After the Washington Redskins acquired Alex Smith, coach Jay Gruden testified in favor of the trade — enthusiastically, glowingly, effusively. In fact, he said the team was better off with Smith at quarterback than they had been with the previous quarterback, without mentioning his name.
“Yeah, without a doubt,” Gruden told reporters at the NFL owners meeting in Orlando in March. “I don’t want to compare two players, but we’re always trying to be better at every position. We got better.”
Well, we’ll find out Sunday in Tampa against the Buccaneers.
Washington, still in first place in the NFC East with a 5-3 record, goes into Tampa severely damaged after Sunday’s 38-14 loss to the Atlanta Falcons. They lost two starting offensive linemen — guard Brandon Scherff and Shawn Lauvao, both out for the season — who join injured star tackle Trent Williams, out for possibly three more weeks recovering from thumb surgery, on the sidelines. Right tackle Morgan Moses left that game several times hurt and substitute left tackle Ty Nsekhe finished the contest grimacing in pain.
Add receiver Paul Richardson to the list, out for the season with a shoulder injury, running back Chris Thompson with rib injuries and an uncertain Jamison Crowder still recovering from an ankle injury.
They will travel to Florida with watered-down offensive weapons and an offensive line patched together with backups and free agents signed off the street to face an explosive, if dysfunctional, 3-5 team.
It’s awfully close to the situation the Redskins faced last season when they went to Seattle with six starters out — Crowder, Williams, Lauvao, Scherff, Jordan Reed and Spencer Long — and the quarterback Gruden doesn’t believe is as good as Smith.
But Kirk Cousins was good enough to lead that team to a 17-14 win, doing so in a tough place with a game-winning 70-yard touchdown drive in the final minute.
He did it, I might add, with a running game that netted 47 yards between Thompson, Rob Kelley and Samaje Perine. No Adrian Peterson in that box score.
So we should expect to see all these things that Gruden talked about in March that make Smith an upgrade.
“It’s not one thing,” Gruden said. “It’s everything. It’s the entire body of work. He’s very good at the intermediate ball. He’s good with the quick game. He can run zone reads, the [run-pass options]. Very exciting. The ability to ad-lib, make plays that aren’t there and keep plays alive. Coaching him for the first time will be exciting because I don’t think there’s a limit on what he can do. He has all the things you want a quarterback to be able to do.”
Well, except for throwing the ball downfield consistently. And playing from behind. Other than that, what a deal.
When you commit front office malfeasance and let a quarterback like Cousins leave — and make it worse without anything to show for his leaving — and then trade for a 34-year-old quarterback and pay him $94 million, every week is a debate about that change unless you prove otherwise. The Redskins have hardly proved otherwise. In fact, there are far more questions about Smith today than there were the day they traded for him.
There will be answers to some of those questions, or more questions raised, based on what Smith does in Tampa, because he will likely have to do more than he has in their five victories.
The Redskins‘ formula for winning this season has been a strong defense, good special teams, winning the field position battle and running the ball in a time-consuming offense. For the most part, all that Smith has been asked to do in those wins is not to lose the game — don’t turn the ball over. He has done that, with just three interceptions in the first eight games.
He is catching a break facing a Tampa team that is the worst in the league in give-take numbers — minus 15 — with 17 interceptions and four fumbles. Benched quarterback Jameis Winston has thrown 10 of those interceptions, but starter Ryan Fitzpatrick has seven interceptions as well. He also has 17 touchdown passes in six games.
So the opportunity is there for Washington’s defense — with seven interceptions and seven recovered fumbles — to take some pressure off Smith and deliver him a short field with turnovers. He will need it, because the part of the winning formula about running the ball will be sorely tested behind a makeshift offensive line.
If the Redskins win, they will seemingly be in good shape with a 6-3 record. But even if they beat Tampa, it will be difficult to sustain that momentum as the season goes on and the weaknesses of the offensive line are exposed over time.
We will see if Smith can.
• You can hear Thom Loverro on 106.7 The Fan Wednesday afternoons and Saturday mornings and on the Kevin Sheehan Show podcast every Tuesday and Thursday.