| Detroit Free Press
Detroit Lions’ Matt Patricia explains move to demote Amani Oruwariye
Lions coach Matt Patricia explains decision to demote Amani Oruwariye to bench with Jeff Okudah and Desmond Trufant starting outside, Nov. 11, 2020.
Alex Smith is one of Reggie Ragland’s favorite teammates ever, and when the Detroit Lions host Washington on Sunday, Ragland will have a surprise waiting for his former quarterback.
“I can’t wait to see him,” Ragland said. “I’m going to give him a hug. Damn the COVID protocols, I’m going to give my guy a hug.”
A hug for Smith is more than warranted after all the former No. 1 overall pick has been through.
Smith will make his first start Sunday in nearly two years, since he broke the fibula and tibia in his right leg in a Nov. 18, 2018, game against the Houston Texans.
In the months that followed, Smith underwent 17 surgeries to remove an infection that was nearly cause for amputation. He wore an external fixator on his leg, could barely walk at times and was only cleared to resume football activities this summer.
“He’s a way better man than I am because there is no absolute 100% way that I’m stepping back on the football field at the quarterback position, where I can get blindside hit, rolled up on or anything like that, with what he went through,” Lions running back Kerryon Johnson said. “That is absolutely tremendous. It’s admirable, it’s a little crazy, but I mean, he really loves the game, clearly, and he’s doing what he can to keep playing it and I give all my props to him, for sure.”
Smith’s return to action has been an inspiration for teammates, opponents and fans alike.
He opened this season on injured reserve, in need of more time to get his leg and mind ready, and when he made his season debut off the bench in a Week 5 loss to the Los Angeles Rams — with his crying wife in the stands — he instantly became the favorite for NFL Comeback Player of the Year.
“The more I’ve gotten to know Alex the more competitiveness I’ve seen out of him,” first-year Washington coach Ron Rivera said. “I think that’s one of the biggest things is he is truly a competitor, and I think his return to football really was about competing with himself to get himself back on the football field. The dude’s done a great job, he really has. He’s absorbed everything that he’s needed to, he’s done the things the right way and I’m pretty excited to see him get an opportunity.”
For the 36-year-old Smith, the nephew of former Michigan State football coach John L. Smith, this likely is the last opportunity of what has been a fascinating career.
The San Francisco 49ers made Smith the No. 1 pick of the 2005 draft, ahead of future Hall of Famer Aaron Rodgers, and Smith started most of his first eight NFL seasons.
He missed 2008 with a shoulder injury, returned as a backup to former Lions quarterback Shaun Hill in 2009, but eventually regained the starting job midway through the season.
In 2012, Smith suffered a brain injury in a Week 9 game against the St. Louis Rams. Then-49ers coach Jim Harbaugh replaced him with Colin Kaepernick at quarterback, and rode Kaepernick all the way to the Super Bowl.
In 2013, the 49ers traded Smith to the Kansas City Chiefs, where he started most of the next five seasons before Kansas City was ready to turn its franchise over to wunderkind Patrick Mahomes.
The Chiefs traded Smith to Washington in 2018, where he won the starting job and had Washington atop the NFC East with a 6-3 record at the time of his injury.
Washington has gone just 6-25 since, including a loss to the Texans in the game Smith got hurt.
“Guys that come back from injuries that come back and go compete, you see the courage and strength and the toughness that they have to go back out on that football field, I think it puts everything else back in perspective,” Lions coach Matt Patricia said. “I think for as a player and as a coach, everyone deals with a lot of stuff, certainly, through the course of the year. But when you’re rolling out there and you know everything that, that guy next you has been through, you kind of just go out there and push a little bit more. Like I said, it’s a great story, it’s an inspiration, it’s amazing to see and certainly I think a lot of people are rooting for him from that standpoint, absolutely. I think it’s just a testament to who he is.”
Ragland, who played one season with Smith in 2017, said he is one of the people who is rooting for Smith, albeit not on Sunday at Ford Field.
“He’s a great (player), but he’s an even better person,” Ragland said. “So I’m excited for him, being able to come back, and I can’t wait to see him cause it’s been a couple years since I’ve seen him and I’m happy for him. But I’m playing against you, I still got to get at your ass, so we still got to get at him and affect him and we can’t let him get comfortable and get hot cause end of the day, he’s still a baller and if you’re playing, you can play. So we still got to get after him and affect him a little bit.”