Alex Smith’s inevitable departure from the Chiefs was unfurled Tuesday night, weeks before it can be made official, and that was in the best interests of all concerned.
It put an end to idle gossip and speculation about how soon and to where Smith would be traded, allowing the Chiefs to immediately begin in earnest putting all their energy into the transition to promising young quarterback Patrick Mahomes — whose selection at No. 10 overall in the 2017 NFL Draft started the clock on Smith’s expendability.
If this weren’t such an economic no-brainer, one that saves the franchise $17 million it can use to shore up any number of needs, there might have been a reasonable case to keep Smith after the best season of his career (4,042 yards, 26 touchdown passes and a passer rating of 104.7).
But the finances made it a virtual necessity, as did Smith’s trade value to Washington in a deal that can't be made official until March 14, the start of the new NFL year: cornerback Kendall Fuller, a 2016 third-round pick, plus a third-round pick in this year’s draft.
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But the finances made it a virtual necessity, as did Smith’s apparent trade value to Washington that remains to be revealed between now and the time the deal can be finalized on March 14.
Here’s the thing about the star-crossed Smith, though.
Easy as it was for some fans to render him a scapegoat and castigate his every imperfect step and assign him so much blame for the Chiefs’ stalling in the postseason, much as some might say good riddance, Smith was an underappreciated asset in the rebirth of a reeling franchise.
Flash back to 2012. The Matt Cassel-led Chiefs went 2-14, with the worst offense in the NFL, and this was no fluke.
It was an exclamation mark on a time of sheer hopelessness for a lost organization, the end of a five-year stretch in which the team went 25-55.
The Chiefs are 53-27 the last five years. And despite the exasperating 1-4 playoff record in that span, it’s safe to say that the organization has stabilized and at least has a fine foundation to work from — even if there is no way to know when this playoff futility will ever end.
If Reid and former general manager John Dorsey were the original architects of the turnaround, Smith was the most notable symbol of it on the field.
He had his limitations, though exaggerated by many, and one of the legitimate ones was that he wasn’t on a tier of players who could make a team better than the sum of its parts like some of the NFL greats at that position.
Some even sneered at him as a mere “game manager.”
The Chiefs, though, were 50-26 with him starting regular-season games, and they had record-setting numbers with Smith surrounded by the dynamic likes of Kareem Hunt, Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce this season.
And if you want, you can say that Smith wasn’t good enough to lead them to playoff success — and he certainly wasn’t in the 2017 loss to Pittsburgh — but he had winning performances in two of the Chiefs’ playoff defeats:
In the wrenching 45-44 loss at Indianapolis in 2013, Smith completed 30 of 46 passes for 405 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions; in the 22-21 loss to Tennessee a few weeks ago, Smith completed 24 of 33 for 264 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions.
In fact, Smith generally has been a terrific postseason player in his time with the Chiefs and 49ers, most notably with 14 touchdown passes and just two interceptions in seven playoff games.
He’s been good enough, for that matter, that he easily could have quarterbacked two Super Bowls with the 49ers, with whom he struggled for a few years with the dual burdens of being the overall No. 1 pick and having new coordinators year after year after year.
In the 2011 season, he threw for three touchdowns and 299 yards in a 36-32 win over New Orleans only for San Francisco to lose the NFC title game to the New York Giants in overtime in a game memorable for Kyle Williams’ two fumbled punts.
A year later, 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 — and left on the bench as the 49ers went on to lose the Super Bowl to the Ravens.
That’s not what you call good luck, and in a sense that’s circled back on him at a time even a career year couldn’t make a difference in what was to be with his latest team.
None of which is to say that Smith was perfect, or, conversely, that he won’t have great success ahead.
But all of which is to say that Smith should be remembered with appreciation here, a first-class leader who graciously helped nurture the man who would replace him, was the club’s nominee for Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year for his remarkable charitable work and someone whose success fans could root for unequivocally because of his character and stand-up ways.
It’s time for the change, even if Mahomes will have some hiccups that will on occasion leave you wondering why the Chiefs parted with Smith.
But Mahomes’ upside is so remarkable, as he demonstrated in his one start at Denver, that the growing pains will be worth it.
Smith helped create a scenario where Mahomes will have a chance to thrive sooner than later, and that was no small thing if you think back just five years.
He also honored the game while he was here, occasional lapses and all, and here’s hoping he’s remembered that way.