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Alex Smith’s fairytale comeback comes complete with a villain.
The recently retired Smith told Sports Illustrated that the Washington Football Team’s first-year coaching staff was “patronizing” during his return from the November 2018 injury that nearly required leg amputation and prematurely ended his NFL career.
Smith’s father, Doug, went one step further and said the team “sabotaged” his son’s return from 17 surgeries.
“I’d rather have somebody right in my face say, ‘What are you thinking?’” Smith told SI. “It pissed me off.”
Smith started training camp on the Physically Unable to Perform list, even though he had been medically cleared. Players wore GPS trackers during training camp and none matched Smith’s 4,000 yards per day average – a result of coaches asking him to carry extra weight, push sleds and hurdle bags for drills, according to the report. Those tasks are unusual for a quarterback, and Smith believes it was a test to see if he would quit.
Smith claimed in the report that coaches flinched when they saw blood dripping from his brace. Former team physician Dr. Robin West backed up Smith’s perception.
“Are you sure you’re clearing him?” the coaches would ask her, according to the report. When she responded that was her informed medical opinion? “I got very little support.”
Pushback came in the form of statements like, “He almost died. He almost lost his leg. Why would he want to?” But, as West reminded them, “That’s not your decision.”
There’s a fine line there. Sometimes coaches think they must protect players from themselves and their own competitive instincts. Other times, especially after a coaching change, there is an “our guys” and “their guys” mentality that isolates players inherited from a previous regime.
Washington started first-round quarterback bust Dwayne Haskins (released before the end of the season) and Kyle Allen – who came with head coach Ron Rivera from the Panthers – before Smith got his chance.
Rivera is a highly respected NFL coach who was going through cancer treatments in 2020.
“I was scared to death about putting [Alex] back out there and that is something I struggled with every day,” Rivera told SI in response to Smith’s allegations. “It’s unfortunate that he feels we patronized him because I can tell you that was not our intention. At the end of the day, I commend Alex because he proved everyone wrong and exceeded any reasonable expectations that anyone had set for him. He not only made it back onto the field but led us to the playoffs. It was a truly remarkable feat.”
But Washington still replaced Smith with free-agent signing Ryan Fitzpatrick. After winning NFL Comeback Player of the Year, Smith wanted to play a 17th season and shopped around free agency but ultimately decided against it.
Smith was 5-1 as a starter in 2020 but was put on injured reserve with a calf strain and missed the playoff game. He told SI he could’ve played but the coaches implied his injury was related to the previous one — even though doctors said the opposite and called it a stress fracture. Dr. West resigned after 18 seasons.
“I can’t help but wonder, God, did I start that?” Smith said.
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