QB Alex Smith is back after 17 surgeries to fix his broken leg. Coach Ron Rivera is back after receiving treatment for cancer. The Washington Football Team is an inspiration.
Apart from the fact of a four-game winning streak (combined score, 107-57), which includes the first defeat of the Steelers and beating the 49ers Sunday without the benefit of an offensive touchdown, the haggard Washington Football Team (6-7) abruptly and improbably has become a NFL-wide recipient of admiration, even affection.
This is like Rudy Giuliani being cast as the next James Bond.
For two decades, the NFL has come to accept the franchise under dysfunctional dilletante owner Dan Snyder as the acme of oafishness. From the racist nickname to the hostile workplace to the football incompetence, the once-imperial empire with a ticket wait-list that seemingly wrapped around the globe has been in a state of slow-motion ruination.
Now, the WFT (be careful; it’s not WTF) increasingly looks like it will be the NFC East champion. A modest feat, yes, but certainly no less of one than when Pete Carroll in 2010, his first season in Seattle, helped coach the Seahawks to the NFC West title at 7-9. In the playoffs, they beat the New Orleans Saints in the immortal Beast Quake game that launched a pop-culture phenomenon.
I’m betting most readers of this sentence still have their Seahawks-branded intimate underwear from that season. Washed occasionally, I hope.
The history isn’t to say the Washingtons of the wrong coast are destined to have the same narrative arc as the 2010 Seahawks. It is to say that Sunday’s game (10 a.m., FOX) is far less of a snicker festival that it appeared when the 2020 Seahawks were 5-0.
Carroll hasn’t forgotten how the sneaky momentum worked in 2010.
“I wasn’t thinking that it was impossible,” he said Wednesday. “The closer we got to it, the better it got, in the sense that it was unpredictable, and not beyond the scope.
“Then we come back and we win the freaking game against the world champions, and it kick-started us in terms of how much you are willing to believe and persevere and overcome.
“It wasn’t a bad way to start, you know?”
Obviously the 9-4 Seahawks do not want to be a party to a similar renaissance for Washington. While a playoff berth is almost certain regardless of Sunday’s outcome, they glimpsed in the 40-3 trampling of the New York Jets across-the-board production for the first time in a whipsawing season. With an important game against the Los Angeles Rams next up, they don’t want to spend that week after a loss backsliding through another pasture full of steaming question marks.
As NFL followers know, each man is working through a personal trauma that has left us viewers all agape. Smith, 36 and a 14-year NFL veteran, has returned to play this season after a compound fracture of his right leg in 2018 that, combined with a blood infection, took 17 surgeries to resolve.
I had a conversation with Alex Smith today and, well, I hope you’ll read this:
Washington QB Alex Smith cleared for full football activity after broken leg https://t.co/Lpn9zH27Cg
— Stephania Bell (@Stephania_ESPN) July 24, 2020
Smith, playing in seven games with five starts, is virtually automatic for the comeback player of the year. ESPN documented the story of his recovery in an E:60 film that has chilling segments.
In his first year in D.C. after nine mostly successful years at Carolina, Rivera, 58, is back on the sidelines after undergoing seven weeks of treatments for squamous cell carcinoma.
— Washington Football Team (@WashingtonNFL) October 26, 2020
There are times during games when sits on the bench, too tired to continue standing. He has taken IVs at halftime. But he perseveres against cancer because, in a nine-year playing career as a linebacker for the Chicago Bears, he became the epitome of an NFL tough guy.
It was excellent training for his new gig. He’s in what has to be the worst coaching job in the NFL.
Working under a renegade ditherer, Rivera is Snyder’s 10th coach in 21 seasons (predecessors, in order: Norv Turner, Terry Robiske, Marty Schottenheimer, Steve Spurrier, Joe Gibbs, Jim Zorn, Mike Shanhan, Jay Gruden, Bill Callahan). Finally, Rivera looks like the right one.
Smith, alone, would be compelling theater. Put him with Rivera’s story on a woebegone franchise during a pandemic, add some unlikely outcomes that have put Washington atop a dwarf division after a 2-7 start, and the Eff-Tee is an underdog (5.5 points Sunday) darling whose reach finally does not exceed its grasp. Smith. however, is out of Sunday’s game with a left calf injury. Second-year backup Dwayne Haskins will get the start.
Imagine being a player on the team with Smith and Rivera who might think about taking off a play or two. Not. Gonna. Happen.
“I think that’s helped our guys — it really has,” Rivera said Wednesday on a Zoom conference with Seattle reporters. Deferring to Smith’s story, he said, “I think our players are truly amazed at what Alex has done, and his comeback. I think there’s a feeling of wanting to work harder.”
Carroll is among their cheerleaders.
“It’s a human interest story that everybody can relate to, what they’re going through, both guys excelling at what they do,” he said. “That as good as it gets in terms of inspiration and motivation for a lot of people. Both those guys have come across with such feeling and empathy, and a willingness to share their story. That’s really powerful.”
As bad luck would have it, Smith played less than half of the 23-15 win over the Niners because of a calf strain in his left leg, and missed practice Wednesday. If he can’t go Sunday, second-year QB Dwayne Haskins, a No. 1 pick in the 2019 draft benched after four games this season for poor play, would start.
“I feel alright . . . It’s early in the week, and we’ll see how it goes,” Smith told reporters Wednesday.
Even if he doesn’t make the start, it’s going to be hard for the Seahawks to stop what he’s started.