Sheer numbers never will be a sufficient resource for evaluating the cumulative impact of Alex Smith. He wasn’t a quarterback who cared much about statistics and there are plenty of signal-callers who threw for more yards and touchdowns during their respective careers. The thing that set Smith apart was his perseverance. It’s hard to imagine a player at his position who’s endured more, and yet he always found a way to show us something extra about the power of his will.
Smith finally bid farewell to the NFL, as he announced his retirement on Monday through an Instagram post. It wasn’t a surprising move, given that he had been released by the Washington Football Team in March and turns 37 years old in May. Smith won the league’s Comeback Player of the Year award this past season after overcoming a broken right tibia and fibula that he sustained in November 2018. Trying to prove he could still play after climbing that mountain surely felt like an emotional ride simply not worth taking.
There’s little doubt Smith, who won 59.3 percent of the games he started, could’ve found another job in the league. He went 5-1 as a starter last season, leading Washington to the NFC East title once he finally got a chance to play. The Football Team also signed journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick, a player two years older than Smith, after cutting Smith loose. There’s always some team looking for an aging veteran to be a reliable backup or a bridge to a younger quarterback of the future. In fact, Smith said Monday on ESPN that he’d visited the Jacksonville Jaguars during this offseason and had been “so excited” about the possibility of playing for his former college coach, Urban Meyer, while NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero reports that multiple teams wanted to sign the veteran signal-caller.
Ultimately, though, Smith obviously didn’t see the point in pursuing any of the possible roles available to him. He’s always been a tenacious competitor and all he’d ever asked of any employer was a chance to show what he could do. This is also what made him special: He wanted to earn every last thing he ever achieved on a playing field.
The critics who often cast Smith as merely a dependable game manager who could never lead a team to a championship never got that side of him. They didn’t fully appreciate his tenacity, his work ethic or his willingness to maximize every last bit of his potential. Smith wasn’t going to mesmerize fans with a rocket-launcher arm or gaudy numbers. He was going to achieve success with smarts, underrated athleticism and an unwavering commitment to do whatever it took to win. That wasn’t an attitude Smith developed over the course of his career; it was a belief he needed simply to advance in football at all.
Smith went from being a lightly recruited high school player to becoming a Heisman Trophy finalist at Utah. He started his pro career as the first overall pick in the 2005 NFL Draft and then endured countless coaching changes with the San Francisco 49ers — along with fans blasting him as a bust — until Jim Harbaugh helped him grow into a more consistent quarterback. When Harbaugh fell in love with Colin Kaepernick and benched Smith after an injury, Smith played the good soldier until a trade landed him in Kansas City with Andy Reid in 2013.
As much as the Chiefs are known for superstar quarterback Patrick Mahomes and an otherworldly offense today, they wouldn’t be where they are if Smith hadn’t come to town. That team had won two games in the year before his arrival. K.C. went 11-5 in Smith’s first season and earned an AFC wild-card spot. The Chiefs ultimately made the playoffs in four of his five years with the franchise, with Smith appearing in three Pro Bowls and leading the league with a 104.7 passer rating in 2017.
Just as important to Kansas City is what Smith meant to the development of Mahomes. Smith could’ve bristled and ignored the young quarterback after the Chiefs traded up to draft Mahomes with the 10th overall pick of the 2017 draft. Instead, Smith taught Mahomes as much as he could about being a leader of an offense and the face of a franchise. It was the kind of treatment Aaron Rodgers would’ve loved to have received from Brett Favre when those two shared a quarterback room in Green Bay.
That was Smith. He knew what was best for the team when he played, and he knew it when his time was coming to an end. Mahomes may have been the quarterback who put the Chiefs over the top and set them up for a brighter future. Smith, on the other hand, was the player who helped that franchise learn how to win again and to set higher expectations for itself.
Smith was doing the same thing in Washington — after the Chiefs traded him to that franchise in early 2018 — when he broke his leg. You knew Smith went through an arduous journey when word leaked that he’d undergone 16 operations to address infections following the initial surgery. The ESPN documentary on the process Smith went through during that period of his life only magnified those challenges even more. It was amazing to see Smith running around with his children after all that, let alone standing tall in a pocket with 300-pound defenders bearing down on him.
Smith returned to the field last season for one obvious reason: He didn’t know how to quit. He didn’t know how to do it when he struggled with the 49ers, when Harbaugh gave up on him or when the Chiefs found a quarterback who was the better man for their job. If Smith had taught us anything before last year, it was that nobody was going to tell him what he could do. He always had his own ideas about that, and Washington head coach Ron Rivera would end up being the next to learn as much.
Smith told GQ magazine in February that he felt as if Washington didn’t want him there after he returned from his rehabilitation. Rivera did openly admit that he feared for Smith’s safety prior to the season and wondered how the quarterback would hold up in the heat of the action. In the end, Smith wound up playing by Week 5 and did plenty to help that team turn around its season. A calf injury prevented Smith from appearing in a Wild Card Round loss to the eventual Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but his work that year will long be remembered solely for the odds he beat.
So Smith now retires during an offseason when other established stars have shut it down. Longtime Chargers QB Philip Rivers hung up his shoulder pads after a one-season stint in Indianapolis. Drew Brees will no longer be slinging passes in New Orleans. These are men who walked away from football thinking about what their Hall of Fame speeches might sound like.
Smith will leave the game after 16 seasons, knowing full well he didn’t produce in the same way as his peers. He ranks 27th all-time with 35,650 passing yards and he threw 199 touchdown passes, which ties him for 46th with Phil Simms. For perspective, Mahomes already has thrown 114 touchdown passes in just three seasons as a starter. That’s one more piece of evidence as to why the Chiefs believed so much in what he could do for that franchise.
Mahomes would be the first to say how thankful he is that he crossed paths with Smith. There are people in San Francisco and Washington who should have a similar appreciation. Smith isn’t leaving the game with a slew of records or a boatload of awards. He’s going out as one of the toughest-minded people the league has ever seen, a man who left a noticeable impact on every franchise he ever led.
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