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Chiefs’ Alex Smith won’t be sidetracked by distractions

Updated: 2014-01-04T21:13:47Z

By SAM MELLINGER

The Kansas City Star

Alex Smith is standing in front of TV cameras and the world and he is leaving the most interesting stuff out. He is talking about the value of playoff experience, the importance of eliminating hype, the critical nature of concentrating on the basics.

He believes all of this, even if it misses a bigger point that he knows is very real.

“Still going to come down to blocking and throwing, catching and tackling,” he says.

That’s fine enough for a sound bite on the evening news, and if you know Smith, you understand why the Chiefs quarterback won’t acknowledge or even think about the fact that he has as much at stake as anyone in the NFL playoffs.

And if you know the NFL, you know this is as good a reason as any that Smith has a real chance to take advantage of all that is in front of him as the Chiefs meet the Colts in a first-round playoff game in Indianapolis on Saturday.

This is about more than just becoming the first quarterback since Joe Montana to win a playoff game for the Chiefs. That’s critically important to Kansas City, of course, but not so much inside the locker room. A quick check with Smith’s teammates and you realize a lot of them have no idea it has been that long.

Kansas City is a football-crazed place, and one that would love to fall in with a quarterback. The problem is that, with the exception of Trent Green, this town has been given a line of substitute teachers. Steve Bono, Elvis Grbac and Matt Cassel have lost playoff games. Damon Huard and Tyler Thigpen weren’t good enough to get there. Rich Gannon wasn’t given the chance.

With Smith, Jamaal Charles and a healthy Justin Houston, this is the Chiefs’ best shot at winning a playoff game in a decade — maybe more.

But it’s not just what Smith is reaching for that gives him so much at stake in these NFL playoffs. It’s what’s in his past, a career-altering decision made above his head that he believes in his bones cost the 49ers and teammates he loved there a Super Bowl championship.

He won’t talk about it now, and he shouldn’t. He lives the football mantra of no distractions. That’s why he doesn’t have a Twitter account, and it’s why in public he pretty much only talks about football — and even then in a boring, it’s-all-about-execution sort of way. It’s why he sort of laughs and changes the subject when asked about his legacy.

For a man with distraction phobia, there can’t be many distractions bigger than talking about a twisted and at times unfair football past. Last year, he lost his starting job with the 49ers because of a concussion and never got it back. He wore a baseball cap and held a clipboard as the teammates he loved went to the Super Bowl, an indescribably bittersweet experience in which he kept his anger inside and, outwardly, played the role of perfect employee.

Smith is a smart guy. Ivy League schools wanted him, but he went to Utah and earned an economics degree in 2 1/2 years. He is self-aware, particularly by professional-athlete standards, and will point out that even with every college in the country watching his high school games (Reggie Bush was his running back), he only had two scholarship offers ... and that includes the one from his uncle.

So understand that he won’t talk about this part of it, but he knows how these things work.

He knows that his career will always be linked with Colin Kaepernick’s, and only in the NFL could a guy like Smith — smart, with $50 million in career earnings, a former No. 1 overall pick — be considered the underdog. But that’s the way the story will be told in the media between Smith and the man who replaced him.

The truth is, Kaepernick and Smith are much more similar as quarterbacks than the surface narrative would have you believe.

Kaepernick completed 58.4 percent of his passes this season for 3,197 yards, 21 touchdowns and eight interceptions. The 49ers went 12-4 in his starts, and he added 524 yards and four touchdowns rushing.

Smith completed 60.6 percent of his passes for 3,313 yards, 23 touchdowns and seven interceptions. The Chiefs went 11-4 in his starts, and he added 431 yards and one touchdown rushing.

Kaepernick played a tougher schedule but did it with a much better offensive line, and the best receiver and tight end on either team. He didn’t have to learn a new system.

But even if Smith knows how others view his life and career, part of his growth — and this part is always mentioned by those close to him outside of football — is that he no longer cares about these outside influences.

This is no longer what motivates him or, more to the point, what distracts him. Before he turned 21, he was the No. 1 overall draft pick of a dysfunctional franchise that still deluded itself into thinking it was the quarterback epicenter of the NFL. More reporters and photographers showed up for Smith’s first workout than had covered any but his last college game.

You can laugh when he says it, but he insists he means it literally: He tried to live up to being the No. 1 pick with every single pass he threw in practice and games. He knows now that this is a foolproof way to mess it all up.

Smith has grown. He’s a husband and a father. Now, when he tells friends and family that he doesn’t care much what people say about him, they actually believe him. He knows he will be compared to Kaepernick, and knows the Chiefs’ failure to win a playoff game for 20 years means the stakes are a higher in Kansas City than other places.

He knows all of that. But that knowledge no longer feels like a burden, which is the most critical reason he has a chance to succeed here — now or sometime in the very near future.

To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365, send email to smellinger@kcstar.com or follow twitter.com/mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

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