SportPulse: It’s the most wonderful time of year! No, not Christmas. That window of time just after Week 1 of the NFL preseason where we get to overreact about everything.
RICHMOND, Va. — The silence is almost deafening, so much to the point where it hardly even feels like the same franchise.
For the better part of the last three decades, the Washington Redskins have scarcely managed a season free of quarterback-related controversy.
The last three seasons saw Kirk Cousins produce some of the most prolific passing campaigns in franchise history. But not even those years featured immunity because of polarizing opinions of his worth, and the quarterback’s desire to test free agency. And despite his gaudy statistics, even some teammates looked at Cousins sideways — some because of lingering loyalty to Robert Griffin III, and others because they, like management, doubted his true big-time ability.
But the noise has ceased. The questions ended this offseason when management acquired 14-year veteran Alex Smith via trade with Kansas City, and let Cousins sign with Minnesota.
The end of controversy has brought much-needed relief to a wearied locker room. Meanwhile, Smith’s leadership style has unified.
“There was the drama that came with that of, ‘Should Griff continue to be the guy, or should Kirk be the guy?’” running back Chris Thompson recalls for USA TODAY Sports. “Then they wound up swapping, and then Colt (McCoy) came in there, and Kirk got it back, then Colt got it back. And all that created that crazy drama that was going on. Then, when Kirk finally became the guy, he was on a year-to-year basis, and us players were like, ‘Man, are we going to get something done so we know this is our guy, or not?’ so, with that, all the guys have different feelings about that because you never know what’s going to happen.”
Thompson said he and Cousins always enjoyed a strong relationship and enjoyed playing together. But the back understood that Cousins, “had a plan for himself, and he had a plan for all the future players in the league as far as getting guaranteed contracts and he had to go somewhere else to get it, which is perfectly fine.”
But there’s a noticeable difference in Smith.
“Alex, he comes in here, former No. 1 pick, got the money, and for 13, 14 years, he’s seen it all,” Thompson explains. “So, he’s come in, quiet and calm and not making a lot of noise. He’s like, I want to win, I want Super Bowls. He’s not thinking about anything else. Because he’s got everything else already. And on top of that, we’ve got a quarterback that we know is going to be around for the next three years. So, having a guy that you know is established here and going to be here for a while, it makes all the guys feel good, honestly.”
The price paid (talented defensive back Kendall Fuller and a third-round pick, plus a four-year, $94 million contract extension) reflected the organization’s commitment to Smith.
But for Redskins players, the bottom line was simple: Is he the real deal, both as player and person?
They quickly learned the answer was “yes” as Mr. Smith arrived in Washington this past winter, bringing with him none of the fanfare or superstar aura that you’d expect from a three-time Pro Bowl passer.
“What I noticed from him from Day 1 is he came in and was very quiet and observant of everybody and saw how we did things around here, how things moved, and how players operate,” Thompson said. “He started talking more, and once we got to OTAs, his command in the huddle — it’s not like anything big or rah-rah, ‘Oh, my God, he makes me want to run through a wall!’ It’s very calm, all the time. It’s small things. He’s like ‘Okay guys, let’s go do this thing.’”
Smith has seen and experienced just about every high and low that a passer can dream of. He knows locker rooms and relationships, so he knew he would have to earn the trust of his new teammates. He understood that he would have to lead. But he believed the best way to accomplish both goals involved taking the simplest approach possible.
“It’s just being myself. Being REAL,” Smith told USA TODAY Sports after Monday’s practice while opening a lollypop for his 2-year-old daughter, Sloane. “Like I tell a lot of these guys, talk is cheap. It’s all about coming in and doing the work. I think for me, being authentic. No B.S. I’ve been in a lot of situations: uncomfortable, ugly, great, and everything in between and you try to reference those situations that help you as new ones come along. … But, everybody has their own style and what I do is just embrace my own style as a teammate. There’s no set style for leading.”
Jay Gruden believes Smith’s play helped him earn instant credibility in the locker room.
“We played against him in the past and he kicked our asses,” the coach told USA TODAY Sports with a laugh. “So, it was out there, and we got him here, and he’s the same guy, every day. First, you have to put it out there on the field. … He’s done the walking well before he did the talking. … And when you put that on tape, people see it, they get more attentive in the huddle. They get more excited to come to the huddle to hear what he had to say, and it works out perfectly.”
Plays don’t always work out perfectly. But Gruden and Redskins players say the only time they see Smith get upset is when he’s chiding himself for a mistake.
“His style is positive,” Gruden says. “Always positive. Asks a question, maybe, and moves onto the next play. ‘Let’s get the next one,’ and guys follow.”
Redskins tight end Vernon Davis — also a former 49ers teammate of Smith’s — echoed Gruden, telling USA TODAY Sports, “We know the story: there are people that are for you and against you. You create an atmosphere where people are for you, and they support you, and you’re a leader. That’s Alex.”
Smith’s journey also has garnered the respect of his teammates. They know he endured trying years and near-debilitating expectations in San Francisco before twice resurrecting his career with the 49ers and Chiefs. That determination speaks volumes.
“He’s so resilient,” Davis told USA TODAY Sports. “He’s been through so much, up and down, and he’s still been able to come out on top”
Now, the Redskins hope Smith can help them finally return to the top as well.
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Mike Jones on Twitter @ByMikeJones.
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