Alex Smith is exhausted, but he refuses to show it. The moment is for them, the select few who have been chosen to witness the welcome to his new home.
The line of selfie-seekers snakes around the perimeter of Washington’s locker room at FedEx Field, funneling toward the large backdrop adorned with the team’s name in small lettering. One by one, 200 fans draped in burgundy and gold step forward, offering a handshake and even an occasional hug. They have come to lay eyes on the new face of the franchise, the new quarterback in Jay Gruden’s offense. To them, he is Washington’s football savior.
The man who so many saw as expendable is now wanted. But Smith no longer is burdened by insecurity or in need of affirmation. The former No. 1 overall draft pick has been written off as a potential bust twice, discarded for shinier, younger quarterbacks. He has been praised for leading the San Francisco 49ers to the NFC title game and derided as “a game manager” — a solid, dependable quarterback who can’t lift his team by himself. But none of that matters as he stands surrounded by hundreds of fans.
“I don’t feel like I have to prove myself to anybody any longer,” Smith says shortly after the event.
He is all but alone a few minutes later, sitting inside a coach’s office near the entrance to his new locker room. Those who know him best have warned of his reticence around reporters. But he appears at ease as his 6-foot-4 frame sinks into the upholstery of one of two chairs positioned side by side in the small room. He then engages in a delicate dance that toes the line between unfiltered vulnerability and cautious restraint. After everything he has endured in San Francisco and Kansas City, there still is part of him that would prefer to avoid moments where he’s forced to pick at old wounds that have long since scabbed over.
“To be a No. 1 pick,” he says, emphasizing his words by tapping his fist against the wooden desk in front of him. “... To come with tall expectations ... (tap) ... and then, through those first four, five years, to not win games ... (tap) ... to not turn around the organization ... (tap) ... and certainly, statistically ... (tap) ... to not play that great ... (tap) ... to have stretches but, certainly as a whole, not to have played that great ... that builds.”
It took years for him to achieve a level of inner peace and stop questioning the business side of the game. Smith rather would focus on what lies ahead and how excited he is to be a part of Gruden’s “QB-friendly” system. But those moments of insecurity and self-doubt are vital to understanding Smith’s mental makeup, his 14-year journey in the NFL and why members of Washington’s staff are “tickled to death” to have the 34-year-old quarterback.
Pam Smith used to wonder whether her son was destined for a life of crime. By the time Smith was 3, his parents were debating whether it was worth it to take him out in public.
“I used to say, ‘Alex will be a success at whatever he does because he is so focused and very stubborn. I hope he chooses something good versus robbing 7-Elevens because he’d be good at either,’” Pam recalls with a chuckle.
During those early years, when Smith often was banished to a corner in a timeout, she encouraged him to channel that headstrong energy in a positive way. That stubborn streak proved to be one of Smith’s greatest assets.
The perfectionist in him could never tolerate mediocrity. He never will accept being outworked, be it in the classroom or on the field. Those same traits motivated him to sneak into coach Urban Meyer’s late-night game-planning meetings during his time as Utah’s starting quarterback.
“I turn on the lights, and Alex Smith is just sitting in there with us,” Meyer said. “... Not many players have I had that would do that.”
The resolve that led Smith to snub Ivy League interest because he was determined to play big-time college football was as evident in his quest to transform his 185-pound frame into an NFL-ready specimen.
“I remember forcing him to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and stick them in his book bag so he’d be eating all day long,” said Meyer, now Ohio State’s head coach.
Smith’s photographic memory (according to Meyer) and his high IQ earned him the nickname “Doogie Howser” after he earned his degree in two years. His drive propelled him at age 20 to become the No. 1 pick in the 2005 draft.
“Everything he seemed to touch, he succeeded at,” says Dan Mullen, Smith’s position coach at Utah and Florida’s current head coach.
But nothing came easy for Smith in the NFL. In seven seasons in San Francisco, he had seven offensive coordinators and three head coaches. Smith was besieged by doubt, and he was in need of reassurance.
“Probably several years back, I maybe needed to hear that,” says Smith, whose 49ers teams were 11-19 in games he started during his first three seasons before he missed all of 2009 with a shoulder injury. “I think maybe just from the hole I dug myself as a young player. ... Maybe I needed to hear that, any kind of validation.
“I was on some bad teams, and I played bad as a young player, certainly, at times. And that all mounts,” Smith continues, staring ahead at the wall. “Yeah, that all mounts. The perception. Everything that goes into that. And so, yeah, I think to kind of get over the hump of that, to change perception, it can be difficult. It’s a tall task. And it takes a long time.”
The 2011 arrival of Jim Harbaugh as coach signaled a shift for the 49ers organization and for Smith, who went 13-3 and threw for more than 3,000 passing yards to earn San Francisco its first playoff berth since 2002. The 49ers reached the NFC championship game, losing in overtime to the eventual Super Bowl champion New York Giants. But the concussion Smith suffered midway through the following season paved the way for Colin Kaepernick to assume the starting role.
Smith was traded to Kansas City in February 2013. Under coach Andy Reid, Smith took a team that had tied for the NFL’s worst record the year before to the first of four playoff appearances in five years. The Chiefs were 50-26 in his starts. History repeated itself, however, when the Chiefs drafted quarterback Patrick Mahomes in 2017 following a pair of disappointing division-round playoff losses, and it was evident Smith was on borrowed time.
That played right into Bruce Allen’s hands. Washington’s team president targeted Smith in the offseason. On Jan. 30, the teams agreed to terms of a trade and a new contract for Smith: a four-year, $94 million deal that includes $71 million guaranteed.
Just like that, Smith was back to being The Guy.
“He’s a quiet leader, but there’s just something about him that makes you want to step your game up even that much more,” says Washington running back Chris Thompson. “I can’t even pinpoint it. It’s just that it’s Alex Smith. You can’t help but to get excited about it.”
People always have been drawn to Smith.
He was the “pied piper” of the Utah football team, a magnetic force that could pull together a collection of Hawaiians, Samoans, kids from inner city Los Angeles and married Mormons, according to Mullen. “And that’s how you maximize the individual talents on the team,” Mullen says. “When you get them all working together because they can rally around this one person who unites them all.”
Says Meyer: “The minute I heard Alex Smith is not good enough, I thought to myself, ‘I will never, ever have a quarterback good enough then if this guy can’t play in the NFL.’”
Smith’s former coaches agree: He hasn’t gotten enough credit for what he has accomplished in his career. But Washington staffers are eager to praise him. Defensive coordinator Greg Manusky hails Smith as “a technician” when he picks apart defenses.
According to Smith’s inner circle, he’s the same man he always was. But it’s evident he now possesses a sense of self that can’t be rattled.
No longer is he carrying the burden of having to prove himself or questioning the course of his career. In what could be his final NFL act, he is embracing the opportunity to start anew in Washington. And he’s eager to take another team to the playoffs.
“I enjoy the challenge of winning football games more than I ever have,” Smith says. “I enjoy the challenge of coming together with my teammates and playing well for them. Maybe 10 years ago I needed to hear [validation]. But at this point, the focus for me is on ball, I guess.”