After years of instability, here’s why Alex Smith is the QB Washington needs

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·Senior NFL writer
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RICHMOND, Va. — A recent weekend practice has just begun at the Bon Secours Washington Redskins Training Center, but there’s no defense on the field — just quarterback Alex Smith and his receivers.

They’re running routes against air, meaning every throw should be on the money, every route should be perfect and every pass should be completed. Some of these receivers, Smith has never thrown to, and given the fact the 14-year veteran has been a Redskin for only six months, he knows that every rep matters, especially if he’s going to lead Washington from the depths of the rough-and-tumble NFC East.

Smith is locked in, treating this portion of practice with the focus and intensity it deserves, when his new coach, Jay Gruden, inexplicably breaks his concentration.

“Hey, nice tights,” Gruden playfully grumbles, taking direct aim at Smith’s off-white training attire, which descend from his waist to his ankles underneath his dark maroon shorts. “What the hell are you thinking?”

The Redskins are saying all the right things about their latest QB savior, Alex Smith. (AP)
The Redskins are saying all the right things about their latest QB savior, Alex Smith. (AP)

Gruden is deadpan, in the same sarcastic, funny way he has used to win over so many of his players over the past four years. It’s something the 34-year-old Smith has gotten so accustomed to over the past several months, he immediately bursts into laughter when quizzed about it.

“Jay has got a great sarcastic edge to him, always, and nobody’s off limits, and I think guys appreciate that about him,” Smith told Yahoo Sports. “From the shoes I had on when I first got here to my shirt being tucked in, he’s quickly and constantly finding ways to jab you, and it’s very similar to [Kansas City Chiefs coach] Andy [Reid], who was the same way.”

$94 million and a place that wanted Alex Smith

For Redskins fans, this is a good thing. Smith loved playing for Reid, Reid loved coaching Smith. From 2013-2017, their football union resulted in a 50-26 regular-season record with Smith as a starter. The year-to-year improvement for the No. 1 overall pick of the 2005 draft allowed Smith, a three-time Pro Bowler, to finally shed the bust label.

What the two could not accomplish together, however, was an appearance in the AFC championship game. With Smith under center, the Chiefs went 1-4 in the playoffs, with the last two coming via disheartening home losses to Pittsburgh and Tennessee in the wild-card round as the Chiefs’ offense failed to come up with enough big plays to win either.

With the most recent defeat, a 22-21 loss to Tennessee in which Kansas City blew an 18-point second-half lead, it became clear the salary-cap strapped Chiefs needed to shake things up. A night before the Pro Bowl in late January, Reid called Smith and told him they were ready to deal him to Washington, provided he and his agent, Tom Condon, could hammer out a long-term deal with the Redskins.

Contract negotiations for quarterbacks can be contentious, but Smith — who had dealt with several months of uncertainty about his future following the Chiefs’ decision to select former Texas Tech gunslinger Patrick Mahomes in the first round of the previous draft — was thrilled to go to a team that wanted him. He told Condon not to dawdle, and only days later, they hammered out a five-year, $94 million deal before news of the trade leaked to The Kansas City Star.

“It’s a [expletive]-ton of money, man,” Smith says now, with a chuckle. “Haggling over $2 million more or something? Nah. I’ve played a long time. Let’s get fair market value and let’s go. Get it done.”

The Redskins, who were prepared to lose starting quarterback Kirk Cousins to free agency after two drama-filled seasons revolving around his contract situation, were equally thrilled to get something done. This was evidenced by the fact they not only called the Chiefs first, but were also willing to surrender a 2018 third-round pick and 23-year-old Kendall Fuller — one of the game’s best young slot corners — ­to make it happen.

“We tried to include a whole lot of other folks — they were the ones that wanted Fuller,” Redskins senior vice president of personnel Doug Williams said with a laugh. “It wasn’t like we were like, ‘Here, take Fuller.’ We would have loved to have Alex Smith and Kendall Fuller on this football team.”

But it’s a quarterback-driven league, and the Redskins were desperate to shore up the game’s most important position. And so far, Smith has been something of a godsend, as teammates, coaches and front-office personnel alike cannot stop raving about his character.

Moving past Kirk Cousins era

For one, Smith went above and beyond to sell the team to fans this year, making more appearances at fan events than anyone associated with the team expected.

“As the quarterback, he’s got the right to say, ‘No I don’t feel like doing this today,’” Williams said. “But he has been everywhere, done everything for the team. He’s worked his behind off.”

It’s Smith’s way around other players the Redskins appreciate the most. Even the small things have stood out, Williams said, from the way he doesn’t demand to sit in the same seat during meetings — dead serious — to the way he goes out of his way to sit with different teammates at lunch in the cafeteria.

“He doesn’t give a [expletive] if he’s talking to o-linemen, d-linemen, defensive backs, running backs, scouts — that’s who he is,” Williams said. “And I can tell you this: After talking to the players, man, I haven’t met a guy on this team that doesn’t love Alex Smith.”

A big reason for that is Smith’s focus, which is best summarized by his reaction to teammates who — every once in a while — bring up their past experiences with Cousins or last year’s 7-9 campaign.

“I just nip it in the bud,” Smith said. “Basically, I ignore it, then flip it to the present to what we’ve got going on right now or what we’ve got to do this next year.

Senior vice president of player personnel Doug Williams on Alex Smith: “After talking to the players, man, I haven’t met a guy on this team that doesn’t love Alex Smith.” (AP)
Senior vice president of player personnel Doug Williams on Alex Smith: “After talking to the players, man, I haven’t met a guy on this team that doesn’t love Alex Smith.” (AP)

“For me, it was just moving on a little bit, [because] I don’t care what happened last year — I don’t. I’m coming in like man, I’ve got this big new challenge in front of me, so let’s go.”

Jay Gruden vs. Andy Reid

Smith knows he will ultimately be judged by his success on the field, and that acclimation is going equally well, too. One of the reasons the Chiefs liked the deal with Washington is because they deemed the Redskins a good football fit for Smith, largely due to Gruden’s similarity to Reid as an offensive-minded head coach with a QB-friendly system and a personable edge.

“I am a very sarcastic guy and I kind of get on people a little bit and sometimes they take it the wrong way … but he doesn’t flinch,” Gruden says. “He handles any kind of criticism. He never gets too high, never gets too low. He’s an even-keeled guy who’s a pleasure to work with.”

Gruden is also pumped about the ease with which Smith has fit into the offense. He spits the plays out quickly and cleanly — a crucial element for any new quarterback — and Smith continues to push Gruden to use the zone-read and run-pass options he used so effectively in Kansas City the past several years.

What’s more, after long being criticized as an unwilling deep-ball passer, Smith emerged as the league’s premier downfield passer statistically last season, an adjustment that — when combined with his impressive scrambling ability and decision-making — helped him have a career year at 33 years old.

“The problem I have with Alex is I don’t know what not to call — he can handle everything,” Gruden says. “He can run zone reads, he can run speed options, he can drop back and throw it deep, he can throw intermediate stuff, he can get you out of bad plays and into good plays, and he’s a great game manager who protects the football.

“At the end of the day, you’re gonna be in every football game you play with Alex. He’s giving you a chance to win every game.”

And on the occasion they don’t win, the Redskins love the fact they can count on Smith to be the same, steadying force he was in Kansas City due to his considerable mental toughness, which was built up over his miserable years in San Francisco. This will inevitably pay off in a town where the media spotlight can be intense and the next controversy is seemingly only a tweet away.

“It’s quiet here, and it’s great,” tight end Vernon Davis said. “I’m elated to have him as a part of this team, and everyone else is, as well.”

The feeling is reciprocated by Smith, who takes heart in being wanted again. He went through a similar reloading process when he took over an underachieving Chiefs team in 2013, and knows the big key to turning things around in Washington is to first, keep expectations in check, and second, focus on getting better as a team every single day.

“Listen, we’ve got to win Richmond — and I know it can be cliché, but that’s the reality,” Smith said. “Yeah, I think we have a ton of talent, but the biggest thing is, talk is cheap … we have to go do it.”

For a man who has been doubted for years, who insists he’s had more fun competing the past seven seasons than ever before, that realization is what makes it so easy for him to focus during these long training camp days in Richmond.

“Having gone through everything I’ve gone through, I’m in a better mental state to cancel out the noise,” Smith said. “Good and bad.”

That surely includes the constant teasing by his coach, who is always looking for something to make fun of Smith about but actually turned quite serious when asked how happy he was to have his new quarterback around.

“If you can find something negative about Alex Smith, you really have a [expletive] problem,” Gruden says, without a trace of irony. “Seriously.”

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