More than anybody, Alex Smith knew what was at stake this postseason, and how the Chiefs’ performance would shape the perception of his ceiling as a quarterback.
So when Smith posted his fourth-lowest passer rating of the season in the Chiefs’ 18-16 divisional-round home loss to Pittsburgh — and his coach, Andy Reid didn’t offer a strong, immediate vote of confidence the day after the game — the 32-year old wasn’t surprised when chatter started increasing about finding a replacement.
“Do you hear it a little bit? Without a doubt,” Smith said at the Pro Bowl this week. “The nice thing is I don’t have social media, so that helps.”
But here’s what most didn’t know: Shortly after the season came to an end, Reid conducted his customary exit interview with Smith, and the impression Smith got in that conversation is that he would be Reid’s quarterback again in 2017.
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And after Smith was added to the Pro Bowl roster as a replacement, he and Reid — who is coaching the AFC squad along with the rest of the Chiefs’ coaching staff — had multiple discussions about 2017, and where they both need to improve.
“We’ve talked a lot, and for sure, the talk was just the sense of urgency — (him saying) ‘let’s go get it, you and me,’ ” Smith said. “For both of us, I think you realize the opportunities are less and less. You can’t take them all for granted. We all felt like we had an awesome opportunity and we didn’t get it done. So even more so, let’s press on the gas and let’s go.”
And if you needed any further proof Smith will be the Chiefs’ signal-caller in 2017, Reid told reinforced that message to The Star over the weekend.
“Alex is our quarterback — there’s no question about that or anything else,” Reid said. “I surely didn’t want to insinuate that (was not the case) at all.”
Reid said Smith — who completed 67.1 percent of his passes with 20 total touchdowns and eight interceptions — did “a good job” this year, and that he expects him to continue to make small improvements in his game next year.
“The work’s never done — he’ll continue to improve,” Reid said. “There won’t be the huge jumps, but there will be little things he’ll continue to get better at.
“But he’s pretty good right now, though.”
One of the areas in which Smith wants to continue to improve is in throwing receivers open. That’s what the best — such as Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers — do, and it lifts the play of their teammates, because they can fit balls into tight spaces and increase their team’s margin for error.
“You have to, I think,” Smith said. “You’re not going to complete a lot of balls if you’re just waiting all the time.”
Smith did have some missed shots he wanted to have back in the Steelers loss. One, in particular, stood out, when Tyreek Hill broke open down the left sideline and Smith failed to see him, though it turns out there was a good reason for that.
“I knew all week the way (the Steelers) play, they’d lose guys here and there,” Smith said. “And the hard part, as a quarterback, is when a guy that’s not in your progression blows open because you’re not looking. Sometimes you fall into those and sometimes you miss them and you’re like ‘God if I would have just seen Tyreek over there.’ ”
Smith also regrets the first-half interception he threw when he got hit by a free blitzer. Had he had a split-second longer, it could have gone for a huge gain to Chris Conley, who broke open after the defensive back fell down.
“It’s such a big swing there — you hit that, it’s a huge dagger,” Smith said. “I knew exactly what that safety was doing. He bit up on (tight end Travis) Kelce, we had Chris on the outside and I was taking a shot. I felt good about that all week.”
The play was actually a good example of the way some of Smith’s downfield chances are schemed by Reid, often due to play calls that create advantageous matchups.
Still, Reid thinks his quarterback has actually gotten better when it comes to throwing people open in his four years in Kansas City.
“I think that’s one area where he’s gotten better at,” Reid said. “Remember, the emphasis we put on the pass game might be a little bit more than where he came from; the run stuff and the things he did at the line of scrimmage with the 49ers is something they really put a concentrated effort on.
“So it’s a challenge to him in other areas, and I keep seeing improvements. You see throws like that where you kind of go ‘Whoa, was that a good one.’ The more he does, the better he gets at it.’”
Lost in Smith’s roller-coaster ride of a season was the fact the Chiefs went deep a bit more this year, and were also much better in four-minute and come-from-behind situations — areas in which they struggled in Smith’s first three years.
Comeback wins over San Diego and Denver registered as near-unprecedented high-water marks for Smith, who completed some clutch throws in both games. He also guided the Chiefs down the field on a late touchdown march against Pittsburgh, only to have the ensuing, game-tying two-point conversion — a completion to tight end Demetrius Harris — get wiped out due to a hold.
“That was something we hadn’t done in the past — we did play better in clutch situations,” Smith said. “Down the line, end of games, we played better in those big moments and it showed up with our record. I think we need to continue to build on that and be more prolific a little bit all over.”
The Chiefs’ were far more explosive in 2016 — the big-play ability of Pro Bowl rookie Tyreek Hill had a lot to do with that — but they were more inconsistent, too, which led to frustrating inefficiency in losses to Tampa Bay, Tennessee and Pittsburgh.
But Smith’s season, while ultimately unfulfilling, certainly wasn’t bad. The Chiefs went 12-4 and the won the AFC West for the first time since 2010.
Smith also started Sunday’s game, adding to an already-meaningful experience of making the second Pro Bowl of his 12-year career.
“It does (matter), because for a long time, you’re on the outside looking in, right?” Smith said. “You grow from things like this, too. They can be positive things, positive experiences.”
And now that Smith knows he’ll be the guy in 2017, he’ll be taking in as many of those as possible, even against the backdrop of the team potentially taking a quarterback early in the draft — something he wouldn’t take personally, by the way.
“If I were running a team, of course you would continue to bring in young talent — are you kidding me, the quarterback touches the ball every single play,” Smith said. “It’s hard to develop guys, it’s hard to find guys. Every year, you want to be taking a shot — that’s just smart football.”
But no matter what the Chiefs do in the draft, Smith will feel the responsibility of taking the Chiefs to the Super Bowl, and he knows what people will say if they again fall short.
“My trajectory and where I’m going really has nothing to do with whoever they bring in, because I’ve got to handle my business and take care of my business,” Smith said. “I’m gonna determine my own deal, right, and just kind of take that on, and that’s what it is, anywhere — if you don’t get it done, they’re gonna find somebody else.”