Alex Smith just took a HUGE step toward returning to the NFL ... the Redskins QB had his gnarly leg brace removed for the first time since he snapped his shin 8 months ago.
Washington's signal-caller was hurt badly when J.J. Watt twisted his leg on Nov. 18 last season ... and he required multiple surgeries and a massive brace just to get the injury stabilized.
In fact, when Smith first showed off the contraption keeping his leg together -- some wondered if the guy would ever play football again.
But, Smith's wife said Monday that Alex had the brace removed ... and is now inching closer to making a return to the football field.
"The last 8 months have been nothing short of crazy," Elizabeth Smith said ... "Although it’s not over, today is a big milestone."
"We are shedding the weight Alex has been carrying (literally and figuratively). It’s one step closer to the goal. The resilience, determination and mental fortitude of this man is unmatched."
For their part ... the Redskins don't seem to anticipate Smith playing this season -- they drafted Dwayne Haskins in the first round and have said they hope he'll be their starter this year.