Revolving doors in a bad, bad division – it makes you feel sick

Alex Smith got into a game for the Washington Football Team as its quarterback on Monday (Australian time), a happy ending in his personal 24-month multi-faceted ordeal from an ugly broken leg injury.

Meanwhile, Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott suffered a compound fracture of his ankle in an ugly fashion of his own that ends his season – and no one knows for certain what his future holds for him.

This exchange of in’s and out’s – a set of revolving doors, if you will – exists as the latest wrinkle in the 2020 NFL season within what is happening in the NFL’s worst and likely most dysfunctional division, the NFC East.

More on the poor quality of the NFC East momentarily. But let’s get to the good news story of the day, the positive feelings around Smith’s comeback for Washington.

Smith wasn’t intended to play. In fact, being elevated to the role of Kyle Allen’s backup by head coach Ron Rivera was viewed as a major personal victory after many critics said he’d never play again, due to suffering a spiral and compound fracture (warning: graphic video) of his right tibia and fibula in a game against the Houston Texans on November 18, 2018.

Smith’s road to recovery has been chronicled with explicit detail, and in a story well told, on the “Project 11” episode of ESPN’s E:60 series. It is a must-see, as is the case with most of ESPN’s documentaries.

Whenever ESPN decides to re-run this episode, it is highly recommended not to watch it on an empty stomach, as it gruesomely relates the 17 surgeries Smith went through not just to fix the injuries, but moreover to fight his bout with sepsis, a condition which develops when one’s body suffers an extreme reaction to infection.

It is fair to say that this was not just a fight for Smith to heal his broken bones. He was fighting to save his leg, and even his life.

Fast-forward to Washington’s game against the Los Angeles Rams at FedEx Field in suburban Washington, D.C. – a game the Rams won, 30-10 – Smith realised his goal of getting back out on the field during a game, taking over for Allen, who was injured right before halftime.

Smith, who had put up prolific numbers for both the San Francisco 49ers and the Kansas City Chiefs before his move to the nation’s capital in 2018, did not have a great game statistically against the Rams. In a little over a half of football, Smith completed nine of 17 passes for just 37 yards with no touchdowns and no interceptions, all while rolling outside of the pocket and running for survival, suffering six sacks along the way.

But he also completed the game.

Whereas seeing Smith getting back onto the field constituted a victory of the human spirit, watching Prescott’s injury puts a full-circle perspective on what happened to Smith, and what Prescott faces after his overnight surgery this evening in Dallas.

Prescott, who was on an MVP-type pace ahead of anyone this side of Russell Wilson, had been backing up his scintillating form of having thrown for 450 yards or more in each of the Cowboys’ last three games, completing 14 of 21 passes for 166 yards, no touchdowns and one interception, and also being on the receiving end of an 11-yard touchdown pass from teammate Cedric Wilson just before the half.

The Cowboys led the New York Giants 24-23 early in the third quarter – in a game ultimately won by the Cowboys, 37-34 – when the fateful moment happened.

On a first-and-ten at the Giants’ 27, being flushed out of the pocket and forced to run up the middle, and then to a wide left-hand turn, Prescott was stopped by Giants defensive back Logan Ryan in a tackle where both of his legs were caught between Ryan’s.

When brought to the AT&T Stadium turf, Prescott’s right ankle – at the risk of being just as harrowing as Smith’s tale, albeit in a single moment – appeared to dangle at a right angle.

As the Cowboys awaited a cart to take Prescott off for further observations, and knowing the nature of the injury and the fact that his season is finished, then came the very real moments to showed how much Prescott is loved within the wider NFL community.

Jerry Jones, the Cowboys’ normally stoic owner, was accepting hugs of consolation and sympathy inside his corporate luxury box.

Players from both teams came over to check on Prescott.

And then as Mike McCarthy, the former Green Bay Packers coach who took the Cowboys’ reins this year, went to check on Prescott’s welfare, Jason Garrett – Prescott’s ex-coach with the Cowboys and now an assistant under Giants first-year coach Joe Judge – joined in with his concern.

When it was later revealed that Prescott’s injury wound up being the type of compound fracture which pokes broken bones through the skin, as well as a dislocation of the ankle altogether, and as a nation reacted with good wishes in stark contrast to the reality of Prescott’s current year-to-year contract situation, comparisons to the journey he must now encounter to the one which Smith has completed now ensue.

Smith, normally one who has protected his privacy throughout his NFL career, volunteered to have ESPN document his comeback as a lesson to other players.

“No NFL player has ever been through what Alex Smith has, [and] he’s normally a very private person, but he wanted to document his road to recovery as well and as detailed as possible, with the hope that future players could use it as a road map,” said Andy Tennant, an executive producer on ESPN’s “E:60” series, said ahead of the “Project 11” airing in May.

That program may be the most graphic documentary episode in ESPN’s entire 41-year history of broadcasting, but it is something which Prescott can learn from as his road to recovery begins.

And even in the tale of the teams in the NFC East – referred to in some circles as “the NFC Least” – where the Cowboys lead the division with a losing record of 2-3 and 1-4 Washington and the winless last-place Giants still have dreams of winning the division, the feel-good story of Smith is what even neutral fans can be reflecting on.

“It was great to be out there,” Smith said after the game, in what outsiders could consider to be an understatement.

“The feeling, the range of emotions – the good and the bad – is why I fought so hard to come back.

“So good to be back in it rolling, and like I said, we'll look at the film and get better and keep moving forward,” added Smith.

And as Prescott’s recovery begins, at such a point in time where rehabilitation is appropriate post-surgery, this is the reward which waits for him – that of satisfaction.