyle Allen will start at quarterback next week at the New York Giants if healthy. Smith only got into the game Sunday — his first in uniform since the injury — because 2019 first-round pick Dwayne Haskins was benched and demoted to third on the depth chart and Allen injured his left arm on a hit late in the second quarter.
“If Kyle’s ready to go, Kyle will be our starter,” said coach Ron Rivera, who kept Allen on the sideline out of an abundance of caution and expects Smith to back up again.
Rivera is in his first year with Washington but understood the gravity of the situation when Smith entered the game.
"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,” Rivera said. “I was very pleased with what I saw. He was put in a very difficult position, and I thought he handled himself very well.”
Smith started off like his old self, completing 5 of 6 passes on short dump-offs after relieving Allen. He finished 9 of 17 for 37 yards in the rain behind a struggling offensive line and against a defence that clamped down,
Despite the rough numbers, Smith's return puts him squarely in the conversation for Comeback Player of the Year.
"Just to put the uniform on and make the active roster? He was a guy who just didn’t understand how not to compete," Theismann said. “The severity of the situation his leg wound up in, with the infections and the surgeries and everything, was so much different than mine. He went through so much more than I did.”
Smith spent a month in the hospital after the severe injury Nov. 18, 2018. He had a titanium rod inserted into his right leg and was only cleared to practice in August, but along the way, even he had his doubts.
“I’d be lying if I was saying there weren’t a lot of days when I didn’t think it was going to happen,” Smith said. “But I always felt when I had my darkest moments, there was always something around the corner that happened that I kept kind of plugging along and all of a sudden I made a big gain or a big step or something clicked.”
Smith made Washington's roster as the third quarterback, but when Rivera demoted Haskins to third on the depth chart, the first-year coach added he was comfortable putting Smith on the field because doctors approved.
“He's ready for that,” said running back J.D. McKissic, who caught Smith's first pass in his return. “He's out there, he's a grown man. He's ready to play football.”
During pregame warmups — one of the things Smith said he no longer takes for granted — LA linebacker Troy Reeder watched from across the field in awe of the journey to get back to this point. Reeder thought, “This guy went from almost losing his leg to coming back.”
“That is truly one of the most amazing things not only that we’ve ever seen but in football history,” Rams QB Jared Goff said. “I’ll be able to tell people forever that I watched that."
Reigning Super Bowl champion and former Kansas City Chiefs teammate Patrick Mahomes hadn't seen the highlights but was thrilled to hear Smith was back.
“It really is amazing for him to go through what he's been through and get back on the field,” Mahomes said. “That's truly special and a special human who can do something like that.”
Whyno reported from Landover. Fendrich reported from Chevy Chase, Maryland. AP Sports Writer Dave Skretta in Kansas City, Missouri, contributed.
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Stephen Whyno And Howard Fendrich, The Associated Press