No matter what happened in the Chiefs preseason opener against San Francisco on Friday night at Arrowhead Stadium, rocket-armed Patrick Mahomes’ NFL debut — such as it is in an exhibition game — was going to eclipse every other story line.
The anticipation only grew during the seemingly interminable stint of Tyler Bray, who was the No. 2 quarterback entering the game but seemed to move closer to inevitably being passed by Mahomes by throwing a reckless interception and taking a soft sack.
Amid all this, the cameo appearance of mundane incumbent quarterback Alex Smith likely was and remained an afterthought for many.
Smith might as well have been the undercard for understudy Mahomes, who completed seven of nine passes for 49 yards and a touchdown.
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None of which was relevant to the lasered-in Smith, who is somewhere between unfazed and energized by the statement the Chiefs made by going to the fuss of trading up to draft Mahomes No. 10 overall.
Mahomes is the future but Smith rightfully remains the present, the man who is seldom spectacular but has been at the helm for 41 Chiefs wins in four years and holds the highest passer rating (92.2) in club history in that span.
Smith isn’t retaining the job merely because he’s the holdover but because he’s more accomplished in the job than is appreciated — as he reminded with his fleeting performance on Friday.
In his one series, he completed four of six passes for 48 yards – including a 32-yarder to Tyreek Hill on the opening play — and ran for 10 yards as the Chiefs dissected the 49er defense with a 75-yard touchdown drive.
“I was hoping to get a walk off, a one-and-done. But I’ll take it,” Smith said. “It was good, got some new stuff to learn from. Basically the best-case scenario for a first preseason game.”
This was a glimpse of the best aspects of Smith, who is capable of throwing downfield more than he does and changes the game when he utilizes his legs.
And maybe this is a glimpse of what they mean by the idea that pressure can make diamonds, a response that Mahomes’ looming presence might be prompting in Smith.
Smith is the consummate teammate and is tutoring Mahomes — and every Chiefs QB — to get better. He spent much of the game Friday watching them all with an eye toward offering whatever he could to help.
But he is also a fierce competitor, which is why he arrived at St. Joseph in typically terrific shape and has enjoyed an inspired performance — including some expanded horizons — in camp leading into Friday night.
“We keep score every day in everything we do. That’s kind of the culture,” Smith told reporters earlier this week. “I don’t care if we are playing cards, shooting darts, or throwing at nets, or (in) seven-on-seven who throws the most touchdowns. Completion percentage every day. Those are things every single day that we compete at.
“I just think that is a healthy culture. It is healthy to have competition, and intense competition, and then when you walk away from it, you are still teammates and you play the same position and that we can still put the team first. I think that culture, it helps with that.”
While it can’t be emphasized enough that this was an exhibition game and that what happens here has scant relationship to anything that will take place as of the regular-season opener on Sept. 7 at New England, it’s also true that now is the time to go bold and stretch yourself.
So even though Bray and Mahomes also threw deep on their first passes, each caught but negated by penalties, there was a statement in Smith feathering a pass down the right sideline to Hill on the first play.
“Coach threw (the play call) out to me, and I jumped on it,” Smith said. “If I had left it a little more inside, Tyreek could have housed it, but we’ll take it.”
One measly play, yes, but it reinforced the increased chemistry and connection he’s had with Hill in camp.
“Oh, yeah, I think it’s happening,” Smith said.
The emerging dynamic reflects both Hill’s ascension to the top receiver spot in the wake of Jeremy Maclin being cut and a potential shift in the risk aversion that largely has defined Smith.
(How much so? Three pages of Chiefs notes about Smith in their weekly news release begin with “Smith Has History Of Protecting Football,” noting that since 2010 Smith has thrown the second-fewest interceptions — 48 to Russell Wilson’s 45 — in the NFL among active starting quarterbacks with at least 2,000 regular-season attempts.)
People say he can’t throw it down the field, Hill said last week, “but we see it every day in practice.”
Whether we’ll see it more in every game, especially the ones that count, remains to be seen.
But if the situation with the up-and-coming Mahomes indeed brings out the best in Smith, as it appears thus far it is, that will be part of elevating his own game.
Earlier this week, Smith recalled his own nerves and anxieties upon playing his first preseason game.
It was different than what Mahomes is experiencing, of course, because he had been the No. 1 overall pick in the draft by the 49ers and was starting the game.
“It wasn’t pretty at all,” Smith said, later adding, “I put a lot of pressure on myself. Sometimes you are your own worst enemy.”
Now, though, what might be perceived as pressure seems to make him stronger even as all eyes are more on Mahomes than him.