This might be cruelest moment in Alex Smith's NFL career

Senior NFL writer
Yahoo Sports

The words escaped Alex Smith’s lips as he lay against the cold FedEx Field turf, staring up at the sky. As he rubbed the palm of his hand against his face again and again, he cried out in pain, signaling the true severity of his injured right leg.

“It broke!”

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Long before the Washington Redskins quarterback would be given the official diagnosis, and rushed to a local hospital to undergo emergency surgery on his broken fibula and tibia, Smith knew the sobering truth: His season was over. And as he was carted away with his awkwardly bent ankle stabilized in an air cast Sunday afternoon, the weight of his injury came into focus.

There’s an underlying, almost inconceivable, cruelness that hovers over Smith’s career, a recurring theme of misfortune that appears when one least expects it. When everything seems to finally be going right for him, when he finally seems to have settled into a groove, when his team appears to be on the verge of a breakthrough, the floor falls out beneath Smith’s feet, and he is left to pick up the fractured pieces.

Alex Smith knew immediately after impact that his leg injury was serious after taking a hit against the Texans. (Getty Images)
Alex Smith knew immediately after impact that his leg injury was serious after taking a hit against the Texans. (Getty Images)

So are the Redskins, who have to find a new direction with just six weeks remaining in a season that appeared so promising just a few days ago. The two-game lead they held in the NFC East has shrunk to one. And the quarterback who helped guide them to six wins in their first nine games is gone indefinitely.

Now it’s Colt McCoy’s team, with a division title on the line and a huge showdown awaiting against the Cowboys (5-5) in Arlington, Texas, on Thanksgiving.

Thirty-three years to the day that Redskins great Joe Theismann suffered a gruesome leg injury at the hands of Giants legend Lawrence Taylor, Smith endured his own season-ending and career-altering blow. As he tried to escape the relentless pressure of the Houston Texans’ defense Sunday afternoon, his right leg got caught in the turf as he was taken down for a third-quarter sack. The sight of Smith writhing in pain — and the position of his awkwardly bent ankle — said it all.

“Alex’s leg is exactly like mine 33 yrs ago,” Theismann would tweet from the comfort of a FedEx Field suite, as he was flooded with flashbacks.

After everything Smith had endured in his playing career, he arrived in Ashburn, Virginia, eager to change the narrative of his own story and write a new chapter at age 34. He had twice been discarded by former teams, cast aside in favor of younger quarterbacks with far less experience, but greater potential. But this time, in Washington, Smith was the Chosen One.

After years of harboring resentment over how it all came to a sudden end with the San Francisco 49ers — losing his starting job to an up-and-coming Colin Kaepernick due to a concussion — and wishing he had more time as the leader of the Kansas City Chiefs’ offense — before management ushered in the Patrick Mahomes era — Smith was finally back to being The Man again.

The former No. 1 overall pick no longer had to worry about proving himself, nor did he have reason to be anxious about the business side of football. The four-year, $94 million contract he signed in March — which included a guaranteed $71 million — was proof of how badly Washington wanted him.

Years of insecurity and self-doubt and been replaced by inner peace.

“I can’t believe it,” Theismann told The Washington Post after the Redskins’ 23-21 loss to the Texans. Coincidentally, that was the final score in 1985 when Theismann was injured, except his Redskins were able to pull off the victory behind backup Jay Schroeder. “November 18th is such a horrible day for Redskins quarterbacks.”

Colt McCoy’s task: Maintain the Redskins’ lead in the NFC East with six games remaining. (Getty Images)
Colt McCoy’s task: Maintain the Redskins’ lead in the NFC East with six games remaining. (Getty Images)

Now, McCoy and a host of potential quarterback pickups — take your pick of Mark Sanchez, Kellen Clemens, T.J. Yates and EJ Manuel — must lead the team.

This isn’t how this season was supposed to end for Smith, a man equally beloved in football circles as he is in communities in Salt Lake City, San Diego, San Francisco, Kansas City and the Washington, D.C. area. He is respected for his football acumen, but he is revered for his good nature, his humility and his philanthropy. Within weeks of their offseason workouts, Redskins players began to understand why so many around the league respect Smith as a player, but more so as a man.

Though beset by injuries this season, the Redskins still remain in first place in a weak NFC East division. And in moments when the Smith-led offense had struggled to score, Washington’s defense oftentimes saved the day with a stop, a late-game interception or a much-needed sack to flip field position. By no means are the Redskins (6-4) — now led by longtime backup McCoy — finished. But while Washington loses its star quarterback for the season, and perhaps even longer, we are left to wonder what more Smith may have lost as he lay on the cold FedEx Field turf, staring up at the sky.

Theismann was 35 when Taylor’s vicious blow resulted in a compound fracture that left Theismann’s leg bone sticking out of his skin. The following year, the Super Bowl champion retired.

At 34, one must wonder where this injury leaves Smith.

The Redskins have no choice but to move on, and hope that McCoy is enough of a stabilizing presence in the huddle to keep their playoff hopes afloat. But only time will tell when Smith will return to the field, if at all. While his injury is not as severe as Theismann’s, Smith faces an arduous recovery process, in which he must learn to trust his foot again long before he can focus on drop-backs.

One more obstacle to overcome in the quest to change the narrative of his story and write a new, triumphant chapter.

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