Quarterback Alex Smith was told before the Chiefs’ first preseason game Saturday that he would be on the field for a quarter. He was prepared for that.
So prepared, in fact, that he trotted onto the field to start the game, guided his team to a eight-play, 49-yard scoring drive and was promptly replaced by Nick Foles only 5 minutes into the Chiefs’ 17-16 loss to the Seattle Seahawks before an announced crowd of 69,816 at Arrowhead Stadium.
Not that Smith was complaining or anything.
“It’s almost like the incentive for the first group, if you can go out on score on the opening drive,” Smith said of his early exit. “The biggest thing you want is to move the chains a few times, get in a rhythm, extend the drive. So to go down and finish the drive the way we did is nice.”
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Especially when you consider Chiefs coach Andy Reid’s primary hopes for the preseason opener, which were to keep the first-string healthy and have his players execute well. Reid does not even game-plan for his first opponent; instead preferring to call simple plays in hopes of seeing which guys can really play.
“That gives us a better evaluation of them as players,” Reid said.
That philosophy extends to the first-string, and by that standard, the loss to Seattle was a success. That still applies, regardless of the 10-point lead the third-stringers blew in the fourth quarter, which was capped by a last-second Hail Mary catch by Seattle’s Tanner McEvoy over rookie cornerback Malcolm Jackson and the ensuing two-point conversion.
Rest assured, the players who truly mattered Saturday — like the first-teamers, who left after a quarter — had been long out of the game by then.
But when they were in the game, they made an impression. Much of that had to do with Smith, who completed 3 of 4 passes for 36 yards and spread the ball to three different receivers, including his undisputed No. 1 guy, Jeremy Maclin, and two tight ends — Ross Travis (for 11 yards) and Demetrius Harris (for 5 yards).
Smith’s throw to Maclin, in particular, provided a small glimpse of what the Chiefs hope will be the best season of his career. Smith is 32 years old, and he’s entering his fourth year of the offense under Reid. All throughout camp, he’s looked more decisive and aggressive.
He’s also attempted some tough throws, and made some plays, too. His completion to Maclin — in which Smith pulled it down on a third and 9, scrambled to his left and lofted a beauty of a touch pass along the sideline for a 20-yard gain — was an example of that.
Smith said he was initially trying to hit tight end Travis Kelce in the middle of the field on the play, but he hesitated because the defensive lineman jumped in his line of sight as he prepared to throw. So he improvised, somewhat.
“There is a pattern to the chaos there on scramble plays — it is rehearsed,” Smith said. “And the more you practice it, the better you get.”
Spencer Ware, an emerging sledgehammer who finished with 24 yards in five carries, slammed it in from a yard out on the very next play, and just like that, Smith’s day was done.
“Alex had enough reps there,” Reid explained. “I was good with what I saw.”
The first-string offense stayed in for the rest of the quarter and gained 16 more yards under backup Foles, while the first-string defense yielded 91 yards to the Seahawks in 18 first-quarter plays — a too-high average of 5-yards-per-play— and needed a Marcus Peters interception in the end zone to thwart a score on Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson’s only drive of the day.
The defense, to be fair, was missing three Pro Bowlers — Justin Houston, Tamba Hali and Eric Berry — not to mention two likely starters in Josh Mauga and Phillip Gaines.
Still the game, and its ending, provided a very, very brief glimpse into a very possible reality for the Chiefs in 2016: that the defense — with Houston’s status in doubt, Hali trying to overcome age and balky knees and Berry being forced to play on the franchise tag — might not be as good as it was last year.
And if that’s the case, the Chiefs might need what Smith and the rest of the first-string offense showed on Saturday — when they looked like an efficient, competent and confident group in limited action — to be more than just a tease. They might need it to be the new reality.
The good news is, the offense has three more preseason games to reinforce the notion that it’s ready for that responsibility.
“I was happy with what our veterans did — our ones and twos,” Reid said. “I thought they were efficient.”