The cryptic text message popped up on Doug Williams’ iPhone without warning that late January night, but Washington Senior Vice President of Player Personnel still remembers the words displayed on the screen: “‘Don’t answer your phone. See you in the morning.'”
Bruce Allen’s instructions were simple, but Williams knew clarity would have to wait until the next day.
“I couldn’t wait to get up in the morning ’cause I wanted to know,” Williams said Thursday evening, as he stood in the hallway leading to his office.
By 7 a.m. the morning after Allen’s text, he was in the team president’s office and had learned the news. Washington had agreed to a trade for the quarterback at the top of its wishlist: Kansas City’s Alex Smith.
But Allen also delivered an important word of caution to Williams and others in the organization. While the terms of the agreement were in place — Washington would send cornerback Kendall Fuller and a third-round pick to the Chiefs in exchange for Smith, who would sign an extension that would keep him in the District of Columbia though 2022 — and the news leaked on Jan. 30, the deal wouldn’t be official until 4 p.m. on March 14, the start of the new league year. That meant there would be no public celebration of the trade. Not yet.
“That’s why you couldn’t talk about it, why you couldn’t jump for joy, and that’s why you kind of couldn’t call nobody,” Williams said. “You had to keep it down this hallway, around the corner to Bruce’s office and then down the hallway to Jay’s office and when you leave here — whoop,!” mimicking a zipper closing over his lips.
By late Wednesday afternoon, the worst-kept secret in the NFL no longer had to be ignored, and Williams and Washington coach Jay Gruden were finally able to speak publicly about what they consider to be the first step toward a bright future. In front of a crowd of 200-250 people, many of whom were team employees lining the walls of the auditorium, Washington officially put former quarterback Kirk Cousins in the rearview and ushered in the Smith era.
“It’s a relief,” Gruden said in a separate interview following Smith’s introductory news conference. “Last couple of years, there’s been so many questions about the quarterback position. ‘What’re you going to do long-term? Is he going to come back?’ This, this, this. It’s nice to just put that away and look forward. That’s the most exciting part.”
Like Williams, Gruden said he heard the trade was in place from Allen.
“I think it was the day the President addressed the nation,” Gruden said, referring to Donald Trump’s State of the Union address on Jan. 30. “I was watching it when [Allen] called and said there’s a possibility [of getting Smith.] ‘How do you like him?’ And, ‘we’re working with Andy Reid to possibly do a deal.'”
Washington internally had discussed the possibility of acquiring Smith, the first overall pick in the 2005 draft, as early as wild-card weekend, with the personnel department making a list of all of the free agent quarterbacks and trade possibilities during postseason meetings.
They rated Case Keenum, Teddy Bridgewater, Sam Bradford, Chad Henne, Josh McCown and others, “but Alex was our main focus, so nobody else mattered,” Williams said.
And with Smith having only one year remaining on his Kansas City deal, and 2017 first-round pick Patrick Mahomes II poised to be the future of the franchise, Washington knew “there was a possibility they could move on” from Smith, said Gruden.
But it wasn’t until the trade became official that Gruden allowed himself to relish the moment. After taking a redeye flight to DC with his wife, Elizabeth, Smith dined with Gruden and others Wednesday night at Creighton Farms, the posh gated community where the coach resides with his family.
“I had the fish,” Gruden said, adding “we got to install some offense with him, we talked some ball with him.”
It was the first step toward building a lasting bond between a coach and player whose sights are set on the same prize: a Super Bowl.
Though Allen did not make any public remarks during Smith’s formal introduction, Washington’s president couldn’t stop smiling as he reclined, right leg crossed over his left, in a front-row seat inside the auditorium. He said nothing, but his face said it all. Allen had pulled off what he set out to do: snag the quarterback the organization had targeted all along.
“The most important thing is the stability going forward,” Williams said. “We know what Alex has done: He’s won. He’s healthy. He’s smart. And he wants to be here. And he’s going to be here for a while.”
Internally, there were no reservations about acquiring Smith, who will be 34 in May. In him, Washington sees a versatile, self-assured quarterback who can lead an entire locker room.
“All you’ve got to do is meet him one time, said Williams, a former Super Bowl MVP quarterback with Washington. “You feel the leadership. I’ve been in his position. I know what it’s all about in a locker room. It’s not about me, it’s about us.”
More than anything, though, they see a winner.
“This guy can do so many different things with the ball. Throwing it, running it, smart, getting you in the right play, productively for a long time. So it’s exciting,” Gruden said of Smith, who had his best statistical season in 2017: 4,042 passing yards, 26 touchdowns and only five interceptions. “Players play hard for him once they get to know him. Just talking to him, I can tell he’s got that vibe about him, that poise, that calmness that you look for in a quarterback.”
The start of the regular season is six months away, but Washington already can envision what Smith will be — a quarterback who, with a minute or less remaining on the clock in the fourth quarter, still gives them a fighting chance to win.
“There’s no doubt. No doubt,” Gruden said of Smith, who reached the playoffs with the Chiefs the past three seasons. “He’s seen every situation and been through every situation a quarterback could go through other than winning a Super Bowl.
“As far as game management, clock management, performing under big lights, big situations, big games, he’s been there, done that. Now it’s just a matter of getting him comfortable in what we do and giving him an opportunity to perform at his highest level with things that he likes and is comfortable with.”