Alex Smith is being stubborn. He sheepishly admits it, too.
There are reasons you won’t find the Redskins quarterback on social media. For instance, the 34-year-old missed the initial wave to join the platforms, When they surged in popularity, he decided it still wasn’t for him. “I guess I’m that old,” he jokes.
But the primary factor? That’s when his stubbornness kicks in.
“It’s for a point,” Smith said. “You talk about eliminating distractions. … That’s something I try to live by and talk a lot about with the guys — being in the moment, being mindful. And I feel like those are only things that a lot of times can hijack you out of the moment.”
Time spent on social media doesn’t automatically lead to losses — New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, who regularly posts updates to his 4.3 million Instagram followers, is doing just fine in the wins department — but Smith’s philosophy still feels different for a Redskins quarterback.
With Smith, there are no customized slogans, logos or hashtags — all of which were staples when Robert Griffin (“Know your why”) and Kirk Cousins (“You like that”) were the faces of the franchise. Last week, owner Dan Snyder pointedly called Smith a “breath of fresh air.”
Smith’s no-nonsense take on the ups and downs of the position is a coping mechanism developed over years of trial and error.
When he takes the field Sunday afternoon for the Redskins against the Arizona Cardinals, he’ll begin his 14th season centered around “being in the moment.”
To survive in the NFL, the quarterback had to learn to handle dysfunction and overcome self-doubt after he looked like a bust for the San Francisco 49ers.
These days, coming off a career-best year, Smith said he’s still got something to prove.
“I don’t feel like I could be any more motivated than I already am,” Smith said. “I don’t think it’s possible to be more motivated than I already am. I feel like the longer I’ve played, I’m as motivated as I have ever have been. I don’t think I could get any more.”
Twice now, teams have had Smith as their franchise quarterback and ultimately concluded they were better off without him. The latest being the Kansas City Chiefs, who drafted gunslinger Patrick Mahomes in 2017 and a year later, shipped Smith to the Redskins for Kendall Fuller and a third-round pick.
But, he insists, that’s not what drives him.
Working to improve
Gordon Wood noticed his quarterback almost in tears. Nearly 20 years ago, the then Helix High School football coach was driving Alex Smith back to his suburban San Diego home from the team’s first seven-on-seven tournament — in which Smith threw multiple interceptions.
Back then, Smith wasn’t seen as someone capable of being the NFL’s first-overall pick — or even a Division I quarterback. Instead, Smith, Wood recalls, was viewed by some as the principal’s son, undeserving of Helix’s starting job. (Smith’s father, Doug, was the executive director at Helix, at the time.)
And in his first opportunity to impress, Smith, a scrawny 5-foot-10 kid, blew it.
“He was so discouraged and the defensive coordinator was frustrated because (the defense was) doing good, and he was like, ‘Get him out of there! (Alex‘s) not ready,’” Wood said.
It wasn’t long, however, until Smith won the rest of the coaching staff over.
With the same sort of determination that suited him well for his NFL career, Smith put in the work to improve. A five-inch growth spurt helped, too. By the fall, Smith, then a junior, pestered Wood on Tuesdays for the team’s game plan — well before the coach had it finalized.
Wood said he’d never had an athlete do that before — or since.
“When he didn’t know something, he was going to figure it out,” Wood said. “You almost had to be careful coaching him because he absorbed everything. So if you coached the wrong thing, then you’re coaching the kid to do the wrong thing. Just a very intelligent kid.”
Smith’s intellect helped him thrive at the University of Utah and later in the NFL. In San Francisco, he played for seven offensive coordinators and three head coaches. While Smith struggled to begin his career, his familiarity with systems eventually paid off. Smith’s best years have come in a West Coast offense, which is what the Redskins run.
Last season, Smith led the league in passer rating, topping Brady, Drew Brees and Carson Wentz. He even was first in completion percentage on deep balls (54.9 percent) and fourth in play-action percentage completion at 65 percent, according to ESPN Stats and Information.
Kansas City’s offense, however, was far from simple. The Chiefs ran 168 run-pass options in 2017 — second-most in the NFL. RPOs require the quarterback to decide in a split second, usually based on how the defensive end reacts, on whether to pass, run or pitch the ball.
Redskins coach Jay Gruden said “there’s really not a play that doesn’t suit” Smith’s versatility.
“With Alex at the reigns, I think we should have high expectations,” Gruden said of the offense. “We better. You’ve got to score this day and age in pro football. It’s getting harder and harder to play defense. … You know there’s a lot of stuff that you can do to attack. So we’ve just hone in on and start to find our identity, and make sure we utilize it to the best way we can.”
Gruden said for most of training camp, Smith spent his time soaking in Washington’s system. But once the regular season starts, the Redskins coach said he expects Smith to have more of an input on his preferences.
Smith, too, has a tendency to think like a coach, Wood said.
When Smith was a senior in high school, Helix, who went 25-1 with Smith and star running back Reggie Bush, would regularly lead by so much that Wood often called his “Christmas” package — allowing Smith to call the games’ plays for a series.
“There were times during the game when, ‘I bet you he’s going to run this,’” Wood said. “I would call every play he was going to run. Because you could see he would try to think like I would. … What would most high school quarterbacks do? They’re going to go gun it down the field four times.
“You think Alex did that? No.”
Numbers speak volumes
Gruden isn’t worried that the 49ers and the Chiefs passed on Smith. The Redskins were happy to trade for the quarterback — as evidenced by them giving the 34-year-old a four-year, $94 million extension ($71 million guaranteed) to complete the deal.
And based on how the guaranteed portion of Smith’s contract extension is structured, he’s very likely to be with Washington through the 2019 season, at a minimum.
“It’s not like he didn’t do very good for those two teams in question,” Gruden said. “Last year for the Chiefs — if they don’t have four or five critical drops by their receivers, I think they beat the Titans. And they’re moving onto the next round and who knows what would happen?
“So for him to accomplish what he has accomplished, win as many games as he has, speaks volumes for me.”
The numbers are hard to deny. In Kansas City, Smith went 50-26 as a starter and led the Chiefs to playoffs in four out of his five years there. And if you include Smith’s last two seasons in San Francisco, the quarterback has been in the postseason in six of his last seven years.
Statistically, Smith has individually performed, as well. In addition to leading last year in passer rating, he posted career-highs in yards (4,042) and touchdowns (26). He threw an interception on just one percent of his attempts, a career-low.
Still, despite a record of lifting franchises, there are skeptics. The 34-year-old hasn’t completely shed the “game manager” label from earlier in his career. Critics also cite Smith’s 2-5 playoff record to suggest he has a limited ceiling.
There are other questions, too, whether Smith can thrive without the same supporting cast he had in Kansas City, who arguably had the best group of playmakers in the NFL with wide receiver Tyreek Hill, running back Kareem Hunt and tight end Travis Kelce.
Redskins passing game coordinator Kevin O’Connell, the 33-year-old who now coaches Smith after playing against him in high school, said Washington believes in their skill players.
“It’s just on us as coaches to continue to put guys in situations to continue to be successful,” O’Connell said. “And we feel really good about our guys’ ability when we do that.”
Running back Chris Thompson compares Smith to Josh McCown, another veteran whose longevity in the NFL can be traced to the command and respect he earns from teammates. Thompson said Smith’s words stick when the quarterback does choose to speak up.
“He doesn’t have to say much for guys to just rally together and get stuff done,” Thompson said.
Smith firmly believes there are no “magic speeches” that can lead a team to victories. He said he knows each season features unpredictable twists, and the teams who can handle them the best will be the ones who win.
In some respect, the Redskins have already had to confront adversity — losing second-rounder Derrius Guice to a torn ACL in the first game of the preseason.
Even last season, Smith knew it was likely his last in Kansas City. “Trading up for a quarterback isn’t exactly a subtle move as to the future of a franchise,” he told the Players Tribune in March.
Smith still soldiered on. He admitted the situation wasn’t always easy, but added his past experiences had helped him. With the 49ers in 2012, Smith was on track for a career year until he suffered a concussion, which paved the way for second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick to replace him.
But what motivates Smith today isn’t the fact two teams abandoned him.
It’s the fact he’s accountable for a third.
“There’s great responsibility I take with that,” Smith said. ” Because [there are] a lot of people’s families in this building, players, locker room trainers who sacrifice and I’ve got the ball in my hand every single play. And I take a lot of responsibility for that.
“For me to be able to hold up and play well and help us win games — no that’s the feeling. That’s the ultimate — knowing that I’m walking in the locker room and knowing I held up my end for these guys. I did my part. I was accountable. That’s why you do it.”
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