WASHINGTON — Alex Smith is coming off his best NFL season, feeling as if he’s got nothing to prove entering his first training camp as the starting quarterback for the Washington Redskins.
I beg to differ.
Mr. Smith comes to Washington in an atypical situation for an accomplished veteran quarterback acquired by trade and given a lucrative contract extension. He’s not here to rescue a sunken franchise desperate for competent play at football’s most important position. Smith is here to equal or outpace some pretty impressive numbers put up by his predecessor for a team with plausible playoff aspirations.
Regardless of how you feel about Kirk Cousins and his three-year run as the ‘Skins’ starting quarterback, this can’t be debated: Cousins is only the 11th QB in NFL history to post three straight 4,000 yard seasons, and the only Redskin to do so. He started all 48 games, set a bushel of franchise passing records, and led a team that couldn’t run or play defense to consecutive winning seasons for the first time in a generation.
So with new teammates, in a new city, in Year One of a new system, Smith has to be durable and highly productive while the football world compares his performance to what Cousins does in Minnesota. Throw in the added pressure of trying to please an owner hellbent on reclaiming the glory of three Lombardi Trophies he wasn’t responsible for, and Smith doesn’t have the luxury of a honeymoon period.
The Cousins comparisons will be at their zenith this year. Cousins is aided in his new digs by talented passing targets, a stout run game, and one of the league’s top defenses. Let’s say after nine games, Cousins is playing efficiently and the Vikings are humming along at 7-2 or better. If, in the meantime, Smith is still getting comfortable in his new surroundings — which is a reasonable time frame — and the Skins post their seemingly annual 3-6 record (or worse) everyone, including owner Dan Snyder, will look to head coach Jay Gruden and all parties involved and say the team chose poorly.
While that would be a bit of an oversimplification, the comparison is warranted. I’m on record saying Smith is essentially the same guy as Cousins (and apparently, a recent ESPN survey agrees with me), but with slightly more desirable traits. Smith protects the ball better, tossing just five interceptions in 2017 and leading the league with his 104.7 QB rating. He’s more mobile, thus able to make more “off-schedule” plays. He’s a savvy 13-year veteran, leading the Chiefs to 50 regular season wins in his five seasons in Kansas City, earning three Pro Bowl nods.
But Travis Kelce, Tyreek Hill and Kareem Hunt didn’t follow Smith to Ashburn (or Richmond, where Training Camp begins Thursday). The Redskins offense has more questions than it does answers: Can Jordan Reed stay healthy? Will Paul Richardson be the explosive X-factor DeSean Jackson once was? Is Josh Doctson ready to demonstrate why he was a 2016 first-round pick? Can rookie Derrius Guice rescue one of the league’s most anemic rushing attacks right away?
As good as Smith is, he needs nearly all of those questions to be answered in the affirmative if the Redskins are going to climb above .500 and compete for a playoff spot, even if the only real challenge in the NFC East is the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles.
The best-case scenario is Smith turns out to be this generation’s Rich Gannon, the former journeyman-turned-MVP who blossomed in Oakland under Jon Gruden’s tutelage. It would be deliciously ironic for the other Gruden brother to enjoy that kind of good fortune 25 years after Gannon played a mediocre eight games as a Redskins backup under ill-fated coach Richie Petitbon.
The Redskins are banking on that scenario. If it plays out, it’ll be Cousins trying to outrun Smith’s shadow instead of the other way around.