Looking at the Coincidences Between Alex Smith and Joe Theismann

On Friday, May 1, 2020, ESPN aired a documentary about NFL quarterback Alex Smith on its series E:60. This documentary showed the process Smith had to go through just to walk again after his gruesome leg injury in the Washington Redskins’ Week 11 home game against the Houston Texans. In the game, Smith was sacked halfway through the fourth quarter. With two Texans falling on him, his leg snapped in half. He has not competed in the NFL since, and had to fight to not lose his leg. Thankfully, according to the documentary, Smith is recovering well and looking to make a comeback.

During the airing of the documentary, 49ers Faithful (@49erfaithful93) tweeted out this list of coincidences between Smith’s injury and another former quarterback with a similar injury, Joe Theismann:

This information made the rounds on social media, with NFL Memes (@NFL_Memes) coming out with a more detailed list. This tweet has gained the most popularity, garnering 18 thousand retweets and almost 90 thousand likes in less than 24 hours:

Could all of this be true? Could there really be this many coincidences between two of the worst injuries in NFL history?

The first line states that both quarterbacks broke their right tibia and fibula. In replays of both injuries, it is obvious that the two of them hurt both their right legs, and their injuries were below the knee and above the ankle. In addition, the Redskins, in both situations, released that they were fractures in the tibia and fibula. The first line checks out.

Second, it states both games were played on November 18. Theismann and the Redskins were playing the New York Giants on Monday Night Football when the injury occurred in Week 11 on November 18, 1985. Smith suffered his injury against the Texans on Sunday, November 18, 2018 during Week 11. That checks out.

The third line states thats both players were playing for the Washington Redskins at the time of their injury. Theismann played for Washington from 1974 to 1985. He was injured during the 1985 season. Smith played for the Redskins for just the 2018 season, which was the year of his injury. That line is correct.

The fourth line states both injuries happened in Washington, D.C. On November 18, 1985, the Redskins were hosting the Giants at their home field of Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium. On November 18, 2018, they were hosting the Texans at their home field of FedEx Field. Both games were played in Washington, D.C.

RFK Stadium, the Previous Home of the Redskins. / Wikipedia

The fifth line claims both injuries occurred at the 39-yard line. The NFL didn’t start recording play-by-play data until 1994, so the official location of Theismann’s injury can be debated. However, looking at the film of the injury, it seems as though he was sacked on the 41-yard line in Washington territory. According to the official play-by-play data of the 2018 game, Smith was sacked on Houston’s 37-yard line. Both players were on opposite sides of the field for their injuries, so this line is not true.

For the sixth line, both games did end with scores of 23-21. The Redskins held on to beat the Giants after Theismann’s injury, while they lost to the Texans after Smith’s injury. But, because of the vagueness in the wording of this line, it is technically true.

The seventh line claims the injuries were caused by former three-time Defensive Player of the Year winners. It says Lawrence Taylor caused the Theismann injury, while JJ Watt caused the Smith injury. In the 1985 game, Taylor was credited for 2.0 sacks, including 1.0 on the Theismann injury. It is also true that he won three Defensive Player of the Year awards over the course of his career. However, when the Theismann injury occurred, he had only won two: 1981 and 1982. He didn’t win his third until the year after in 1986.

Lawrence Taylor Did Sack Theismann When He Broke His Leg, but He Wasn’t a 3-Time DPOY at That Time. / Giants.com

Watt was three-time Defensive Player of the Year when Smith’s injury occurred. He won the award in 2012, 2014, and 2015. However, Watt was not credited for the sack on Smith’s injury. That was credited to teammate Kareem Jackson. Watt did come in late on the tackle, but Smith was already down. Saying it was caused by Watt isn’t true, so this line isn’t true, either.

Finally, there is the eighth line that claims that both quarterbacks were missing their Pro Bowl left tackles that game due to injury. Joe Jacoby was Theismann’s left tackle from 1981 until he was injured. Even after, Jacoby finished his career in Washington, playing until 1993. He was a Pro Bowl selection four years in a row from 1983 to 1986, and First-Team All-Pro in 1983 and 1984. He was injured in Week 8 of the 1985 season against the Cleveland Browns, and he didn’t return until Week 13. This means Jacoby wasn’t at left tackle blocking Theismann’s blind side when he broke his leg.

Trent Williams was the left tackle for Washington for his entire career, from 2010 to 2018, being the regular starter from 2012 onward. He was named to the Pro Bowl in every season between 2012 and 2018. Williams went down with an injury in Week 8 against the Giants, and he didn’t return until the week after Smith’s injury, meaning he, too, was not there to protect Smith’s blind side. This final fact is also true.

Overall, six of the eight claims in the meme are correct. However, this should be with an asterisk. Like many of these “weird coincidence” charts, the reason there are so many coincidences is because of the vagueness of the criteria or the obscureness of the facts (see the Lincoln vs. Kennedy chart that gets passed along every year or so). For example, because the meme states the scores of both games were 23-21 and didn’t specify which teams won, it made the stat technically right. The same occurs when it says the games took place in Washington, D.C., even though they were played in two different stadiums.

Is it coincidence enough that an injury of this level happened to two quarterbacks for the same franchise exactly 33 years apart? Yes. But, the coincidences don’t run as deep as may have been previously thought.

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