Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith thought he might have had the flu or a viral condition. Maybe it was just an upset stomach.
But something didn’t feel right in the hours after last week’s game at Pittsburgh and during three days of preparation for Sunday’s regular-season finale against San Diego.
Not until Christmas Day did Smith learn after undergoing a scan that he had suffered a 3-centimeter laceration in his spleen during the third quarter of last Sunday’s game at Pittsburgh. The injury will sideline him this Sunday and deep into the playoffs if the Chiefs were to qualify for the postseason.
“I had nausea and knew a (flu) bug was going around and thought maybe it was that,” Smith said Friday. “I felt great athletically, running around and throwing. I just had this constant deal going on, and thankfully the doctor urged me to get the test.
“I was pretty reluctant on Christmas Day. I told him, ‘I’m fine, I’ll be all right,’ I wanted to hang with my family. But it hadn’t gone away, it was still there, and he pushed me to get it checked out and make sure everything was okay. Then I got a call that I had a laceration …”
Backup Chase Daniel will start at quarterback on Sunday, just as he did in the regular-season finale a year ago at San Diego in a game in which the Chiefs, with a playoff spot wrapped up, sat their starters.
Smith suffered the injury on the third play of the second half when he was driven to the ground by Pittsburgh linebacker Jason Worilds as Smith overthrew a wide open Albert Wilson on a deep pass down the middle of the field.
Smith, 30, didn’t have symptoms after the game because he did not bleed very much, said Chiefs trainer Rick Burkholder. Burkholder said the normal recovery period for Smith’s injury is about six weeks, depending on the individual.
“If we’re playing three or four weeks from now, we’ll re-scan him and see where he’s at and confer with doctors to see if he could play,” Burkholder said. “It’s not a surgical case. It will heal on its own, but he’s going to have to have some time down for contact and collisions.”
Burkholder said the injury is not career-threatening.
“He’s going to be fine,” Burkholder said. “That’s going to heal up. We’ll continue to decide why his spleen is a little enlarged. It may just be him, it could be from the trauma, but we’ll do more studies to cover him and make sure we’re on point.
“The problem is to play with a lacerated spleen, even one that is probably a little less than 3 centimeters … is if he were to take another shot in there, and the laceration would increase, then you have a medical emergency because it is a vascular organ that can bleed.”
That happened to former NFL quarterback Chris Simms, who suffered a ruptured spleen while playing for Tampa Bay in 2006. Simms was taken off the field after absorbing some hits against Carolina but returned to the game. He remained in physical distress and was taken to a nearby hospital after the game where tests revealed the rupture, and he underwent emergency surgery.
Smith, who has been sacked 45 times this season, didn’t feel he had put himself at risk during practice on Tuesday and Wednesday because there is little live hitting, and quarterbacks are not touched at all.
“That’s the strange thing,” he said. “I really had two good days of practice, and I felt really good about it. It was strange to get this. I don’t think it’s anything hindering me athletically.”
Smith, who was on the practice field in sweats on Friday, said he’ll be on the sidelines and assist Daniel in Sunday’s game against the Chargers, a game the Chiefs need to win to maintain hope for reaching the playoffs.
“I talked to Chase (Thursday night),” Smith said. “I really feel like I ate up two practice days of his that would have been important … had we known this earlier … but any way I can help him prepare, and I’ll pass on anything I’ve been thinking about to help us win a game.”
Though Daniel knew Smith was in discomfort during the week, he was stunned to hear the diagnosis of a lacerated spleen.
“That’s a scary deal,” Daniel said. “Your spleen lacerates, you can bleed out, and we don’t want that at all. Alex and I have a great relationship. We even chatted a little bit about the game plan (Thursday) night. He’s there to help me all the way.”
Last season, in Daniel’s only NFL start in his five-year career, he completed 21 of 30 passes for 200 yards and a touchdown in a 27-24 overtime loss at San Diego. His 2-yard pass to Dexter McCluster is the last touchdown pass the Chiefs have thrown to a wide receiver.
“That’s where you’re fortunate you have Chase here,” head coach Andy Reid said. “The guys have a lot of trust in Chase, so he’ll have an opportunity to get out there and play. Our heart goes out to Alex. This isn’t something that he wanted to have happen, for sure. He wanted to be there, but the guys know Chase and they’re confident in him.”
Daniel, in his second season with the Chiefs, has appeared in two games this season, both in mop-up roles. He’s attempted one pass. But he’s worked with the Chiefs receivers in training camp and in practice on a daily basis.
Rookie Aaron Murray, the club’s fifth-round draft pick from Georgia, will be active for the first time all season as Daniel’s backup.
“Everyone feels for Alex,” Murray said. “He’s our leader, he’s a warrior. He battled through the rest of the game, all week in practice … but you’ve got to be ready. Chase and I always try to prepare like we’re starters. It only makes you a better quarterback and prepares you in case something like this does happen.”
Smith’s injury was the second unexpected jolt to the Chiefs in the past five weeks. The club was rocked by the news of safety Eric Berry’s diagnosis of lymphoma on Nov. 24.
“These are good men, good leaders on our team, and the things that are happening to them is unheard of,” said outside linebacker Tamba Hali.
“It’s tragic that two of our guys … or for anybody to go through things like that,” Wilson said, “and we have to pray for them and their families. That makes us work harder to come together and fight for them.”