It’s telling that the NFL has the longest tradition of any major American sports league of honoring a Comeback Player of the Year. The NBA briefly gave out such an award in the 1980s, but eventually switched to honoring the Most Improved Player in 1986. MLB began naming a Comeback Player of the Year in 2005—as part of a sponsorship with a drug designed to help men experience their own comebacks, Viagra—but it isn’t considered one of the sport’s premier awards. But recognizing those who have overcome adversity has always been an integral part of football awards season. The Pro Football Writers’ Association has handed out a Comeback Player of the Year award since 1972, just after the AFL-NFL merger; the AP has awarded one since 1998. The concept feels central to the spirit of football. There are no exact criteria—the awards are generally given to players who excelled after recovering from injury, but sometimes they’re given to players who simply performed poorly the year before, as with Ryan Tannehill last season or Philip Rivers in 2013.
This season, the Comeback Player of the Year award will almost certainly go to Alex Smith, the Washington quarterback who will start in this week’s big Thanksgiving Day game against the Cowboys. His comeback is a miracle. In 2018, Smith suffered a compound fracture of his right tibia and fibula in a game against the Texans. The wound created by the bones breaking through Smith’s skin became infected, resulting in necrotizing fasciitis and sepsis, which could have killed him. Doctors initially thought that Smith’s leg would need to be amputated, but saved it through 17 surgeries that required four hospital stays over nine months. Smith’s recovery is the subject of the hourlong ESPN documentary Project 11, which shows images and videos of Smith in the hospital. (Watch if you’re looking to be inspired; do not watch if you’re squeamish.) After rehabbing for a year, Smith returned to the NFL in 2020. He began this season as Washington’s third-string quarterback, and took over as the team’s starter after Kyle Allen went out with a gruesome ankle injury in Week 9.
There is a big difference between Smith and past AP Comeback Players of the Year. Eight of the last 10 have been Pro Bowlers in the year they won the award; three (Peyton Manning, Rob Gronkowski, and Eric Berry) were named first-team All-Pro, indicating that they were the best players in the league at their positions. Even the two players who weren’t Pro Bowlers had objectively great seasons: In 2011, Matthew Stafford led the Lions to the playoffs; in 2016, Jordy Nelson led the league in receiving touchdowns.
Smith, meanwhile, will not make the Pro Bowl. He has thrown twice as many interceptions as touchdowns. Among quarterbacks with at least one start, Smith is 33rd in passer rating, 34th in adjusted net yards per attempt, 43rd in touchdown rate, and 34th in interception rate. And yet, Smith has been the heavy favorite to win the award since making his first appearance against the Rams in Week 5—a game in which he threw for 37 yards and lost 31 yards on sacks. He will be the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year not because of how he played, but because of what he came back from.
As Smith prepares to face the Cowboys on Thanksgiving—traditionally the most-watched game of the NFL regular season—his story is a reminder of all the things for which we have to be thankful. It is a blessing that Smith still has his right leg. It is a blessing that he relearned how to walk. It is a blessing that he relearned to run, returned to playing shape, and resumed practicing with his team. All of these things happened, and now Smith is actually playing in NFL games. Any one of these blessings would have been enough for most people, but they’re not enough for Smith. “I don’t think you totally know how resilient you are until you get tested and this was definitely the biggest test I’ve had in my life,” he told People.
“I didn’t get it for the longest time,” Smith’s wife, Elizabeth, told The Washington Post of Alex’s journey in October. She added, “People need to understand Alex sets goals in front of him and it’s always just knocking down the next one and the next one.”
And that’s what makes watching Smith play so gut-wrenching. We want to give Smith a big trophy simply for playing, but Smith doesn’t want his return to be purely ceremonial. He wants to be the starter for an NFL team in the middle of a playoff race. He wants to compete against opponents going at full speed. He wants to play the game that nearly killed him.
Prior to the past few years, the most impressive thing about Smith’s career was how he improved after his first career-altering injury. He appeared to be a bust in his first three seasons after going to the 49ers with the top pick in the 2005 draft, throwing just one touchdown against 11 interceptions as a rookie and completing under 50 percent of his passes in 2007. He missed much of the 2007 season after separating his right shoulder, then missed the entire 2008 season after breaking a bone in the same shoulder; it was reported that a “wire left behind from his surgery sawed the bone in half.” In 2009, however, Smith came back to the league as a new man. Before his shoulder injury, he had career totals of 19 touchdowns and 31 interceptions and an 11-19 record as a starter. From 2008 through 2018, he threw 174 touchdowns to just 70 picks and went 83-47-1 as a starter while playing for San Francisco, Kansas City, and Washington.
Smith played the best football of his career for the Chiefs in 2017, working with head coach Andy Reid to pilot a Chiefs offense that would dominate the league the following season behind Patrick Mahomes. At age 33, Smith threw 26 touchdowns against just five interceptions, leading the league in passer rating (104.7) and adjusted yards per attempt (8.6). Kansas City traded Smith to Washington in January 2018 to make way for Mahomes; NBC’s Peter King reported that Mahomes’s father said, “My son can never repay Alex Smith for everything that he did for him.”
The trade seemed like a fine move for Washington, who in turn signed Smith to a four-year, $94 million extension. Smith opened 6-3 as a starter, throwing 10 touchdowns against three interceptions to lead the team to first place in the NFC East. Then Smith went down with his horrific injury, and Washington fell apart. The quarterbacks who replaced him—Colt McCoy, Mark Sanchez, and Josh Johnson—threw six touchdowns and 10 interceptions and lost six of seven games.
Two years later, it is nothing short of remarkable that Smith is playing as well as he is. After Allen went out against the Giants on November 8, Smith passed for 325 yards in three quarters of action. He threw for 390 yards in his start against the Lions a week later, and lifted Washington over the Bengals last Sunday to bring the team within half a game of the division lead. Like I said, this is the stuff of miracles.
But Smith no longer looks like the player he was in 2017 and 2018. He was called into spot duty against the Rams on October 11; he averaged 2.18 yards per attempt, the lowest of his career in a game when he had more than one attempt. Smith threw three interceptions after replacing Allen against the Giants—almost as many as he threw in the entire 2017 season. And while his 390 passing yards against the Lions were a career high, so were his 55 attempts.
Smith also seems incapable of throwing the ball deep. His average target is 5.2 yards downfield, the lowest of any quarterback to start a game in 2020. Washington has Terry McLaurin, one of the most exciting young receivers in the league, but Smith has instead fed the ball to running back J.D. McKissic. McKissic recorded 14 targets against the Giants, which to that point was tied with Alvin Kamara for the most a running back has had in a game this year. McKissic got 15 targets the next week against the Lions.
Shortly after Smith got injured, Washington tried to replace him by selecting Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins with the 15th pick in the 2019 draft. Haskins has been disappointing, but he hasn’t been markedly worse than Smith. In four games apiece this season, Haskins has four touchdowns and Smith has two; Haskins has three interceptions and Smith has four; Haskins has an 80.3 passer rating and 4.92 adjusted net yards per attempt, while Smith has an 80.8 passer rating and 5.00 adjusted net yards per attempt. Taking the franchise’s long-term outlook into account, it feels somewhat odd that the 23-year-old has been benched in favor of the 36-year-old.
It feels taboo to say all this, but don’t mistake this for criticism of Smith. The reason these stats are noteworthy is because they help explain why it feels so terrifying to watch Smith every time he takes the field.
Smith was sacked six times against the Rams in October, despite playing only half of that game. He’d been sacked more than that in only two games in his entire career. Entering Week 12, he ranks 32nd in the league in sack rate. If it looks like Smith’s mobility is limited, that could be because he has a condition called “drop foot” or “foot drop.” As a result of damage from his dozens of surgeries, Smith no longer has the nerve that tells his right foot to come off the ground when he lifts his leg. This condition is not career ending, though it once would have been. New styles of foot brace have helped other athletes with foot drop, including Nuggets forward Michael Porter Jr., and Smith has been outfitted with a brace that essentially lifts his foot up when his body can’t.
Smith wants to play football, which means he will line up game after game against people whose job is to chase and destroy him. He is playing not only because his team prefers him to Haskins, but because the team’s other option at quarterback was carted off with an ankle injury that required season-ending surgery. Last week, Smith got his first win since returning in a game in which the other team’s quarterback was carted off with a scary injury. Smith’s journey to this point is both award-worthy and representative of everything that is awful about this sport.
Football almost killed Smith, and when he overcame what football did to him, he immediately returned to playing football. He knows that he is risking life and limb, and he will still go out on Thanksgiving in the hopes of making a 3-7 football team a 4-7 football team. But that’s what football is. We know what this game does to its players, and they know it too. Yet they keep on taking the field, and we keep on watching.
When Smith entered the game against the Rams, the broadcast cut to Elizabeth crying in the stands. She told The Washington Post she felt like she “was going to vomit.” Every time he completes a pass, I want him to smile, wave to the crowd, and walk off the field forever. I want him to think that the incredible thing he has accomplished is enough. But that’s not how football miracles work. Instead Smith will keep filling us with wonder and terror, inspiration and dread.