ASHBURN, Va. -– The track record of Alex Smith suggests adversity will hit, as it did early in his career and even in recent years. That history also suggests he knows how to recover. It’s how the former No. 1 overall pick survived early lean years to become a quality starter deep into his career.
And it’s why the Washington Redskins don’t want to get rattled by what happened Monday night.
“He will bounce back,” Redskins coach Jay Gruden said.
The Redskins, of course, need Smith to be a lot better against the Carolina Panthers on Sunday than he was in the 43-19 loss to the New Orleans Saints on Monday night. It wasn’t just that Smith completed 23 of 39 passes for 275 yards and an interception, it was how he looked. A quarterback known for his poise and accuracy was at times jittery in the pocket and was wildly off.
Nothing summed up his game more than the interception he threw on a fourth-and-2 late in the first half. On the play, a play-action rollout to his right, Smith saw receiver Maurice Harris, who turned the defensive back inside out and had 5 yards of separation as he ran to the sideline. But Smith turned his eyes away from him to look at Paul Richardson running a shallow crosser. Then Smith turned back and, off-balance, underthrew a still-open Harris. The interception was returned 77 yards.
One opposing defensive coach who has faced the Redskins this season and watched the game, blamed the line for more of the issues Monday.
Regardless, 14 years taught Smith one truth: You can’t overreact to one game. However ...
"You don’t want to be naive, either,” Smith said. “You want to be real with yourself. ... You do that and then you do move on. It's one game. We're four games into the season.”
Perhaps that perspective has helped Smith rebound from bad spots in his career, whether injuries early in San Francisco or having seven offensive coordinators in eight years.
Or bad games.
Since 2011, Smith has had 13 games with a worse passer rating than he had Monday night (69.9). He’s 4-9 in those games. In the following week, he has posted an average passer rating of 87.7, throwing 11 touchdowns to six interceptions -- and a 9-4 record. Five times he posted a passer rating higher than 98.8.
In other words, he returned to being Alex Smith.
But he’s in his first year with Washington and coach Jay Gruden. They’re still learning one another, and games like Monday can be educational, depending on how it’s handled. Gruden admitted after the game Monday that he's still learning which plays best suit Smith.
"We communicate openly,” Gruden said. “We just went through all the plays on offense, talked about my thought process and just reiterated why the plays were in, what he was thinking and what he likes moving forward. Maybe it's the tempo of me calling plays, whatever it might be. We had a good discussion. We'll try to do a better job next week for him, and he'll obviously try to do a better job also."
Smith also is still learning about his receivers. That can’t be a major excuse because some of the plays Monday were misses to wide-open targets, or receivers who weren’t seen. Still, the only receiving target who has consistently practiced with Smith is tight end Vernon Davis.
“[Smith has] seen all these looks that we’ve done,” Gruden said. “It's not like we are throwing a whole new scheme at him. [But] he does have new players that he is working with and that comfort level of if he's open, and, when he is covered in man-to-man, can I throw him open? When do I progress all that stuff? We are still working toward that, and he has to feel comfortable. We've done some good things on offense. But overall we should be a lot better and we will be a lot better and we have to be."
Smith can’t do it alone. In their two wins, running back Adrian Peterson has rushed for a combined 216 yards. Smith has a 115.0 passer rating in those games, with a combined four touchdowns and one interception. In the losses, Peterson has rushed for a combined 26 yards; Smith has a 79.9 rating.
Still, Smith knows how to move on from a bad game.
"Those hurt. They hurt, not fun at all,” he said. “I don’t think they're fun probably for anybody that’s affiliated with the Redskins from a fan to anybody in this building. It stings and it should. The only way I think to remedy it is to go get a win.
“I have to play better.”