With the exception of Justin Houston’s knee — which is making progress — the biggest impediment to success for the Chiefs is standing in front of his locker to talk about what he knows is a personally rotten start to the season.
Alex Smith is asked to rate his play in the blowout loss to the Steelers and through the first four games, and it’s symbolic that the issues that stacked up in Pittsburgh took enough time that he didn’t get to the bigger picture.
“It was so hard,” he said. “Watching our film, you get to like play 12, and all of a sudden you’re down a bunch and that game gets lopsided. It all of a sudden kind of turns into a different game.”
We are far too early to call anything a must win, but coming off a bye week and considering the potential swing in the standings with Sunday’s game in Oakland, this is a particularly important moment in what may or may not still be the most promising Chiefs season in years.
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They are 2-2, which is where they probably should be considering the schedule and other factors, but their path here is such that the losses have been far more convincing than the wins.
Nobody has been a bigger part of that than Smith, who was given every reason for this to be the best season of his career, but instead has regressed in certain areas (pocket feel), has missed far too many plays (more on that in a bit), and is on pace for his worst season in years in touchdowns, yards per attempt, yards per completions, passer rating, and rushing.
Particularly with Houston’s injury and the reliance on inexperienced cornerbacks, the Chiefs’ defense was always positioned to regress a bit in 2016. That was supposed to be manageable, because with an improved offensive line, better skill position talent than Smith has ever had and a fourth season in this system, Smith should be able to push the offense forward.
Instead, he has too often held it back.
“We all could do better,” coach Andy Reid said. “I’d tell you that. He’s had some good downs. That’s kind of where we’re at.”
Reid is always as positive as possible when talking about his players publicly, so we can all see what he’s saying here.
Look, this is not a rip job. Smith was part of the problem when the Chiefs fell behind by three touchdowns to the Chargers, but was also the single biggest part of the solution in the biggest comeback in franchise history. Any talk about Nick Foles playing is premature at best, and self-defeating at worst.
Smith has had “some good downs.” He was adequate against the Jets, particularly considering how the game played out, and if anyone wants to go hyperbolic and say Smith stinks, then Ryan Fitzpatrick served as an unwitting reminder of what “stinks” really looks like.
But the point here is that the Chiefs are supporting Smith more than ever before, need him to push them forward, and are instead finding themselves talking around his deficiencies.
At times, he has missed potential plays by breaking the pocket too early or unnecessarily. Against the Texans, he played one of his worst games with the Chiefs, including inaccurate throws, miscommunications and regrettable decisions. On the first drive against the Jets, he took the Chiefs out of field-goal range by taking an entirely avoidable sack when a relatively easy throw was right in front of him.
Against the Steelers, he was again terrible. Not as bad as in Houston, and he certainly wasn’t the only reason the Chiefs were blown out, but still. Part of Smith’s appeal, in theory, is his consistency. He won’t make Aaron Rodgers throws, but he also won’t make Tyler Palko throws.
Except, well, there’s been far too much Palko.
Smith pulled the escape chute too early on numerous plays, including a few where receivers were open. That’s always been a tendency of his, but he has a track record of saving something positive from those plays. Last year, during the season-turning win streak, Smith was extending drives with his feet.
That isn’t happening now, in part because teams are game planning for it, but that means other paths should be open. Smith isn’t taking those, either.
The interception against Pittsburgh was the worst kind of football play — a bad idea executed poorly. Smith should’ve seen his intended receiver wasn’t breaking open, but even if he missed that, he should’ve been able to get the ball past the defensive line. He did neither, the ball was picked, and it was a huge moment in putting the Chiefs in a hole they could not get out of.
At least three other times against the Steelers, Smith broke the pocket and was comfortably behind the line of scrimmage with open receivers downfield that he either didn’t see or chose not to throw to. Twice, Travis Kelce was alone with his arms up to get Smith’s attention. Another time, Jeremy Maclin was wide open down the sideline for what would’ve been an easy touchdown. All three of these plays came on drives that ended in punts.
There is no way to know for sure if Smith is dealing with anything physically. He has said no, but would say that no matter the truth. Something is off, though — accuracy, consistency, movement, none of it is what he’s shown in Kansas City the last three years.
In many ways, the Chiefs entered this season in better position for postseason success than any point in a decade. The roster is close to complete, major weaknesses like the offensive line were addressed, and the team has had enough stability to create the good kind of comfort.
But this was still a team that, like most in the NFL, operates with a relatively small margin for error. The defense has some stars, but weak points for opponents to attack. The offense has some playmakers, but not enough to expect a lot of blowouts.
Particularly in this early part of the season, before Houston’s return, the Chiefs need Smith to be the quarterback the coaches have always envisioned — solid, dependable, good enough to make some plays and smart enough to avoid big mistakes.
The Chiefs remain in position to fulfill even their most optimistic hopes of 2016. This game in Oakland sets up as a pivotal moment. They need their quarterback to be better.