Despite having once been the overall No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft, despite being an eight-year veteran when the Chiefs acquired him in the offseason, quarterback Alex Smith embraced his new job with the zeal of an anonymous auditioner.
Entrenched as he might have seemed, there were no assumptions or automatics for him, he’ll tell you, especially when he was learning a new system with new personnel for a new franchise.
“The difference between winning and losing and success and failure in this league is so small,” he said Wednesday, days after a 56-31 win at Oakland in which he became only the second Chief to rack up a perfect game in terms of passer rating. “It’s all those extra little things, all that time you put in, that makes that little difference.
“In the pass game, there’s so many details, there’s so many things that go into being good in the pass game. And when you have a lot of new faces, it takes a lot of work. It takes time.”
Time he literally was only too eager to expend.
“We have (NFL) rules and regulations in the offseason on how many hours you can stay in the building,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said, smiling, as he set up a slightly inverted “Animal House” reference. “I had to kick him out so we didn’t get put on secret double probation before we ever got started.”
Particularly considering the Chiefs’ fickle receiving corps, it’s no wonder the actual start was marked by some muddy going for the offense and Smith, whose conservative play and modest statistics were damned with the faint praise of being dubbed a “game manager” even as the Chiefs screeched out to a 9-0 start.
And with reason, given how spectacular the defense was and how tepid the offense was.
It was easy from the outside to doubt Smith then.
In October, he went three straight games without throwing a touchdown pass, and there were some memorable balls that either were off-target, wobbly, short-armed or all of the above.
He either wouldn’t or couldn’t go downfield much, and it got to a point (at Tennessee and home against Oakland) where it seemed reasonable to suspect he was having some unacknowledged arm trouble.
On Wednesday, Smith chuckled at the question but didn’t dismiss the rationale.
“Nothing with my arm,” he said. “But I think when you’re making decisive decisions, and when you’re confident in the looks you’re getting and what we’re doing, as a quarterback you tend to be more accurate.”
In other words, now this:
Highlighted by Smith’s five touchdown passes and AFC player of the week Jamaal Charles’ five touchdowns at Oakland on Sunday, the Chiefs’ offense suddenly has produced 19 touchdowns in the last four games after it managed just 20 in the first 10.
And Smith has shown he can not only go downfield but that it’s a worthy element in his game, best demonstrated Saturday on the wheel route to Charles down the sideline for about half of what became a 71-yard score.
With more conviction in his tighter spirals, Smith has gone from a modest touchdown-to-interception ratio of 7:4 through the Chiefs’ first seven games to 16:2 in their last seven.
Out of nowhere, he’s established career highs of 23 touchdown passes and 3,160 passing yards along with the career-best 384 rushing yards that has made for another of those little things that are shaping the Chiefs’ season.
“What’s more demoralizing than a third-and-9 when the quarterback runs for 12 yards?” guard Geoff Schwartz said. “Alex brings that to the table.”
All of which makes the Chiefs a really intriguing playoff team, one that has spent a sizable chunk of the season as the best defensive team in the league, much of it boasting the best special-teams units and for the last few weeks flirting with having one of the most explosive offenses (albeit abetted by playing the last two games against flimsy Washington and Oakland defenses).
Whether they can put it all together when it matters remains to be seen, but along with the spectacular Charles, Smith has become a key reason for that hope.
And for reasons that go beyond what we see on the field. Even before Smith’s numbers flourished, Reid gushed about his leadership.
Reid did again Wednesday, with what actually seemed like a gleam in his eye as he described the work ethic and dedication to preparation and all the “gigabytes” that were needed for Smith to absorb this offense.
All of that, Reid believes, makes his commitment contagious on both sides of the ball.
“There won’t be any shortcuts, definitely, when your quarterback spends the time like that, (because) we do have the right kind of guys on this team,” Reid said.
Those guys respond to other aspects of Smith, too, particularly his stability.
Reserve receiver A.J. Jenkins, who also played with Smith in San Francisco, said Smith’s upbeat and calm way sets a good vibe, one that says, “No moment’s too big for him.”
“He’s not a vocal yeller and screamer like you see some other quarterbacks. He just leads by being poised,” Schwartz said. “He makes other guys look good, and he does that by getting rid of the ball, finding his right reads, and sending us to where we’re supposed to go up front.”
If those sound like minor points, they are not small things in the collective picture.
“It does matter, because you want to be able to trust the quarterback,” Schwartz said. “He’s obviously the center of the offense, really, and if you don’t trust that guy, then in the back of your mind you’re not really sure how the play’s going to work.
“And I know we have the utmost confidence in Alex. It shows. It matters.”
Much of that was apparent to his teammates even before it was evident on the field in those first few months, when at times it seemed the Chiefs still were experimenting to determine their offensive identity.
“Yes, but not intentionally,” Smith said. “So many things are just new for the first time. There’s only so many looks you can get in practice; a lot of that stuff has to be done in games. So you go through it in games, some good, some bad and you have to learn from it.”
Apparently, Smith and the Chiefs have, making their playoff prospects fascinating.
“It takes time to get in the rhythm,” Schwartz said, “and as you can see I think we’ve kind of hit a little stride here.”