At this time a year ago, Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith was learning his way around Kansas City and watching video of the Philadelphia Eagles’ offense.
Smith had just been acquired by the Chiefs in a trade with San Francisco, and coach Andy Reid, in his first months in Kansas City, was teaching him the offense he had run for most of his 14 years in Philadelphia.
Now, Smith doesn’t need directions around town, and he’s feeling a lot more comfortable after spending a year in Reid’s West Coast offense and having his own film to watch.
It’s made Smith determined to accomplish more this season than a year ago. The Chiefs went 11-5 and made the playoffs in the greatest single-season turnaround in franchise history after going 2-14 in 2013.
“For us, the expectations are raised,” Smith said last week when the players began the offseason workout program. “It’s not like you are satisfied with anything … especially for ourselves having been in the system for a year.
“We do need to take it another level. It’s nice to come back and watch your own film, but for us, the bar has been raised even further. You’re constantly pushing yourselves.”
In Smith’s first year with the Chiefs, he established career bests with 308 completions, 508 attempts, 3,313 yards and 23 touchdowns. Smith threw seven interceptions, but his plus-16 touchdown-to-interception differential was the best of his nine-year career.
And just for good measure, Smith rushed for 431 yards in 76 carries, a franchise record for a quarterback.
“You hear all these phrases. … It takes two years or it takes three years to learn this offense,” Smith said. “I don’t put a date on it. No question, as the season went on, it got better and better.”
Because the players are limited to classroom work with the coaches during the first phase of the offseason program, Smith, Reid and the offensive staff are evaluating every facet of the playbook until they can get on the field.
“It’s not so much the volume (of the playbook) as it is the refining,” Smith said. “What do we do well? Sometimes you install things and you look back on the season, and you didn’t run it that many times. But you spent a bunch of time working on it, so you try to be more efficient in things like that.
“You’re looking at the team as a whole, you’re looking at the offense as a whole, and the quarterbacks, and even yourself. What do I need to do to get better at individually, fundamentally?”
It took Smith and the offense nearly half the season to find their rhythm. The Chiefs jumped to a 9-0 start mostly because of their defense, special teams and Smith’s ability to take care of the football. He threw just nine touchdowns in the first nine games but only four interceptions.
But in the second half of the season, though the defense waned during a 2-5 finish, Smith heated up by throwing 14 touchdowns with four interceptions in his last six starts. That included a five-touchdown performance at Oakland, in which Smith completed 17 of 20 passes and recorded a perfect 158.3 passer rating.
Smith capped his season by completing 30 of 46 passes for 378 yards and four touchdowns — all franchise, single-game postseason records — in a 45-44 AFC playoff loss at Indianapolis.
“As the season went on, as an offense and myself, we felt more and more comfortable,” said Smith, who turns 30 on May 7. “If you look at the back half of the year, we did a better job of attacking the entire field, and spreading the ball around to a lot of different guys, utilizing our weapons and our strengths, myself included.
“The nice thing now is to take all that film, the good and the bad, and everything in between, and do a detailed evaluation. That’s what this time is for.”
Because the NFL Draft isn’t until May 8-10, the league calendar was pushed back, delaying the start of the offseason by several weeks. Smith couldn’t wait to get started.
“You’re striving to pick up where we left off,” said Smith, who is in the final year of his contract. “It’s strange now with the longer break. I can remember usually starting in March … last year, getting to start on April 1. To be starting on the 21st of April, that’s a long break … and it’s shorter time now to fit all this in the offseason.”
One of the biggest concerns the offense faces is replacing starting left tackle Branden Albert and guards Geoff Schwartz and Jon Asamoah, who left in free-agency. Eric Fisher, the first overall pick in the 2013 draft, is moving from right to left tackle, and third-year pro Donald Stephenson will take over on the right side.
“Some of that was to be expected,” Smith said of the offensive line departures. “It’s tough. Those guys are all good players, coming up on the open market … and were highly sought after, and deservedly so. I knew we weren’t going to keep everybody. It’s a nature of the game. Nothing surprises me anymore. I’ve been around long enough.
“We signed some guys in free-agency, we have the draft coming up. These are all pieces to replace those guys.”