The man Chiefs fans love to debate and doubt, Alex Smith, enters their game Sunday at Oakland having thrown 283 consecutive passes without being intercepted.
That’s the fourth-longest such streak in NFL history, nearing such company as Tom Brady (358), Bernie Kosar (308) and Bart Starr (294).
For all else that has contributed to the Chiefs’ turnaround, including a revived defense and a gelling offensive line, not turning the ball over once in a five-game winning streak has been as vital as anything else.
So it’s nothing to sneer at, nothing that just happens.
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Even if it seems like one of those ho-hum sorts of things done by someone whose game sometimes seems to be more about what he doesn’t do than what he does.
“As a quarterback, you’ve got a huge responsibility: You’re touching the ball every single play,” said Smith, who is 51-18-1 in career starts when he doesn’t throw an interception and 13-38 when he does. “You have such a big impact on deciding the game, just in your decision-making and how you are with the football and your fundamentals.”
This is the essence of the risk-averse Smith, whose sparse spectacular moments have made for skeptics.
To that group, the very achievement seems to damn with faint praise.
Smith usually won’t get you beat, the mind-set goes, but he doesn’t make many things happen. So what if he’s guiding the fifth-most productive offense in the NFL right now?
He’s a mere game manager, the thinking says, because he just doesn’t have the arm to go downfield. After all, the Chiefs have the NFL’s second-fewest percentage of passes thrown 20 yards or more in the air. Never mind if you saw Smith let it go to Jeremy Maclin last week and that the Chiefs have nine pass plays that went 40 or more yards, and have 35 pass plays that went more than 20 yards.
It’s just happenstance that coming off the Chiefs’ 2-14 season in 2012, Smith led more wins (19) in his first two seasons with the team than NFL Hall of Famers Joe Montana (17) and Len Dawson (16).
Big deal that Smith has them on a trajectory toward the playoffs again: After all, he doesn’t have what it takes to lead them to their first playoff win in more than two decades … even if he’s thrown nine touchdown passes with no interceptions in three career postseason games.
We’ve all been there some with that kind of thinking, especially early this season when, looking back, his game obviously was skewed because of a still-forming offensive line.
Open your mind and try to drill deeper, though, and you might see Smith for what he really is: perfectly capable of guiding the Chiefs to a breakthrough after so many years of futility.
Take it from another quarterback harrumphed as a “game manager,” Trent Dilfer, who led the Baltimore Ravens to a Super Bowl title in the 2000 season and is now an ESPN analyst.
Dilfer was Smith’s teammate for two years in San Francisco, and one of the first things he says about him now is: “Do you understand how smart he is? Has it ever been written that he was, like, a Mensa candidate?”
Dilfer couldn’t verify that precisely, and the Chiefs only were able to clarify that Smith had received an offer for membership in the exclusive so-called high IQ society.
But Dilfer recalled teasing a chagrined Smith after a 49ers assistant coach referred to a brainy certification evidently generated by Smith scoring 40 on his Wonderlic test at the NFL Scouting Combine.
A score of 40 roughly translates to a genius IQ.
Mensa or not, that brightness is evident everywhere you turn in the background of Smith, who not only is articulate but has a way of responding to interview questions that suggests an astute understanding of the point at hand.
Smith graduated from Utah in 2 1/2 years with an economics degree and is smart enough he “could run for president,” said Gil Brandt, a pioneering personnel man with the Dallas Cowboys who now is a commentator on Sirius NFL Radio Network.
Well, of course that’s pivotal in the incalculable second-to-second decision-making under duress that defines NFL quarterbacks.
But Dilfer believes Smith’s intelligence has an even broader application, suggesting Smith is playing a sort of three-dimensional chess while the rest of us are thinking about checkers.
“He’s thought through dimensions of the game that most quarterbacks don’t,” he said. “He’s not out there to ‘make plays.’ He’s out there to win. In my opinion, he’s almost calculated a formula in his head.
“Like, ‘X plus Y plus Z equals win,’ and X, Y and Z are all these high-level, thoughtful, conservative, analytical ways of approaching a game.”
More specifically, Dilfer pointed to the practicality and logic in Smith’s game.
“He throws away from defenders, more than he throws to wide receivers, as much as anybody I’ve ever been around,” he said.
Dilfer laughed and added that this is a compliment, which reinforces the point that some things you might find maddening are by design in Smith’s game.
“Now, will he miss a throw here or that there most guys would hit?” Dilfer said. “Yep. But you know why? Because he’s not necessarily always throwing it to the receiver. ‘It’s got to be caught by my guy, or it’s going to be incomplete.’
“Same reason he escapes to his right all the time. Because when he escapes to his right he can see, right? There’s no clutter, and he’s good throwing on the run: ‘I can make a throw, or I can run, or I can get out of bounds. All three are positive endings to the play.’ ”
None of which is glamorous.
But Smith’s forte, Dilfer contends, is “the boring, lonely, ugly stuff.”
Smith has a capable arm, but not the superstar one people rave about, and maybe that dull image is furthered by not being outlandish or appearing in a bunch of commercials and just being a family man who is remarkably charitable.
It’s not about image, though, but substance.
And there’s plenty of value in being a sharp, selfless, tough guy and great teammate who absorbs what Dilfer called all the “you can’t, can’t, can’t” stuff and says, “You know what I can do? I can win.”
Take it from Rich Gannon, the former Chiefs quarterback who led the Raiders to a Super Bowl and now is known for his bluntness as an analyst with Sirius XM.
“He is the right guy for that team, that system and where they are,” Gannon said. “There are a lot of things that he does well when you look under the hood that people don’t really talk about.”
Such as, he said, understanding the significance of ball security … and getting it out as quickly as anyone but wisely … and being cognizant of the field-position game … and making plays with his legs … and numerous adjustments at the line of scrimmage called for in this offense.
Most of all just what needs to be done to win, not what needs to be done to stand out, and contouring himself to the realities of Andy Reid’s offense and what he has at his disposal.
The addition of receiver Jeremy Maclin has changed the dynamics, yes, but Maclin and tight end Travis Kelce are the only significant passing threats at this stage.
“If he was in a different offense, where they had four (strong) receivers … then maybe it would be a little different,” Gannon said. “But the thing he does, I think, as well any quarterback in the league right now is put his team in a position to have a chance to win each and every time out.”
Take it from Brandt, who was at Smith’s legendary pro day at Utah before the 2005 NFL Draft.
According to NFL.com, Smith for 45 minutes threw to every part of the field from virtually any conceivable drop or action.
By the end, he had thrown one ball that was considered uncatchable.
“I think that it was probably 100 passes, and I’m not sure if (the one) was uncatchable or the guy was slow getting there,” Brandt said. “But he put on a show, and there’s no question he can throw the ball as well as (about) anybody down the field.”
Brandt recalled watching part of the workout with then-Miami coach Nick Saban, whose Dolphins had the second pick in that year’s draft.
Saban, he believes, would have taken Smith if San Francisco had not, and maybe that would have been better for all concerned.
“His only problem was that he was drafted No. 1 overall,” Brandt said. “If he’d have been drafted No. 5 overall, everybody would say, ‘Boy, what a great find.’ ”
There are built-in complications for any overall No. 1 pick, starting with the fact that the team that picked them was the worst in the NFL and amplified by the scrutiny of being a would-be savior.
It didn’t help Smith that he was only 20 when he was drafted and that he’d have to play for seven offensive coordinators, six quarterback coaches and three head coaches in his eight years in San Francisco.
After struggling for a few years, Smith was stigmatized as a bust.
But as he matured and the team around him stabilized, Smith prospered. And if not for two cruel twists of fate, he could have played in two Super Bowls.
In the 2011 season, Smith steered the 49ers to the NFC Championship Game against the Giants.
He threw two touchdown passes and no interceptions, only to lose in overtime in a game marked by Kyle Williams’ two fumbled punts.
“Was that (Smith’s) fault?” Brandt said.
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.
In a controversial decision, Smith then was relegated to the bench as the 49ers went to the Super Bowl and lost to the Ravens.
That made Smith expendable.
At least at the time — Kaepernick has since fizzled.
“I think that if (the 49ers) had it to do all over again,” Brandt said, “I don’t think there would be any question who would be there and who wouldn’t be there.”
To Brandt, that’s also because of Smith’s savvy and his physical and mental toughness and, well, game management.
“This game manager thing, it kind of rubs me wrong,” Brandt said. “Today, in our game, the quarterback is 75 to 80 percent of the game, and he comes to Kansas City, last place the year before, and takes them to the playoffs?”
For that matter …
“Let me say this, and I mean this in all sincerity,” he said. “If I had my pick of any quarterback in the league right now to win one game, Smith would be at the top of my list. …
“He would be right there with Tom Brady.”
Brady has won more playoff games than anyone in NFL history, 21, and is tied with Montana and Terry Bradshaw for most Super Bowl wins by a quarterback, with four.
Should they reach the playoffs, many Chiefs fans would be happy if Smith could be part of just one postseason win — their first in the playoffs since the 1993 season.
Smith is the “least of their worries,” said Gannon, who wonders about the Chiefs’ ability to keep pace in a high-scoring game because of not having enough threats to stretch the field and create matchup problems.
Brandt sees Smith as a quarterback who has all the qualities necessary to take a team to the Super Bowl.
Dilfer points to the fact that Smith’s postseason play generally has been at an enhanced level — including four touchdown passes against the Colts in the Chiefs’ epic defensive collapse in the playoffs two seasons ago.
“That’s an ‘end-of-argument’ stat right there,” Dilfer said. “I’m not a big believer that stats tell everything.
“But that one kind of tells everything.”
Just like the 283 says more than you might realize.