Past winners say Washington's Alex Smith 'true definition' of comeback player

Smith 'very much lucky to be alive' after broken leg (1:35)

Redskins QB Alex Smith details the severity of the complications he's suffered as he continues to recover from a broken leg. (1:35)

ASHBURN, Va. -- On Aug. 16, the day the Washington Football Team removed quarterback Alex Smith from the physically unable to perform list, Joe Theismann told ESPN: No one else in the league should win the NFL Comeback Player of the Year award.

Theismann, the former Washington quarterback who tried to return from a broken fibula and tibia in his right leg on Nov. 18, 1985 -- the same injury Smith suffered on Nov. 18, 2018, understood the magnitude of Smith's even reaching that point.

"No matter what happens he's already won the award for Comeback Player of the Year," Theismann said at the time.

When Smith, 36, played in the Week 5 loss against the Los Angeles Rams, his first game action since the injury, that belief was only cemented. And it extends beyond Theismann.

"I agree with Joe," said Chad Pennington, a former NFL quarterback and the only two-time winner of the award. "That is unbelievable. People don't understand how hard that is."

In fact, some have suggested the award someday be renamed in Smith's honor.

"I would be perfectly fine with that," Pennington said. "Even before his injury, if you think about it, he's been deserving of winning this award multiple times. ... It's about his mentality and approach. That's the one thing that's kept him in the league for so long through the ups and downs. He's never changed his work ethic and approach."

Smith, the No. 1 pick in the 2005 draft, has recovered from multiple benchings, injuries and trades to carve out a long pro career. But nothing can match what he came back from this time. Smith required 17 surgeries and nearly had his leg amputated. Though many in Washington would say "if anyone can come back from this it's Alex," there wasn't a strong belief he would actually do so.

After the E:60 documentary on Smith aired in April, a prevailing notion was this: What doctor would clear him for contact after watching that? Turns out: His own.

And there he was Sunday, replacing Kyle Allen in the second quarter of a 30-10 loss. Washington coach Ron Rivera said he can't recall a similar comeback.

"It's a heck of a story," he said.

Tedy Bruschi, now an NFL analyst for ESPN, suffered a mild stroke in February 2005. The linebacker played in a game for the New England Patriots on Oct. 30 that season and won the Comeback Player of the Year award. He watched Smith's return through the prism of his own. Bruschi said he went through a mental checklist in that first game, from taking his first hit -- "after I got up I said, 'OK, you're still alive'" -- to getting his first tackle and then sack. Similar to how Smith's wife reacted Sunday, Bruschi recalled how his own wife, Heidi, reacted in his first game back in 2005.

As with Smith, many questioned why Bruschi would want to return. The veteran linebacker had already played nine seasons, earned a Pro Bowl berth and won three Super Bowls.

"Doctors said I was OK," he said. "If I didn't try it now, it would eat at me five years from now."

Smith's return resonated with Bruschi.

"This is the true definition of comeback player of the year," Bruschi said. "That's not to diminish any other player's comeback, but a lot of people have been following this. People have an emotional attachment. That's why everyone's so happy."

Washington offensive coordinator Scott Turner was in Minnesota when quarterback Teddy Bridgewater dislocated his knee and tore his ACL in a 2016 practice. Bridgewater has resurrected his career as the Carolina Panthers' starter, but wouldn't be eligible for this award because he has been on a roster since 2018. But his comeback as a starter is worth mentioning: He ranks 10th in Total QBR at 76.4 for the Panthers (3-2).

"The only thing that's even close to that, and obviously it didn't have the life-threatening part of it," Turner said of Bridgewater. "Watching him from afar to have some success that he's having right now is really cool and I'm really happy for him. It's not to the degree of Alex's, but it was a pretty major injury."

Smith's return stands out to Pennington because he knows the struggles of returning. He won the award in 2006 with the New York Jets and again in 2008 with the Miami Dolphins.

"People don't realize the mental grind that an athlete experiences," said Pennington, who is now coaching football at Sayre School in Lexington, Kentucky. "I remember going into training camp and being ready for camp, but feeling mentally exhausted because I had spent every mental and physical resource just to get back for camp -- never mind getting ready to play an NFL season.

"The mental grind is harder to overcome. For [Smith] to fight through that, knowing what he experienced and went through, is remarkable. My jaw drops to even see him out there. It's an amazing story."

Others in consideration for the award this year

Cam Newton, QB, Patriots: He played in two games for Carolina last season because of a Lisfranc injury that eventually landed him on injured reserve. This came after he suffered a shoulder injury in Week 10 of 2018 that impacted that season. In three games this season with New England -- he missed one game after testing positive for COVID-19 -- Newton ranks 23rd in Total QBR at 58.5 with two touchdowns and two interceptions. His 35 rushing attempts through the first three weeks were the most by a quarterback in the Super Bowl era. As the season unfolds, Newton's impact could rise as he gains a deeper comfort level with a new offense -- and reverts to the form he displayed in Carolina since it drafted him No. 1 overall in 2011.

Ben Roethlisberger, QB, Pittsburgh Steelers: He missed 14 games last season because of a right elbow injury that required surgery. He hasn't shown much rust this season from the surgery or the layoff. In four games, Roethlisberger has thrown 10 touchdowns and one interception. He ranks 20th in Total QBR at 62.0, sandwiched between the Houston Texans' Deshaun Watson and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Tom Brady. Pittsburgh is 4-0.

Aldon Smith, DE, Dallas Cowboys: He last played in 2015, after which his career appeared to be over because of multiple suspensions due to legal and substance abuse problems. At one point in 2018 he had to sleep under a car. But he convinced NFL commissioner Roger Goodell he had rehabilitated and the league granted him another chance. He's making the most of it: He's tied for seventh in the league with four sacks and his 17 solo tackles lead all defensive linemen. Smith had an NFL-record 33.5 sacks in his first two seasons combined.

J.J. Watt, DE, Texans: He missed eight games in 2019 with a torn pectoral muscle, returning in time for two playoff games. It was the third time in four years that injuries have affected his season. He missed 11 games in 2017 because of a fractured leg and 13 games in 2016 because of a back injury. But he's in the running for this award with two sacks and a fumble recovery in Houston's five games.