Why Ron Rivera could be serious about starting Alex Smith over Dwayne Haskins in 2020

Ever since Alex Smith received surprise clearance to return to football and report to Washington Football Team training camp, new coach Ron Rivera has refused to stop talking up the veteran’s chances at winning back his starting quarterback job. That trend continued Monday, with Rivera telling reporters that Smith will “be in the throes of this competition” assuming he’s eventually healthy enough for Washington to activate him. But what if — get this — Rivera is actually telling the truth? And what if there’s more than one reason Rivera might prefer Smith reclaiming his job?

First, it’s important to establish why that would be notable. Why wouldn’t Rivera want Alex Smith to be his starting QB, you ask? The guy is a three-time Pro Bowler, whereas incumbent starter Dwayne Haskins is still very much unproven under center.

Well, that answer lies in some of Rivera’s other remarks this offseason — assurances that he needs a chance to evaluate the “young guy” (i.e. Haskins, Washington’s first-round draft pick in 2019) while kicking off his rebuild of the organization. Then, of course, there’s also the fact Smith hasn’t played since 2018 when he suffered a life-threatening leg injury from which he’s only now returning.

As CBS Sports’ Jonathan Jones reported Friday, even Rivera’s hopeful declarations of Smith’s 2020 prospects can’t fully mask the reality of the QB’s recovery process:

First of all, Rivera loves competition, so if he can fabricate some, he will. Secondly, this Washington organization cannot withstand the optics disaster of kicking to the curb the guy who gave his leg to the team. At every public turn Smith has to remain in the fold. And finally, Rivera is always glass-half-full when it comes to his players’ injuries. Sometimes his public optimism doesn’t match the private reality of the situation.

In other words, Haskins is still the odds-on favorite to open the season under center. Smith’s obstacles to the No. 1 job are much more significant than those of his younger counterpart.

But now let’s get to the hypothetical — the possibility that Rivera truly wants Smith to ascend to the top spot. The closer you look at the situation, the less crazy it seems, even if Smith was in danger of losing not only his leg but his life after his last time on the field.

Firstly, Rivera has taken on a much larger role than head coach in his first offseason acting as owner Daniel Snyder’s unofficial general manager. Already tasked with steering the franchise through a handful of headlining controversies, including a bombshell report of organizational harassment, felony allegations against a star player and a literal makeover of the team’s identity, Rivera’s chief duty isn’t just preparing an on-field product for 2020, but rather rewriting the entire culture of a long-dysfunctional operation.

Along those lines, there’s no more important position at the foundation of a football team than quarterback. The top job isn’t just about leading the team on turf; it’s about being an ambassador for the franchise. If Smith is healthy, we already know he’s a trusted veteran and leader in this league, not to mention now one of the NFL‘s top underdog stories in light of his comeback. Is he a better, safer option for rebuilding Washington’s foundation than Haskins, who had mixed results as a rookie? For 2020, the answer seems obvious.

Pulling Haskins for Smith wouldn’t necessarily equate to Washington totally pulling the plug on Haskins, either. Let’s say Rivera deems the veteran a better placeholder for implementing his culture both on and off the field. Haskins is still under team control through at least 2023, not including a potential 2024 franchise tag. He just turned 23. Would he not benefit from learning under Smith and an entirely new coaching staff, even if just for a year?

It’s highly unlikely Smith, 36, is actually in Washington’s long-term plans, so that gives Rivera even more incentive to capitalize on his return, not to mention potentially reinstall a studied-up Haskins down the road. If Smith looks good after his miraculous recovery, the odds are someone’s going to come calling about his trade availability entering 2021. He’s a playoff-tested, Pro Bowl starter, after all. Washington could save roughly $13.6 million in 2021 by simply cutting Smith after this season, but they’d still be on the hook for a cap charge of nearly $16M over 2021-2022. Why not re-establish his market before it’s too late, then use whatever compensation he draws to either give Haskins a stronger supporting cast or intensify the hunt for another future franchise QB?

And then there’s the fact Washington still plays in the NFC East, one of the most annually unpredictable divisions in the NFL. We tend to think Rivera’s rebuild will be slow and steady (and that’s probably true), but consider some of their other additions this offseason: Kendall FullerRonald DarbyThomas Davis — not huge names, but proven veterans. Couple them with other big role players in the lineup — a 35-year-old Adrian Peterson among them — and is it crazy to think Rivera could also see a legitimate shot at Wild Card contention with a more proven option under center? New coordinator Scott Turner has thrived with efficient QBs before (Teddy Bridgewater comes to mind), and Smith would make for an easy transition there.

All of this, of course, is predicated upon Smith passing a physical to come off the physically unable to perform (PUP) list and join the other QBs on the active roster. But it doesn’t seem likely — or resourceful — for Turner to be spending hours of practice time coaching up Smith on the side if it’s just to give the old QB some peace of mind about his rehab.

Projecting Smith’s durability for a season’s worth of hits is another thing entirely. In the event he’s ready, however, we’ve got ample evidence that Rivera would give him more than lip service.

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