Mark Bacon—Main Event Sports DC
It’s time. Skins ’18 take the field this afternoon. No noise from college football to distract. It’s showtime for Alex Smith (yawn.)
Since Washington acquired him in March, Smith has aced his pre-Redskins course. It was a breeze for him. The franchise sought a competent quarterback who wanted to be here, and Smith has impressed with his talent and enthusiasm. It feels as if he has been here for years, even though most fans can refer to just 34 inconsequential preseason snaps for evidence that he exists. It feels as if he is a perfect match for the team’s low-maintenance, underrated offensive personnel, even though a good portion of those teammates have missed significant prep time recovering from injuries.
Somehow, Smith has elevated expectations just based on a good vibe. It speaks to the caliber of person and leader he is. Now comes the real test. There are plenty of unknowns about how this new partnership will work, and Smith isn’t afraid to admit as much.
“Yeah, there’s some blind faith we all put into this,” he said of preparing to lead an offense that was on the mend until about two weeks ago.
Smith doesn’t win you over with anything he says. He gives bland answers to general questions and reserves the insight for football-specific queries that stimulate his mind. He reaches for one-liners as seldom as he reaches for junk food. But there’s something about the way that he talks and moves and interacts that defies any belief that he’s merely a dull, above-average quarterback.
In general, don’t believe in the simple notion that a quarterback is a winner. There are winning quarterbacks who do nothing more than live off the talent around them. There are quarterbacks with losing or mediocre records who could be winners if their franchises weren’t so incompetent. To judge a quarterback without considering all contributing factors to success or failure — especially in a sport that requires so many players to do their jobs well — is intellectually dishonest. But like with all things, there are exceptions. And when you talk to current and former teammates about Smith, they portray him as having certain intangibles — stellar communication skills, adaptability, limited ego, make-the-room-tilt charisma — that complement his talent and make him a natural winner.
So perhaps his 88-62-1 career regular season record (he is 2-5 in playoff games) speaks louder than his stats and his three Pro Bowl appearances. Early in his career, Smith was a raw No. 1 overall pick transitioning from running a spread offense in college at Utah, and his first five seasons in San Francisco were disastrous.
As Smith has continued to improve and refine his skills, the winning has become more dramatic. In five seasons in Kansas City, he started 76 games, and the Chiefs were 50-26 in those starts. Go back to his final two years with the 49ers, and Smith has a 69-31-1 record since 2011.
Smith is the guy you like until some younger prospect (Colin Kaepernick, Patrick Mahomes) comes along. But Washington is putting its faith in a solid 34-year-old who can command a locker room, has a low interception rate and simply wants to do his part.
This isn’t an experiment. Before trading for Smith, Washington agreed to a four-year, $94 million contract extension that kicks in next season. Smith isn’t a stopgap after the Kirk Cousins fiasco. He is the franchise quarterback for the next five seasons. And with that comes a new challenge for Smith: For him to be a hit in Washington, the team doesn’t need him to be the average of what he has been the past seven seasons. It needs him to perform at his peak and continue to evolve.
Despite his age, Smith is still capable. He’s not that old in today’s quarterback-friendly game. But it’s foolish to assume he will age as well as Tom Brady or Drew Brees, too. Even with Coach Jay Gruden directing him, this will be the toughest task Smith has faced since he proved he belonged in the NFL.
The weapons around him are good, not great. And — perhaps you’ve read this before — most of them are injury-prone. Smith is at his best when he functions like a point guard, distributing the ball where it needs to go, not trying to do too much. When everyone is healthy, that should work here. But there are times when Smith will need to carry the team.
For now, he would rather dream about the possibilities of an offense that, rather than possessing a singular, dominant strength, looks to be versatile.
Finally, on Sunday, the noise from college football abates, and we can zero in on the Skins ’18.
We can get down to scrutinizing some of those details outlines above. The preseason offered no clues of what a healthy, Smith-led offense will look like because too many players were being kept in bubble wrap as Gruden focused on the regular season. The fear is that the offense hasn’t had enough time together to mesh. The flip side is, if Washington isn’t sloppy, it can exploit being such a mystery. No opponent has any idea of what this offense can do.
Let this season of blind faith begin.