If Alex Smith really can return to the football field then the Washington Football Team owes it to the 36-year-old quarterback to find a trade partner.
Smith’s story is heroic.
He worked back from a devastating injury that at various times imperiled his life and his leg. Doctors seriously considered amputation due to infection in the compound fracture sustained in November 2018, and somehow, through incredible perseverance he's back on the precipice of playing football.
He’s been medically cleared for football by his own doctors. Not the Washington Football Team doctors, but that could come as early as this week.
That clearance also might not come, ever, but if it does, put Smith in a situation he deserves.
In the past two years since Smith suffered his leg injury Washington has invested multiple draft picks in young quarterbacks; a first-round pick in Dwayne Haskins in 2019 and a fifth-round pick to trade for Kyle Allen in 2020.
Washington head coach Ron Rivera has said repeatedly - over and over and over - that he wants to play young guys to assess the talent on the roster.
While Smith might be heroic for his comeback, he’s not young for NFL standards.
A healthy Smith is a known football commodity - he wins more games than he loses but typically plays a conservative role in the pocket. He's got good athleticism, or certainly did before the injury, and doesn't turn the ball over much. He only made nine starts in Washington, but that's how he played, and the team had a 6-3 record before his injury.
In Washington in 2020, however, the team is far from a known commodity. Rivera wants to see upside and possibility, a long-term path to a sustainable playoff team, and even if he's somehow fully healthy, 36-year-old Smith doesn't present a ton of upside.
The better thing for Smith might be outright release but that seems highly unlikely. He’s grown close with owner Dan Snyder and has such a strong reputation inside the team’s Ashburn offices that the team wouldn't cut the QB. Washington would also take more than $20 million in a salary cap hit if they released Smith; another reason that won’t happen in 2020.
A trade can look different though.
Finding the right team, the team that’s interested, could mean opportunity for Smith. Even if it’s not an opportunity to get on the field right away, maybe put him in a situation where there’s a clear role.
In Washington there’s no clear role.
The team should belong to Haskins, and maybe in a few more months it definitively will. Or maybe Allen emerges during this weird COVID impacted training camp and wins the starting job.
Rivera hasn’t named a starter. The competition is “open” to some degree.
But this is a rebuilding team coming off a 3-13 season with two young QBs on the roster. If Smith can actually play this fall, that’s not the right place for him.
Keep in mind too that it wasn't Rivera that traded for Smith in 2018 or handed him a fat contract extension. That was Bruce Allen, and he's gone. Smith is well respected by seemingly everybody that's ever met him, but that doesn't mean he was ever in Rivera's plans for his burgundy and gold rebuild.
Now it’s nearly impossible to guess what Smith would command in a trade considering the medicals. Any sort of transaction with Smith would likely include conditional draft picks, and the biggest condition would be Smith's health. Washington would probably have to eat a big chunk of Smith's salary for any move to happen, and frankly, they should. They'd have to pay it anyway, and if it gets Smith to the right place, make it happen.
All of this might be preposterous.
It remains entirely possible, if not probable, that Smith never plays again.
It doesn't take anything away from his remarkable will, his remarkable perseverance, or his remarkable story. But the NFL is a bottom-line business, players know that. Personnel executives know that.
If Smith can play again, gets cleared, gets through individual drills and team drills and eventually actually gets back on the field for an NFL game, the league should name the Comeback Player of the Year award after him. The story would be beyond incredible.
But if Smith can actually play again, he deserves to be somewhere that makes sense.
In the new world of the Washington Football Team, youth needs to be served.
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