For much of his NFL career, Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith has been perceived as a human caution flag, unwilling or unable to let loose, mesmerized by flashing yellow lights all around him that sometimes only he seems to see.
The label is overly simplistic, of course.
It doesn’t recognize the intelligence in his game, his sophistication in understanding what he can and can’t trust around him and that it’s not such a bad thing to think: first do no harm.
Smith has broken out of that typecasting this season, going downfield far more and expanding his game to include 12 of those newfangled touchdown passes to wide receivers after the Chiefs hadn’t had so much as one last year.
Just the same, sheer fundamental soundness is and will remain pivotal in the game of Smith, who is 53-18-1 as a starter when he’s thrown no interceptions, 16-38 when he does and, as of Sunday, 3-18 in games in which he threw two or more.
Yep, Smith threw two Sunday after the Chiefs took a 14-point lead they nursed into a 23-17 win to set a franchise record with 10 straight victories as they head into the playoffs at 3:35 p.m. Saturday in Houston.
More remarkably, startlingly, even, Smith threw them on back-to-back brow-furrowing passes, the second of which was converted into a 24-yard touchdown by Oakland defender David Amerson.
Afterward, Smith considered whether he’d ever thrown two in a row.
He paused to seemingly flash back as far as he could and came up doubtful he had.
“I’m not sure about that, though,” he said, smiling. “Try to forget ’em.”
You ought to try that, too.
Even if it might be tempting to linger on it as a sign of the apocalypse as the Chiefs try to shrug off 22 years of postseason futility and the mind is apt to wander to … what can go wrong this time?
Let it go, because it was a bizarre blip out of one of the steadiest hands in NFL history.
The same man went 312 passes without throwing an interception earlier this season — the second-longest such streak the league has ever known.
Dismiss it because each had its own story that Smith will learn from.
The first came when he tried to jam a ball to Albert Wilson between two defenders, only to have it snared by the Raiders’ T.J. Carrie.
The primary receiver on the play was on the other side of the field, and Smith looked hard that way first before reflexively turning to zip it toward Wilson anticipating he was open … only for Oakland to have surprised him by recognizing it.
“Ninety-nine percent of the time,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said, “he’s going to hit that thing.”
The second explanation might be less consoling, because after a reprieve from the first — thanks to Ron Parker’s interception — Smith would have seemed well-served to resume extreme risk-aversion.
Instead, he went all-in on a gambling sideline pass that Amerson jumped, and there really isn’t much you can say about that other than it was a bad play.
But the key here is it’s not going to mess with Smith, who knows interceptions are going to happen, knows he’s better than those plays and knows the last thing he can then do is go into a shell.
He didn’t, which is why he rebounded later and feathered a fine 15-yard touchdown pass to Demetrius Harris to help put the game away.
“You’ve got to fight that (mentality),” he said. “Fight that hard.”
His intense fighting spirit is maybe the most underappreciated thing to remember about Smith, who came to the Chiefs in 2013 consumed with being a playoff winner after two quirks of fate kept him from playing in two Super Bowls.
In the 2011 season, Smith led the 49ers to the NFC Championship game against the Giants only to lose in overtime in a game marked by Kyle Williams’ two fumbled punts.
“Once you get there and you’re that close, you don’t know when the next opportunity is going to come — and if it will ever,” Smith said. “So, no question, I don’t think you want to have any regrets.”
The next season, he was completing 70 percent of his passes when he was injured late in the season and replaced by Colin Kaepernick, who kept the job even after Smith recovered. The 49ers went to the Super Bowl and lost to the Ravens.
His next playoff opportunity, of course, was the Chiefs’ 45-44 loss to the Colts after leading 38-10 two seasons ago.
“Some of those scars you take with you the rest of your life, and that one probably will (stay),” said Smith, who had one of the best games of his career with 378 yards and four touchdown passes. “And for this team, it’s still with us, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing.”
And remember that’s what will be with the guy quarterbacking the Chiefs next weekend, not the break from character you saw Sunday or any residue of it.