Alex Smith doesn’t believe in assigned seats. As he tried to get to know his new Washington Redskins teammates, Smith sat in a different seat for each meeting.
Defensive line coach Jim Tomsula knew that from his time with Smith in San Francisco, and running back Chris Thompson beamed, “That’s a trait from your quarterback that you like to see.”
It’s a concerted effort by Smith to fit in with the guys, something he did quickly after taking over as the Redskins’ franchise quarterback.
Be it his personality, his depth of NFL experience or the long-term contract that previous starter Kirk Cousins never had in Washington, Smith has already assumed the place of unquestioned leader and made players sense an entirely different vibe around the team.
“(It’s about) putting yourself out there, being real and nothing fake, nothing phony but getting to know the guys, letting your guard down,” Smith said. “I’m more conscious of it as I’ve gotten older about that, about the responsibility as a teammate, being a good teammate.”
No one around the Redskins is calling Cousins a bad teammate, and team brass is reluctant to compare him and Smith on or off the field. But ever since Smith took the field in practice in burgundy and gold, he has been the subject of glowing praise about his ability to lead.
“He’s always been a leader,” left tackle Trent Williams said. “You could tell he’s comfortable in that role. He’s what we needed.”
A series of one-year contracts made Cousins unwilling or unable to fully fill that void. After signing a guaranteed $84 million, three-year deal with the Minnesota Vikings, Cousins felt he finally had a “license to lead” that was never there with the Redskins, who took him in the same draft as Robert Griffin III, made him compete for the starting job and never agreed to a long-term contract.
Washington not only acquired Smith from Kansas City but signed him to a $94 million, four-year extension with $71 million guaranteed and put the pressure on him to get back to the playoffs for the first time since the 2015 season. That’s as much as license to lead as anything, but the 34-year-old brushed off the trappings of that kind of security.
“All you’re guaranteed is a year at a time here and even game by game,” Smith said. “I appreciate so much the opportunity I have today and right in front of me and I’m not really thinking past that. Contract, all this and that, I’m not feeling any kind of comfort in that. No. I’ve got a huge sense of urgency to go out there and to go right now, to go today. I’m not waiting on anything. So it doesn’t change my approach at all.”
It’s that approach that quickly won Smith the respect of teammates, who spent the opening days of training camp talking about things feeling “different” this year.
This was a team with Jay Gruden entering his fifth season as head coach with almost the same core of players except at the most important position.
“We got a lot of leaders on this team, especially with your quarterback,” safety D.J. Swearinger said. “When you get a guy like Alex Smith in here, a lot changes. ... He’s changed the leadership of how the offense approaches (the game). When they break the huddle, it’s a different bounce. It’s a different way he comes on the line and commands the offense.”
That’s what senior vice president of player personnel and retired QB Doug Williams thought the Redskins were getting in Smith, who is coming off a season in which he set career highs with 4,042 yards passing and 26 touchdowns. Cousins threw for 4,000 yards the past three seasons, but Washington wanted a long-term answer and found it in Smith.
“What we’ve seen since he’s been here is everything that we thought, that Jim (Tomsula) was talking about, from a leadership standpoint,” Williams said.
“When he walked in the building, you could feel Alex Smith taking control of the locker room and being part of what we were looking for from a stability standpoint.”
The practice field has been the setting for Redskins players getting an up-close look at Smith. Cornerback Josh Norman bemoaned not being able to get enough work in because Smith was too accurate and wouldn’t make mistakes, and Swearinger called him the kind of player defenders hate to face.
Gruden, a former QB himself and an offensive guru, sees Smith as someone who can run his playbook and is also tailoring some things to him to maximize his mobility and decision-making prowess.
“Really what can't he do?” Gruden said. “We’re just trying to come up with a plan of attack that utilizes his skillset and make him as comfortable as possible.”
Smith looks and feels comfortable off the field, too. In addition to players admiring how the playbook has grown because of his addition, Thompson and said Smith “seemed to just fit in with us right away.”
Gruden said Smith “doesn’t walk in here like he’s king. He’s walking in here like he’s one of the guys.” As one of the fittest players on the team, Smith sets a work ethic example, and his personality is such that Gruden thinks he could play a pickup basketball game with anyone and fit in.
Perhaps that’s why his transition to Washington has been so seamless that Williams said it feels as if Smith has been around a long time. The Redskins hope he actually is.
“He has the charisma, he has the character, he has everything that you want in a quarterback,” Williams said. “And that’s what they’re supposed to be: a face of the franchise, and I can tell you this: Alex Smith fits that mold as the face of a franchise.”