Tom Brady summed up exactly how the rest of the NFL feels about Alex Smith in the span of just a few sentences.
"Hey, I'm so f------ proud of you, bro," Brady said after the Tampa Bay Buccaneers faced the Washington Football Team in the Wild Card round of the playoffs. "You're f----- unbelievable, you know that? You're an inspiration to all of us. You're unbelievable. Always here if you need me."
Brady might have used more colorful language than others, but the future Hall of Famer is right: what Smith accomplished in 2020 was unbelievable. Smith endured a grueling two-year comeback -- one that could have taken his life -- while enduring the surgeries and rehab. And he did not just return to the field; he went 5-1 as the starter and led Washington to its first NFC East title since 2015.
Coming back from the compound fractures in his tibia and fibula as well as the infection that followed was a herculean task; but as Cincinnati Bengals head coach Zac Taylor said of Smith earlier this season, "Some people are just built differently."
Marveling at Smith's historic accomplishment was something players and coaches from around the league had in common. Everyone in the NFL is driven by competition, but there are some instances that require special recognition from opponents. Smith's campaign was certainly one of those moments, and he was recognized for it by winning Comeback Player of the Year at NFL Honors on Saturday night.
"I have always said this, I have appreciated Alex from day one," running back J.D. McKissic said. "The injury he went through and the work he had to put in wasn't easy at all, but I'm not surprised. That's the guy that is going to put the work in."
It was hard for the rest of the NFL to overlook that Smith was inching towards a comeback last offseason. His team of doctors, and later the team’s medical staff, cleared him for contact before training camp, and the video of his family celebrating the news went viral shortly after.
Still, Smith's daily progress was mostly seen by his teammates. They watched as Smith moved from throwing passes in 7-on-7 drills to running red zone drills with a controlled blitz. He was occasionally bumped by defensive linemen, which caused those watching to cringe, but Smith stayed strong in the pocket and delivered accurate throws.
Many of the players on Washington's roster did not get to see Smith's recovery firsthand, but they did see the “Project 11” E60 special that aired during the offseason. That gave them even more appreciation for Smith's journey.
"It's incredible. It's awesome. It's inspiring to watch," quarterback Kyle Allen said during training camp. "To see him at the end of the stages and watching his documentary and to see all that he went through and the gruesomeness of the injury and then to see him back out there and have a smile on his face when he takes some reps finally and really see him climb from basically ground zero to all the way up to where he's close to being where he wants to be, it's incredible to watch. It's fun to watch him go out there every day. It's just pure love of football. It's really pure."
Smith had proven he could perform well enough to make the initial 53-man roster at the end of training camp, meaning the next step would be for him to see action in a game. That time finally came in Week 5, just five days after he was named the backup, when Allen had to leave the game with a shoulder injury.
The conditions for Smith's improbable return to a football field were far from ideal. Washington trailed, 20-7, against the Los Angeles Rams, who boasted one of the league's best defenses. There was a steady rain that doused FedExField that October afternoon. It was apparent that Smith was still rusty, but stood strong in the pocket, took hits and even had Aaron Donald jump on his back for a sack.
The few onlookers attending the game watched in horror as Donald flattened Smith, then breathed a sigh of relief as Smith simply popped up and jogged back to the sideline. The rest of Smith's day was uneventful, but it still impressed the Rams that Smith, outside of needing more reps, moved well on his reconstructed leg.
"That is really one of the most amazing things, I think not only that we've ever seen, but one of the most amazing things in football history is him getting back from that injury and coming back," said quarterback Jared Goff. "I'll be able to tell people forever that I watched that and saw that happen. So I'm extremely happy for him and I'm hoping for the best for him."
The story could have ended there, and that may have been enough to win Comeback Player of the Year. But then Smith started to play better as he got more reps. He threw for 325 yards in relief against the New York Giants, followed by 390 against the Detroit Lions. All the while, opposing teams applauded Smith for his efforts; coaches knew he was a capable player, but they also lauded his drive, which they could tell lifted Washington's entire roster.
"I think the leadership that goes along with that," said former Lions head coach Matt Patricia, "guys understand that they got to push a little bit harder because here's a guy who's been through some horrific things and he battled back and he's on the field and he's performing and he's back out there."
Patricia's observations were correct; Smith's teammates deeply respected how he played as well as how he carried himself throughout the season. He had every reason to say "look at my comeback story, look at what I've done,"
Terry McLaurin said after Washington's win over the Cincinnati Bengals -- Smith's first win as a starter since his injury. Instead, Smith focused on the team, which was appreciated by those around him.
"Everything about him is professional," said Steven Sims Jr., who missed four games with a toe injury. "It's everything you want in a quarterback. To see him come back from what he's come back from, my journey is nothing. That guy fought for his life. All those things, he's just an inspiration. His whole story is an inspiration. I go hard just when he's back there. Regardless of who's back there, I go hard. But it's a different feeling when he's back there."
Smith was not the only inspiring comeback story this season. Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger led his team to an 11-0 start after suffering a season-ending elbow injury in 2019, so he was familiar with going through a long recovery process as a veteran quarterback. Still, when asked about Smith prior to the Steelers game against Washington in December, Roethlisberger said, "I can't imagine the things he has gone through."
"I know him a little bit and am just proud of the way he's been able to get back on the field and play, first and foremost, to be able to walk again," he said. "To get back on the field and play well, you have to tip your cap to him because that takes determination, it takes perseverance, passion, love for the game. It's a pretty awesome story."
No one would have blamed Smith if he chose to give up football after the injury. The No. 1 overall pick in 2005, Smith had a long and successful career and did not need to prove anything. But Smith's love for the game is what drove him, and that was as obvious as the implausible progress he made in two years.
"It shows why he has been successful in everything he's done," said San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan. "[It shows] why he had a great college career, shows why he was a top pick in the draft, it shows why he's helped out three different teams now and for him to come back and just want to come back after going through that, it shows there's a lot of special things inside that guy."
There are a lot of hyperbolic words that get thrown around when discussing Smith these days; unbelievable, incredible and even miraculous. All of them are appropriate, and yet they fall short of accurately describing one of the most singularly unique achievements in sports history.
Smith did not chase that goal for the awards, the adoration or even the approval of his teammates. From the moment he felt there was an inkling of a possibility that he could play again, he pursued it because he loved a sport that has been such an integral part of his life from high school to college and the NFL. All he wanted was to have fun on a football field once again, and in a season unlike any other, he had plenty of it.
"To me, it was more about the attempt and the journey than the outcome," Smith said. "If I would have come up short trying to come back, I would have slept just fine at night, knowing I tried. To me, it was about that mindset of putting myself out there and really, really attempting this. That was it. Whether or not it actually happened wasn't the important thing. I'm lucky and grateful and so I'm thankful that I'm here right now. I'd be fine if it didn't [happen]. To me, it was really about the pursuit."