Alex Smith sat in the coach’s box at FedExField on Sunday, watching Dwayne Haskins’ first-career home start while listening to offensive coordinator Kevin O’Connell call out the first play of the game.
This is how Smith spends his time on game days as he recovers from a broken tibia and fibula suffered last November. Rather than lacing up a pair of cleats and heading out of the tunnel onto the turf, he ascends to his bird’s eye view of the field, puts on a headset and listens as the Redskins’ coaches call the game.
Smith admits it's a different perspective than what he’s grown used to over the years. but he doesn’t need a new outlook on the game to know what Haskins is going through in his rookie season. That’s an experience he knows all too well.
“It’s hard as a rookie quarterback, being a first-round pick [with] the expectations,” Smith told Voice of the Redskins Larry Michael on “The Alex Smith Report.” “When I walked in the building, I had to try to be somebody that I thought I needed to be.”
Fourteen years ago, Smith was in a similar situation to what Haskins is dealing with today. He was a California product who the San Francisco 49ers drafted with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2005 NFL draft, hoping he would bring the franchise back to days when playoffs were the standard and Super Bowl appearances were the expectation.
So when Smith sees Haskins -- a talented player with local ties who has a burgundy and gold mountain of expectations resting on his shoulders -- he can relate to the 22-year-old Ohio State product.
“You’re inherently thrust into a leadership position,” Smith said. “Nobody affects the game more than the quarterback. The entire team, the entire organization is trusting you not only to make great decisions, but be accurate with the football, to be on time. These are split-second things.”
Smith joined a 49ers squad coming off a 2-14 year and its second straight losing season. He shined in his final two seasons at Utah, accounting for 6,282 total yards and 62 touchdowns, which propelled him over fellow draftees like Aaron Rodgers, Matt Cassel and Ryan Fitzpatrick.
The expectation was for Smith to eventually lead the 49ers back to the success it had in the 1990s when the franchise made eight playoff appearances, which included five trips to the NFC Championship game and a Super Bowl XXIX victory over the San Diego Chargers.
And with that came plenty of people who were trying to pull Smith in different directions.
“You come into this level as a young quarterback, there’s a lot of voices,” Smith said. “There’s a lot of people telling you what you need to be, what you need to do.”
The production 49ers fans were hoping for didn’t come to fruition until 2013 when Smith led the team to conference championship. Smith began his career with five losing seasons and one 8-8 year before going 13-3 in former head coach Jim Harbaugh’s first year with the team.
Smith said it took him “years” to figure out how to be his own man in the NFL, and his biggest advice for Haskins is to focus on what makes him comfortable with who he is as a player.
“This has always been my message to Dwayne: ‘I think you need to focus on what is really important, and that’s playing well,’” Smith said. “Preparing himself to go play, don’t worry about the rest of the noise. In fact, eliminate it. Try to eliminate as much of the outside noise as possible. Because all your teammates really care about is going out and executing.”
Smith has seen Haskins thrust into difficult situations as a rookie. Haskins he made his NFL debut in the second quarter of Week 4 with the Redskins trailing, 14-3, against the New York Giants. His next appearance came in the second half of a 13-6 game versus the Minnesota Vikings in Week 8.
“It’s one of the hardest things to do to come off the bench in the NFL as a backup quarterback,” Smith said. “As a veteran, it’s hard to do. And twice the kid gets thrust out there. … so I really thought those were tough conditions to go out in.”
One week after losing to Minnesota, Haskins was named the starter against the Buffalo Bills in front of the infamous “Bill Mafia” and with the wind whipping the flags above New Era Field in Orchard Park, New York.
“Of all the places to start, I don’t think Buffalo in nasty conditions would be your pick,” Smith said with a laugh.
All things considered, Smith likes what he’s seen out of Haskins in four appearances and two starts. He thinks Haskins has excelled with the intricacies of the position like clock management and getting in and out of huddles.
All those aspects are things Smith said Haskins can build off of moving forward.
“Those are things you have to learn,” he said. “You have to go through it. You have to work at it. You have to find your own way. What’s the best way for you to prep? What’s the best way for you to get ready for game day?”
For Haskins, who has seen what Smith has gone through over the course of his career, the advice he has gotten from the veteran has been appreciated.
"Alex is great," Haskins said during his weekly press conference Wednesday. "We get together almost every day. He’s a really great voice for me because of the experience he’s had, trials and tribulations of his career, and just the great person that he is. I really appreciate him since he’s been here with me, just trying to help me out and give me some tools and tips for my career.”
Smith is forced to watch a team that he led to a 6-3 start in 2018 struggle in his absence. They’ve only won two games since his injury and are currently 1-9.
However, Smith is excited for Haskins and what the future holds for him. Smith has seen him progress from stepping into the role against the Giants to getting ready for his third start against the Detroit Lions.
And as Smith listens in on Haskins trying to find his way in the NFL, he hopes that whatever road the young player takes will be an easier one than his.
“You can see him being comfortable,” Smith said of Haskins. “It’s tough to work through. Hopefully his learning curve is a lot faster than mine.”