It was eerily quiet at FedExField on Sunday afternoon as Kyle Allen lay at the 43-yard line with trainers tending to his gruesome ankle injury. Alex Smith was on the Washington Football Team's sideline warming up, but it was hard to focus on the game because he was in the same situation almost two years ago.
"You snap in to grab your helmet and get ready to roll and then all of a sudden you see them bring out the air cast and the cart," Smith said after Washington’s 23-20 loss to the New York Giants. "I know that routine well. A ton of emotions."
Smith, who suffered a broken leg against the Houston Texans on Nov. 18, 2018, completed a harrowing 23-month journey to return to the field. Now, just nine days from the two-year anniversary of his own horrific injury, he is Washington's starting quarterback once again.
"We have the ball in a veteran guy's hands, a guy that I saw who was working out very, very hard and was trying to come back," head coach Ron Rivera said Monday. "Given who he is and the way he came back, it doesn't surprise me to a degree that he's got an opportunity and he earned an opportunity."
Smith's performance -- 24-of-32 for 325 yards with a touchdown and three interceptions -- was statistically a marked improvement from the 37-yard outing he had against the Los Angeles Rams in Week 5. As rain hounded FedExField and the Rams' defensive line closed in on him, Smith was sacked six times and completed 53% of his passes.
This week, Smith was more mobile and avoided the Giants' blitzes more efficiently. He led the offense to a 48-yard field goal on his first drive and completed six of his first seven passes. He also threw his first touchdown in two years on a 68-yard catch-and-run from Terry McLaurin.
"It always feels good to throw a touchdown," Smith said. "It had been a really long time. I didn't do much on that one. Terry obviously helped me out and made an amazing play. But yeah, I feel great."
The jitters of being in a game evaporated weeks ago against the Rams. He wasn't thinking about his leg or his foot anymore; instead, he was focused on playing fast.
"The contact was a big part of it, just getting beyond that and moving beyond that," Smith said. "For me, [it was] just playing football, not thinking about anything else other than playing quarterback and obviously where you should be."
Smith's teammates have seen him go through rehab for two seasons, so they know better than most how prepared he is to be Washington's starting quarterback. For someone who didn't take many starting reps in practice, McLaurin thought Smith played well.
"He gave us a chance to win. He got us back in the game," McLaurin said. "We made some third downs. I just told him after the game that I'm looking forward to a full week of practice with him and seeing where we go from there."
It wasn't all positive for Smith against the Giants; he had three interceptions, including two in the fourth quarter when Washington had chances to tie or take the lead. The final pick came with 75 seconds left to play as he tried to force a pass over the middle to McLaurin. Avoiding simple mistakes like that, he said, is "quarterbacking 101."
"I had a chance to throw that on time, and if you double clutch it, any good defense is going to make you pay," Smith said. "I either needed to keep moving through my progressions or throw that football on time. That's one where I obviously feel like I'm better than that and certainly capable of making that play."
Smith is looking forward to getting more starting reps in practice so he can fine-tune his skillset before playing the Detroit Lions, and Rivera knows Smith will make the most of every opportunity. Rivera described Smith as having a "legendary" work ethic similar to what he saw from Philip Rivers when he was the Chargers' defensive coordinator. Like Smith, Rivers made sure he was prepared as possible for every game.
"I would be pulling into the parking lot somewhere around 5ish and lo and behold, here comes Philip," Rivera said. "That's just the way he is and who he is as a player, and that's who Alex is. Alex is an early guy and a late guy. He does everything that you're supposed to do, and he does it the right way."
Smith has been adamant about the importance of taking his recovery one step at a time. Coming in for an injured Allen in Week 5 was one of the biggest, and now he is in position to prove he can still be a starting-caliber quarterback. He plans to attack that with the same ferocity he used to complete his historic comeback.
"For me, [I'm] kind of going full steam ahead. I'm not thinking about any of that other stuff going on with this opportunity. I am so thankful for it. I am going to make the most of it."