Burrow screamed in pain as he rolled on the grass. His yells echoed through the empty stadium.
In the end, Sunday would be a happy day for Smith. He would win his first game in more than two years, with a methodical, efficient, one-touchdown, two-field goal march through the second half that turned a two-point deficit into a 20-9 victory that put Washington a half-game out of first place in a dreadful NFC East.
But Nov. 18, 2018, is never far away for this franchise no matter how much it changes coaches and brings in new players. Something good stopped that day for a Washington team that was in first place and seemed to be moving toward an almost certain division title until Smith was hit high and low by Houston’s Kareem Jackson and J.J. Watt and his leg broke, bone pierced the skin, infection set in, and he spent the next weeks fighting for his life and his leg as doctors kept cutting and cutting and cutting the infection away.
Everything the past two years has been about running away from that day, about perpetually trying to start new only to have the engine never quite turn over, until everything returned to the beginning Sunday: with a cart coming for a quarterback and a stuck team finding the glimmer of what it takes to fight back to first place. Back in 2018, Washington went to Dallas for a Thanksgiving game four days later, lost and began spiraling to the bottom. This Thanksgiving, the team could be in first place by day’s end.
There was nothing pretty about Washington’s win Sunday. With Smith, victories have rarely been beautiful things. Often they are filled with slow slogs downfield and safe, efficient passes as the scoreboard clock chugs and the games churn toward unexciting conclusions. A typical statistical line in an Alex Smith win would look like the entry beside his name in Sunday’s box score: 17-for-25 for 166 yards, a touchdown and an interception. Passer rating: 83.1.
And yet this had to feel wonderful for a team that has struggled to figure out what it takes to win games. “Just winning is great,” said Coach Ron Rivera, who has lectured for weeks about how this team needs to understand winning. As obvious as those words might sound, the fight for any wins has been elusive for a 3-7 team.
“Especially once we got the lead, it was about first downs and grinding it out and not having a mistake,” Rivera said, praising Smith’s second half and a defense that allowed just 25 yards after Burrow exited.
“The most important thing that happened in the second half is that we grinded it out,” Rivera went on to say. “We ran the ball effectively, we took what was given us, we got first downs.”
Nobody, of course, could have imagined this weird, strange season would chug into late November with Smith leading Washington to the same type of plodding victories that put it in first place at 6-3 on the day he got hurt two years ago. Smith’s comeback is its own miraculous story that has been told again and again as he has inched back to this point.
Now, however, might be the actual start of those perpetual restarts, with a chance to seize back whatever was lost on the afternoon Smith went down in 2018. With each hit he takes, worry about his leg and the titanium rod placed inside, seems to wane. With each snap of the ball into his hands a little more of the old Alex Smith begins to emerge. A murky future looks a little less cloudy.
He tried to not acknowledge last Wednesday as the two-year anniversary of his injury and kept noticing, with dread, the rack of throwback jerseys that Washington would wear Sunday, that sat all week in the team’s training room. It was while wearing the same throwback jersey on the same Sunday before Thanksgiving those two years and four days ago that he was hurt. He had always loved those uniforms too, with the dull, old-fashioned burgundy color scheme. But for 734 days they had represented something else. Something ugly for him. An end.
So, he watched with obvious horror as the cart took Burrow away Sunday, knowing the awful reality that would face the most anticipated player of April’s NFL draft.
“The edge you have to play with, I think the feeling that we all get even when watching, it’s what makes it so special,” he said. “You don’t ever want to see anybody get hurt. But that’s not reality.”
Injuries, he was saying, will come. It’s what you do once they happen.
Late Sunday afternoon, after all the other players had left the field, he stood on the sideline talking to a CBS reporter in the traditional interview winning quarterbacks give after games. When the interview ended, he didn’t smile, but instead ducked his head and dashed toward the same stadium tunnel the carts carrying he and Joe Burrow had entered two years and four days apart.