Alex Smith's ability to return to football activities after a gruesome leg injury in 2018 threatened to end his career is a true display of perseverance. And while Smith has already achieved more than some thought was possible, there is still more work to be done if the veteran quarterback wants to take a snap during game action.
One of the biggest obstacles still remaining is Smith's re-introduction to the physical nature of the game. The true test for his leg will be how it reacts to a hit from a defender coming at him full speed, something he hasn't felt since the fateful day two seasons ago. It's a moment Smith admits he can't stop thinking about.
“Yeah. I’ve thought about that more than I could probably say," Smith said during a press conference on Wednesday. "Certainly, that’s been in the back of my head this entire process, and that’s something I think through other things that I’ve continued to progress through, it is a progression."
Unlike his footwork, mobility and arm accuracy, taking a hit is not something that can be simulated. The only way to know what it will feel like, and how his body reacts, is to let it happen.
"It’s not just black and white. I’ve got to go out there and get hit," Smith said. "I’ve got to go down and do it and know that obviously my leg is strong enough to take it."
The impending moment of impact has also been on the mind of Washington Football head coach Ron Rivera. From the moment Smith's comeback became plausible, Rivera has stressed that he can't send the quarterback into a game unless he's proven that he can protect himself and avoid the risk of another injury.
In discussions between the two, Rivera made it clear that Smith's safety is his top priority, even though he wants to see him succeed on the field as much as anybody.
“The biggest thing that happened in the conversation is, Alex and I talked and I said, ‘Alex, you have to be able to protect yourself,'" Rivera said. '"You’ve got to be able to show us that you can protect yourself.’"
"You don’t ever want to put a player at risk, and that’s really more so what I’m concerned with, is that I’m not putting him at risk based on my judgment," Rivera said. "I just want to make sure that at the end of the day based on what I’ve seen, based on what I’ve heard, we can sit there and make the right decision whether to play him or not.”
To help get him there, Rivera is planning to slowly ramp up Smith's work throughout the training camp. Beginning with 7-on-7 drills, he hopes to soon introduce the quarterback to 9-on-7 and 9-on-9 drills.
From there, the real test will be putting Smith into an 11-on-11 setting. It's in that environment, a close simulation to game action, that Rivera believes Smith's natural instincts will dictate just how much he's progressed.
"Once we put him on 11-on-11, it’s again, now your natural ability has to kick into play. Your experience, your feel and sense for what’s going on will have to come into play," Rivera said. "That’s kind of where we’re hoping to progress to eventually and see if he’s still capable of doing it.”
As of now, Rivera is confident that Smith will get some work in against defenses. But like every step of the journey, decisions will be made on a day-to-day basis with the quarterback's best interests in mind.
“I believe so, but I’m not going to put a timeline on it. This has been a work in progress and we’re not trying to hurry anybody through, so that’s why there’s no timeline as far as that’s concerned," Rivera said. "We want to make sure that at the end of the day, he can go in there and if he has to play he can protect himself.”
For Smith, he knows the first hit is coming. Nearly two years removed from the last, a once common occurrence has become one of the final unknowns during his journey back to football.
Though the thought of it can be nerve-wracking, Smith won't allow it to slow him down. He's made it this far, and he's not planning on changing how he embraces the numerous challenges that have been thrown his way.
"Certainly from a decision standpoint in life, I’m determined to not let that fear determine my decision making," Smith said. "No doubt that that’s there, for me, obviously choosing to move past it.”