Under a withering “Monday Night Football” spotlight, during Drew Brees’ coronation as the league’s all-time passing yardage leader, Smith suddenly seemed like football’s version of Chuck Knoblauch or Steve Sax.
The 14-year veteran missed open receivers. He delivered late. He fumbled. He telegraphed throws, allowing the Saints to pounce again and again.
Headlines hammered the panic button just four games into Smith’s $111 million, five-year marriage with the Redskins. Deadspin groaned after the 43-19 rout, “Alex Smith had one of the ugliest nights of the season” while adding, “It is hazardous to look directly at Alex Smith’s lowlight reel.” The Big Lead argued, “The Redskins are trying very hard to talk themselves into Alex Smith.”
In the pregame radio show Sunday, even legendary Hall of Fame huddle boss Sonny Jurgensen endorsed the idea of benching Smith during the meltdown in New Orleans.
Then in six days — poof — all the negative noise vanished.
That’s Smith, the game-day grinder. That’s Smith, the Helix High graduate who embraces results more than rah-rah. That’s Smith, the quarterback who brushed aside the ashes of a career clunker to polish off his 91st career victory as a starter Sunday in a 23-17 victory over the Panthers at FedEx Field.
The win engineered by Smith pushed him to No. 36 on football’s all-time yardage list with 33,093, passing Troy Aikman and Y.A. Tittle. Twenty-two more and Steve Young will show up in the rear-view mirror, too.
And the Redskins, a team that unraveled Monday, found themselves still atop the NFC East by week’s end.
“You play this game long enough, it can be humbling, the margin of error is so small,” Smith, 34, said of the Saints beat-down. “… It was hard to move on from that. It lingered.”
That’s not to say Smith created a Picasso on Sunday, throwing for just 163 yards. On the Redskins’ first play, he misfired to Adrian Peterson out of the backfield. Two players later, what appeared to be an easy third-down pickup imploded because of a tardy throw to Kapri Bibbs. An intentional grounding penalty in the final minute of the first half obliterated a dandy chance for points.
Like a Warhol, though, beauty belonged to the eye of the patient and open-minded beholder. When the Redskins recovered a fumble on a punt, Smith found tight end Vernon Davis on his third read for a 22-yard touchdown. He found a sliding Paul Richardson Jr. for a 2-yard score on the next drive.
Those two throws and the quick started they provided put enough distance between the Redskins and Cam Newton’s thwarted comeback.
“The big thing about him, he’s tough. He took some nasty hits,” right tackle Morgan Moses said. “He took some nasty hits today. We’ve got to clean up some things on our side, but any time you have a quarterback who can get up off the ground and bounce back like that, and thread the needle the next play, that’s leadership right there.”
The 21 completions from Smith moved him past Boomer Esiason for 26th all-time. That’s Smith, too — climbing amongst and past some of the most recognized in the signal-calling business.
The statistic the Redskins treasured the most against the Panthers: no interceptions.
“He’s a great player, a tremendous player,” said Davis, who played with Smith in San Francisco. “Whatever word you can think of that’s good, to say about someone, that’s Alex. We all know how talented he is. He’s been that way since (entering the league in) 2005.
“Everyone makes mistakes. Everyone has moments where it just doesn’t go your way. But it’s all about the mindset. How will you respond next time? He’s come through time after time after time, so I’m not surprised.”
Worth noting, too, is that the last two defenses Smith faced hardly seem the 1985 Bears. Carolina entered the game 26th against the pass, while New Orleans stood 30th. Both are in the bottom half of the league in sacks.
The NFL, though, is all about results and winning — ugly or otherwise.
Gauging how Smith bounced back was tricky for Redskins coach Jay Gruden. That he bounced back, period, is all that mattered.
“You can’t really tell,” Gruden said. “He’s never too high or too low. Obviously, he wanted to improve on the performance like everybody did, myself included. … I like the way he bounced back and protected the football and did some good things.”
If that’s not exactly a ringing endorsement, it’s understandable. Gruden twice mentioned how damaging the grounding penalty had been. The flight still has some bumps. The captain has yet to flip off the seat-belt sign. The adjustments to a new offense and faces continues.
“Tall task,” Smith said of the yo-yoing week.
That’s the NFL.
Then again, that’s Smith.