The roots of Alex Smith’s fascinating 2017 season were entwined with a development that might be considered between a challenge and an insult: the Chiefs’ franchise contorting itself to select Patrick Mahomes in the first round of the NFL Draft as Smith’s inevitable successor.
The only real question was whether the ceremonial changing of the quarterback would take place sooner (some time this season) or later (in 2018).
Whether or not that timetable could change further depends on the weeks to come after Smith responded with his best season as a pro.
That was punctuated Sunday in what might have been his last regular-season start as a Chief at Arrowhead Stadium.
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Smith put on a performance that put him over 4,000 yards for the season in a 29-13 victory over Miami that clinched the AFC West title and a fourth playoff berth in five seasons for Kansas City.
The cause-effect dynamics of Smith’s season are multifold but certainly include the impact of his own specific imprint on the team and chemistry with his offense.
Now, some think Smith had a newfound fire driving or pushing him — a theory that seems demeaning about a true professional and insatiable competitor who always has worked fiendishly at his craft.
Some surmised that a subtle-but-substantial difference was at play: having the big-armed Mahomes lurking nearby made Smith more liberal about cutting loose than he had been — a notion that seems to ring true to a degree given his increased inclination to go downfield.
More than anything else, though, you can figure that this was the consummation of being in the same offense for five seasons.
And an offense that now has such diverse elements as the rare 1,000-yard-producing trifecta of running back (Kareem Hunt), tight end (Travis Kelce) and wide receiver (Tyreek Hill).
Add it all up, and Smith calls it a “can’t-stop-us-all mentality” that has enabled the Chiefs to score 24 or more points in 11 of their 15 games.
Meanwhile, producing when there was plenty of popular sentiment that Mahomes should be fast-forwarded into the lineup also speaks to Smith’s meaning to this team that faced a turbulent season.
While it’s been bookended by a 5-0 start, in which Smith put up most valuable player-worthy numbers, and the current three-game winning streak that helped the Chiefs win back-to-back division titles for the first time in club history, it’s hard to forget the 1-5 funk that threatened to derail it all.
Or as owner Clark Hunt put it after the game on Sunday, “Sometimes you wondered, ‘Will the Chiefs ever win another game?’ ”
The Chiefs had a lot to straighten out, on both sides of the ball, and Smith had to gather himself up after several dud games that riled up the haters anew.
But coach Andy Reid never wavered, and this is what receiver Albert Wilson always saw when he looked at Smith:
“Man, no matter what the situation is, I can look over to Alex. He never panics. When you’ve got somebody so calm, man, and pretty much always making the right decisions, you just have extreme confidence (in) him.”
As of Sunday, when Smith threw for 304 yards and a touchdown and improved his touchdown-to-interception ratio to 26:5, he has shepherded the Chiefs to 50 regular-season wins in five seasons.
That’s six more than Trent Green did in the second-best such streak in franchise history and 10 more than Len Dawson did in the third-best (albeit during a time of 14-game schedules).
His detractors notwithstanding, those are some hefty achievements for Smith, who two seasons ago also presided over the organization’s first playoff win in more than two decades.
Which is well and good and should be remembered if this indeed is his last season as a Chief given the financial realities of his staying. (Smith is to be paid $17 million next year; Mahomes is due $3.7 million.)
But here’s the thing:
What will be remembered about Smith, particularly in the near term, is how the Chiefs go out.
How they fare may or may not depend entirely on his play, as demonstrated by his four-touchdown, 378-yard spectacular in the startling 45-44 playoff collapse at Indianapolis in 2013.
For that matter, the Chiefs could overcome a bad performance of his and win, and that would still go on his ledger as an “L.”
Smith didn’t play well in the Chiefs’ 18-16 playoff loss to Pittsburgh last season, completing 20 of 34 passes for 172 yards with a touchdown and an interception.
But there’s more reason to think he’d play as he has most of this season than the way he did a year ago, and historically he’s been formidable in the postseason.
Before last season, he’d been 112 of 186 for 1,309 yards with 11 touchdown passes and one interception.
In fact, if not for two painful twists of fate, he might well have taken the 49ers to two Super Bowls before arriving here.
In the 2011 season, he threw for 299 yards and three TDs in a 36-32 win over the Saints to reach the NFC Championship Game, only for San Francisco to lose to the Giants in overtime in a game marred by Kyle Williams’ two fumbled punts.
The next year, Smith was completing more than 70 percent of his passes when he sustained a concussion late in the season and was replaced by Colin Kaepernick.
Controversially, Smith was relegated to the bench as the 49ers went to the Super Bowl and lost to the Ravens.
That’s what made him expendable, though, and led to him being here with Reid.
“Alex has been tremendous since he’s been with us; he’s been a big part of the success that we’ve had for the last five years,” Hunt said in the locker room after the game. “Clearly, this has been his best year. He’s been a tremendous player, a tremendous leader.
“You saw it today, whether it was scrambling or making key throws. He’s been a catalyst in getting us to this point, and we’re looking forward to going to the playoffs and having him carry us.”
Smith, too, knows that what comes next is how he’ll be remembered here.
“Ultimately, that’s what you’re graded on,” he said, smiling as if he relishes the thought.
So much so that if the Chiefs somehow go far enough, his postseason could even compel postponing Mahomes’ due-by date even longer.
What exactly that would need to look like or be to change the anticipated setup is impossible to know, of course, but the regular season has made it clear that Smith isn’t averse to any challenge posed by the presence of Mahomes.