The one former NFL quarterback who understands the injury Alex Smith has overcome admits he’s living vicariously through him.
“Heck yeah!” former Washington quarterback Joe Theismann told ESPN in a telephone interview. “Go, Alex, go.”
Washington activated Smith off the physically unable to perform list Sunday morning, a remarkable development since he broke the tibia and fibula in his right leg in a November 2018 game against Houston.
Theismann suffered the same injury in 1985 — and was in the stands when Smith broke his leg 33 years to the day Theismann was injured. In both cases, the bone protruded through the skin. But their stories diverge from that point. Theismann needed only one surgery on his right leg to clear up an infection; Smith required 17. He nearly had to have his leg amputated, as he discussed in ESPN’s E:60 documentary dubbed Project 11.
“He has gone through a lot more than I had to go through,” Theismann said. “For me it was a question of the leg healing and then trying to do certain things required of the quarterback position. Alex came within 24 hours of losing his leg. I didn’t wind up with complications; he wound up with a tremendous amount of complications. It wasn’t just healing from a broken leg. The mountain he had to climb is so much greater.
“No matter what happens he’s already won the award for comeback player of the year.”
Smith, who has started 161 games in 13 seasons, also had a rod placed in his leg to further protect his bone, something that Theismann did not have. But Theismann said another difference is how accepting the NFL has become with older quarterbacks.
Theismann was 36 years old when he suffered his injury in a Monday night game. He also was not playing as well as he had in the past with eight touchdowns to 16 interceptions — a stark difference to his 1984 stats (24 touchdowns, 13 interceptions).
Theismann tried to come back in 1986 but was waived. A year later he said he was throwing passing drills for some teams — while attending practices in his role as a national broadcaster — and that he was moving “really well.”
“You might say medical advancements but … it was a different era of football,” he said. “If you were 35 in 1985 they couldn’t get you out the door quick enough. Now if you’re 35 and you can play the game decently, you’ve got a three- to four-year career ahead of you.
“I was able to do [anything] two years after, but I was 37.”
In his first season with Washington in 2018, Smith had struggled to adapt to Jay Gruden’s offense but had thrown 10 touchdowns to five interceptions before the injury ended his season. Washington was 6-3 and in first place in the NFC East. They’re 4-19 since his injury.
After the season, numerous teammates said they missed his presence and leadership in the huddle. He also had a large cap hit, making it harder to cut him. Even now Smith would count $32 million vs. the cap if released, though Washington has a $12 million insurance policy that would reduce his number if he was done playing. There was no salary cap in the mid-1980s; Theismann was scheduled to make $1.2 million.
But Theismann said it went beyond a financial consideration. He pointed to Smith’s work throughout the process. Because of their shared injury history — and because Smith played for Washington — the two spoke often during this process. They’ve discussed their injuries; they’ve talked about the on-field movements he must show to convince others he can be effective.
“I was pulling for him from day one,” Theismann said. “In the beginning everyone said he’ll never play again. I never bought that. Knowing Alex as I’ve come to know him and the determination he had. … When you watch the show Project 11, the way the show ends he was so much further ahead than where that show ended. Now he has a chance to go out and do certain things.”
Whether Smith actually contends for the starting job remains to be seen. He was cleared for football activity Sunday, but the organization still isn’t sure the level at which he’s capable of playing. They are going to ease him back into football action, per multiple sources. Coach Ron Rivera and quarterbacks coach Ken Zampese have said the No. 1 thing they want to see is Smith’s ability to protect himself.
“Without any preseason games and without any real live contact, that still remains an open-ended question,” Theismann said. “That, to me, is the only thing Coach Rivera needs to evaluate is: Will he be able to do that?”
Theismann said he can also relate to Smith’s desire to play again after such a gruesome injury.
“You know how hard Alex has worked,” Theismann said. “Before his injury the man carried rocks under water as part of his training. You know how important it is to him and it shows how important football is to him. A lot of people would have said, ‘Why put yourself through this?’ Then again, I don’t think a lot of people understand the athlete. It’s not about the money, it’s about the love of the game and the love of competition. That’s what’s driven Alex.”
And by pushing himself to reach this point, Theismann said Smith has set up the rest of his life.
“What he’s been able to do is create a quality of life for himself at some point when this is over,” Theismann said. “He pushed himself so hard, he can do things he wants with [his wife] Elizabeth and with his kids because he pushed himself so hard. That is to me the ultimate thing that happened.”