The moment that must’ve seemed impossible during Alex Smith’s career, and that certainly appeared impossible on a gorgeous fall afternoon, felt like being sideswiped by a racehorse.
Football careers and reputations are made in these blinks, between all the violence, and when Smith saw the defender play the pitch he tucked and dived for the goal line, a dozen years in the NFL making him well aware that he was now less of a quarterback than a billiards ball. The defensive end trucked him from the side, and two linebackers led their shoulders to his helmet.
The Chiefs quarterback heard “touchdown” over the loudspeakers. He fist-pumped a little. He slapped hands with his teammates. The modern NFL means no celebration is official until further review.
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So Smith walked to an open space, watched the replay on the video board (he couldn’t tell much) and waited for the official to confirm what everyone left from a sold out crowd hoped to be true — that the quarterback who couldn’t come back had just finished the greatest comeback in Chiefs history with a 33-27 overtime win over the Chargers in the season opener at Arrowhead Stadium.
Those first few seconds were chaos, Chiefs players and coaches swarming each other in what must’ve been at least a half dozen mini mosh pits. Smith, who typically shows all of the emotion of a shoelace, went bonkers. He screamed. He raised his arms. He cursed into the noise. He punched the air, strutting toward the seats, swarmed by photographers, his finest single moment in four years with the Chiefs.
“Definitely kind of lost it,” Smith said.
The most anticipated and promising Chiefs season in at least a decade began in as wild, confounding, agonizing and ultimately inspiring way possible. It was, basically, their 2015 season — from 1-5 to a playoff win — played out in game form.
There are any number of ways to quantify how unlikely this all was. The empty seats were a clue, at least one-third of fans leaving sometime between halftime and a rally from 21 points down that took a series of twists you wouldn’t believe in a movie. Using Pro Football Reference’s win probability calculator, there was a point in the fourth quarter the Chiefs were less likely to win than the Royals’ low point in the 2014 Wild Card Game.
Neither Smith nor the Chiefs, have ever seen anything quite like this. It’s the biggest comeback since the franchise was born, and the first time the Chiefs have won with Smith leading a late touchdown drive that broke a tie or erased a deficit.
He is Captain Checkdown, not Captain Comeback, and by now tired “game manager” quips didn’t appear out of thin air. Smith is 3-40-1 when his opponent scores 24 or more points, and just for context that win percentage (.069) is around one-third as well as all teams did last year (.211).
Before Sunday, he had won just one of 13 such games with the Chiefs, and fans of a certain intensity will remember the win came when Jamaal Charles essentially turned simple screen passes into unstoppable forces in Oakland three years ago.
Len Dawson, the Hall of Fame quarterback and broadcaster, sat on a chair in the winning locker room. More than 50 years he’s been around this game, and he couldn’t immediately think of anything like what he’d just seen.
“From their point of view,” he said, “it should’ve been (over).”
This was a grinder’s comeback. The Chiefs got some breaks — the Chargers went into a sort of prevent offense, and the officials may have missed a push off by Travis Kelce on a key play in overtime — but they did this as a comeback of a thousand cuts rather than a few enormous blows.
There was no blocked punt, no pick-six, no single dynamic play. Just a stubborn refusal to accept the scoreboard, and perhaps the confidence of pulling off a similarly improbable comeback over the 2015 season’s final 10 games.
At halftime, Smith — cliched even in rallying cries — talked about needing to go play by play because there is no such thing as a 17-point play. Mitchell Schwartz, the new right tackle, talked of coming back from 28-3 a few years ago with the Browns — the greatest comeback by a road team in league history. Spencer Ware remembered a wild game in high school, back in Cincinnati.
“We know what’s in us,” Ware said. “We were down. No energy. Not really any big plays, but we just believed in ourselves. In the system. Believed in the coaches.”
We can all remember moments, either from a game we played or one we watched, but those are lifetime memories precisely because they are so rare. What are the chances, when the defense is being torn apart from the middle, and the offense can only move sideways?
Asked after the game at what point he believed the Chiefs were going to win, Smith immediately changed the question, and couched it — “not that we were going to win, but I knew we had a shot, twice.” It was that kind of game.
Smith’s long track record aside, maybe these Chiefs were the perfect team to pull this off. What they did last year was remarkable, and must have convinced them on some base level that odds don’t matter. This is also, for the most part, a group that’s been around — and been around together. Andy Reid, for all of the fair criticism he takes, is a damn good coach who’s worked and won more games than all but two other head coaches in the league.
This isn’t a group likely to get flustered, is the point.
“Normal human reaction, I think it probably takes the first score to kind of get the ball rolling and really believe it,” Schwartz said. “But if you’re just out there going through the motions, you’re not going to get that first score anyway.”
The comeback came in relentless swings of the ax — a short touchdown to Tyreek Hill on a wide receiver screen, a beautiful back-shoulder pass from Smith to Jeremy Maclin, another pass to Maclin after an awful punt just after the 2-minute warning, and a suddenly stingy defense holding up enough to make it all matter.
NFL life moves fast. Sometimes brutally so. The euphoria of this win will wear off — the coaches will make sure of that — and reality will set in that just as losing the opener would not have doomed the season, winning the opener crowns nothing.
Smith himself winked at that, breaking off an answer to a softball question to point out how poorly the Chiefs played for the first 2 1/2 quarters. In that way, this may be the perfect sort of outcome — a division win, with enough highlights to validate an offseason of hype to the public and enough problems to keep everyone in the building honest.
“This could be huge for this team,” Dawson said. “I mean, it could be huge.”
When Smith was done with reporters, he began to walk away from the microphone. Someone noticed some swelling on his throwing elbow. Wins don’t come for free. Smith tried to laugh it off, then walked into the hallway, where friends and family screamed and hugged him before he even had both feet through the door.