Alex Smith can be really annoying, but before you get the wrong idea, you should know this assessment comes from his brother and is meant with endearment. Josh loves his brother, of course, but how else could he feel?
First, some context.
If an NFL team ever wanted to draft and ruin a quarterback, it could do worse than copy every detail of how the San Francisco 49ers handled Alex — four different head coaches and six coordinators in eight seasons, many of them overmatched, some laughably so, and a surgery in which the doctor left a wire in Smith’s shoulder, which caused more pain and more time missed. Truly, it was an impressive show of dysfunction.
The 49ers finally became good, in part because they hired the right coach, and in part because eventually everyone in the NFL gets good, except the Detroit Lions. But even that ended with a virtual noogie for Smith, because just as he was having a terrific season — leading the league in completion percentage and passer rating — he suffered a concussion and was then benched.
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The 49ers lost in the Super Bowl that year, and Smith will forever be convinced they would’ve won if he had been their quarterback. He admits to being ticked off at the decision.
What we’ve seen since is the football equivalent of a jilted girlfriend losing 30 pounds, finding a great new job and falling deeply in love while the ex-boyfriend mainlines mayonnaise on the couch, needing progressively bigger sweatpants.
The 49ers are terrible again, having fired two coaches in two years, their chosen quarterback benched for Blaine Gabbert. Meanwhile, Smith is the first quarterback since Joe Montana to win a playoff game for the Chiefs, and is now getting ready to face Tom Brady and the New England Patriots for a spot in the AFC Championship Game.
He’s playing the best football of his life, and if you’re thinking he is full of schadenfreude, pointing to how differently two franchises went when he left the 49ers for the Chiefs, well, this is where brother Josh wants you to know that Alex can be really annoying.
“We try to get that out of him,” Josh says. “Like, we try to get him to say stuff. We’ve given him the nickname ‘Mr. High Road,’ because that’s all he does. With our family, there is a lot of that, ‘Hell yeah.’ But trying to get any of that out of him, even behind closed doors, with our family, he’s Mr. High Road.
“Now, whether he’s covering it up? Sure, probably at least a little bit. Because he’s gotta have some of that in him, right?”
You would think. Suggesting Smith doesn’t take an extra sliver of pride in his rise coinciding with the 49ers’ fall would in many ways be suggesting that Smith is not human. Even the best among us can be perfectly content with an ex falling on her face.
“I think there’s a little bit of that,” says Chase Daniel, the Chiefs’ backup to Smith and the man who probably spends more time around him than any other teammate. “But he would never say it.”
Daniel knows Smith well. In a relatively quiet moment in the Chiefs’ locker room the other day, Smith offered something like a knowing smile and giggle when it was suggested he must have a little of that screw you attitude toward his old team.
“I have some friends there, so you see what’s going on,” Smith says. “But I’m so happy with where I’m at, on every level, from the professional level, the guys in this locker room, the coaches upstairs, the organization, the community here in Kansas City, and how much me and my family enjoy being here and being part of it.”
Sounds like a politician, right? But conversations with people who know Smith wll back this up. Yes, absolutely, there is a deep and raw hurt inside of him, the indescribable frustration of being so close in San Francisco. The year before he was benched because of a concussion, he beat Drew Brees and New Orleans in a playoff shootout and then lost the NFC Championship Game on two special-teams turnovers.
But Smith is also a pragmatist. There were far more bad times than good ones in San Francisco, and maybe you can only run against the wind for so long before realizing you’d be faster going the other way.
Smith chose this place, remember. Not technically, but practically. The 49ers had enough respect for how he handled the demotion — Mr. High Road, from the beginning — that they worked first and hardest to trade Smith to the Chiefs knowing this is where he wanted to be.
Before he ever played a game in Kansas City, Smith embraced the chance. He had spent his entire life in the western part of the country — grew up in San Diego, went to college at Utah, did all that time in San Francisco — and with the Chiefs saw something he’d never experienced.
He asked to come here for a lot reasons, none more important than the arrival of coach Andy Reid — their mutual respect had been long and well-known — and the chance for a stability he never enjoyed in San Francisco.
The Chiefs have had their own failures in chasing consistency, of course, but with Reid in place, Smith saw a way to help change that. He wanted, basically, to be wanted by a good organization. His first six seasons in San Francisco he was wanted, and his last two seasons there it was a good organization, but he never had experienced both at the same time.
It’s hard to be angry when you’re happy, and it’s easier to appreciate a good marriage if you’ve been through a terrible one. So in this way, maybe it’s not so much taking the high road as being thankful you’re no longer on the low road.
“That’s what I mean,” Smith says. “I think, a little bit, you’re more appreciative of those things, rather than bitter at others. I think it’s made me appreciate all the great things that go on here, as opposed to looking back at what happened. If anything, having gone through all that, it makes you appreciate this, right? The opportunity. The opportunity to start, to play, and all that includes. It makes you appreciate all that stuff that much more.”
There was a moment last weekend, when the Chiefs blew out the Texans in the wild-card game, that illustrated this. With the possible exception of some of their games in sunny San Diego, it’s hard to remember more Chiefs fans in an opposition’s stadium than showed up in Houston. The national anthem sounded like Arrowhead Stadium — “home of the CHIIIEEEFS!” — and by game’s end, thousands in red jerseys had taken over the closest seats.
Smith had done his high-fives and hugs on the field, and after a postgame TV interview was jogging toward the locker room. Fans had lined up a few rows deep all around the tunnel, screaming and cheering and tomahawk-chopping.
Smith stopped for a moment, smiling and chopping back, the love thick between player and fan.
Smith says it was a moment he will never forget, leaving unsaid that the opportunity for moments like this was ripped away in San Francisco.
Actually, maybe he didn’t think of that. This is his football home now, and whatever anger he used to have toward his old place just makes this new place that much more comfortable.