Alex Smith, the AP Comeback Player of the Year, was released by Washington on Friday, a move that was expected but still comes as a shock after the veteran quarterback’s incredible run with the team.
Smith’s release frees up just under $15 million in salary cap space for the Redskins, who are trying to figure out their long-term quarterback situation and fill a slew of holes in the wake of a 7-9 season, NFC East title, and wild-card round loss. Coach Ron Rivera said he met with Smith this week, and both sides decided it was best to move on, so Smith’s request to be released was granted.
Rivera said in a tweet, “I want to thank Alex for his efforts this past year.” “He had such an influence on our young team, and his leadership was a big part of our late-season success and first-time playoff appearance since 2015.”
Last season, two years after breaking two bones in his right leg and having 17 operations to repair it, Smith made a triumphant return to NFL action. Whether he played again or not, his battle against a life-threatening infection and long rehab process to get back on the field became a documentary and an inspirational story. And, of course, he returned to the game.
“It was more about the attempt and the journey to me than the outcome,” Smith said on January 10. “Even if I had failed in my attempt to return, I would have slept soundly knowing I had attempted. It was all in the attitude of putting myself out there and trying, very, really hard.”
Soon after Smith led Washington to its first playoff berth in five years, the warm and fuzzy feelings faded. The financial ramifications of releasing Smith now, as well as comments by Rivera and new executives Martin Mayhew and Marty Hurney, made it clear that he wasn’t in the plans for next season as the team searches for a franchise quarterback.
Smith has confirmed that he intends to continue playing at the age of 37. In his most pointed comments yet, he told GQ that Washington didn’t want him to return from his injury, indicating that he knew his future lay elsewhere.
Smith was Washington’s present and future at the place just three years ago. In February 2018, the previous administration, led by president Bruce Allen, agreed to trade a third-round pick and cornerback Kendall Fuller to Kansas City in exchange for Smith, and to sign him to a $94 million, four-year contract with $71 million guaranteed.
Before breaking his right fibula and tibia in a home game against Houston on Nov. 18, Smith had Washington off to a 6-3 start that season. After being hospitalized for almost a month, he was released with a stabilizer on his leg.
Smith was back in playing shape by last summer after a long rehab and began training camp on the physically unable to perform list. Behind Dwayne Haskins and Kyle Allen on the depth chart in 2005, the No. 1 pick was ranked third.
Smith was finally able to play after Rivera benched and demoted Haskins and Allen was injured. He made his first appearance since the injury against the Rams on Oct. 11 and struggled in inclement weather before being demoted to a backup role.
Smith started at Detroit on Nov. 15 after Allen injured his right ankle and threw for 390 yards in a 30-27 loss. He won his next four starts before injuring the calf muscle in the same right leg he injured two years ago, but he was just in time to lead Washington to a win in the regular-season finale at Philadelphia, clinching the NFC East and a playoff berth.
Taylor Heinicke impressed but fell short in a loss to the eventual Super Bowl champion Buccaneers because Smith was unable to play against them in the wild-card game.
“Obviously, it’s not how you want to end the season, so it’s frustrating in that sense,” Smith said. “But, in the big picture, to be back playing a part and even being in this position is something I would have jumped at if you had introduced it to me a year, two years ago.”
Behind the scenes, the wheels were already spinning in favor of Smith’s absence. Though Rivera was vague about Smith’s status for next season, Washington re-signed Heinicke to a two-year contract worth up to $8.75 million and is expected to re-sign Allen.
Washington was 11-5 when Smith started games and 5-26 when he didn’t. He could pique the attention of teams searching for a mentor figure who can also play in a pinch.
The Jacksonville Jaguars, for example, recruited Urban Meyer, Smith’s college coach, to lead their turnaround. The Jaguars have the No. 1 selection, which they are expected to use to select Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence, 16 years after Smith was selected first by San Francisco.
In 14 NFL seasons with San Francisco, Kansas City, and Washington, Smith has thrown for 199 touchdowns, 109 interceptions, and 35,650 yards. Due to injury, he missed the first two years of his career.