(Editor’s note: This story is part of The Star’s annual football preview, which will appear in three special sections in the Sunday, Aug. 28 print edition and also on KansasCity.com and The Star’s Red Zone Extra app.)
The football spun through the cool night air for maybe a second and a half, and Andy Reid stared upward for the duration.
His expression did not change when it finally settled into a receiver’s grasp — the Chiefs’ head coach still had a football game to win — but the spectacular play he’d just witnessed from his quarterback, Alex Smith, would stick with him for months.
This was Jan. 16, during the Chiefs’ divisional-round playoff game at New England, and Reid’s team faced a third and 7 midway through the third quarter. Trailing the Patriots by 15, they were in danger of being blown out; the defense had barely touched Tom Brady all game, and could not be relied upon to stop him if the offense was again forced to punt.
“It was, a little bit, of a got-to-have-it moment,” Smith recalled.
With three defenders bearing down on him, Smith pulled a Fran Tarkenton and spun out of the pocket. He then shook one defender, ducked under the next and ran past a third before uncorking a 26-yard spiral down the left sideline to Jason Avant, who made a leaping grab over a defender.
The play-by-play man excitedly called Smith a “magician.” The Patriots’ crowd groaned. And the Chiefs, who went on to score a touchdown, remained in the 27-20 loss until the bitter end.
Much of that had to do with the performance of Smith, who completed 29 of 50 passes for 246 yards and a touchdown while making those kinds of plays.
“We all went, ‘Wow’ — that was a ‘wow’ moment,” Reid recently recalled. “And at that position, you have to be able to do those, especially in big games like that.”
Granted, that Smith-to-Avant pass was just one play, but the quarterback’s magic act required moxie that Smith had rarely shown before on a stage like that.
Reid believes Smith possesses at least two Super Bowl-worthy traits — his brains and his athleticism. And that play represented a positive step toward proving his detractors wrong. Those are the same people who dog Smith with the “game manager” tag, citing his conservative nature and inability to drive the ball downfield like other quarterbacks.
Overall, Smith showed enough improvement last year to inspire the notion that the same 32-year-old once benched for Colin Kaepernick could indeed be good enough to take the Chiefs to the promised land.
“He’s a really good quarterback and a guy you’d definitely like to have,” an NFC personnel man recently told The Star. “I think you can win a Super Bowl with him. Definitely.”
When Reid makes his oft-repeated joke that Smith “doesn’t run out of gigabytes,” he’s not kidding.
Smith might be, quite literally, a genius, a guy who scored a 40 on the Wonderlic test and once received an offer for membership in Mensa, the exclusive high-IQ society.
Those smarts help Smith in two ways on the field. The first is that he can be counted on to spit out the play calls clearly. Reid’s wordy offense can cause a less-sure quarterback to stumble over his words and lose precious time at the line of scrimmage.
“Our verbiage tells a lot of people what to do,” co-offensive coordinator Brad Childress explained. “Sometimes our call can be ‘red left switch tight close a-right sprint right G-U corner halfback flat’ … and he has to be able to articulate it, he has to know when to take a breath; he has to know the right people to look at.
“That’s how he’s like a computer; you can tell it to him once in his ear. He’s one of the best.”
Smith’s on-field intelligence, honed through hours of laborious preparation, made Reid comfortable enough that he ceded more preplay control to his quarterback last season.
“I started off small, and the checks he was making, I’m going, ‘You know what? This guy is so comfortable at the line of scrimmage, it’s ridiculous,’ ” Reid said. “And so, I just have full trust in him seeing and changing something to a better play.”
That’s a big step for Reid, who generally prefers his quarterbacks to run the play he’s given them. He altered course after a season-ending injury to star running back Jamaal Charles during last year’s 1-5 start.
“We attempt to maximize (Smith’s) aptitude, and it shows on game day,” Reid said. “Every play we have, he has the option to get in and out of that play, so there’s nothing that he doesn’t have the keys to the car on, and he uses that wisely.”
The Chiefs ranked second in the NFL in red-zone rushing touchdowns in 2015, and while much of that had to do with the bulldozing style of Spencer Ware, it also spoke to Smith’s ability to get his teammates into the right play.
But when Charles got hurt, Smith’s brain wasn’t the only trait the Chiefs relied upon.
Smith never says anything incendiary about his time in San Francisco under coach Jim Harbaugh, although the small smirk that sometimes creeps across his face makes you wonder how he really feels about being cast aside by the 49ers.
Yet when asked what led to using his legs more last year — his career-high 498 rushing yards ranked fourth in the league among quarterbacks — he credits Harbaugh, the man who benched him.
“I’d be lying if I didn’t say Harbaugh had an effect on me there, on pushing it, on using it,” Smith said of his running ability. “His deal is ‘by any means necessary.’ You got the tools, why wouldn’t you use it?”
Smith especially embraced Harbaugh’s mentality during the Chiefs’ dismal start to last season, asking his coaches for more running responsibility.
That not only meant more zone-read plays — he excels at making the proper read on those — but also using his athleticism on third downs. Free to abort his progressions at the first sign of daylight, Smith became an added weapon, rushing for 30 first downs, third-most in the league among quarterbacks.
“That stuff just eats at those guys (on defense),” Smith said with a satisfied grin. “There’s nothing like a third-down conversion with your legs, when they had everybody covered and they still couldn’t get it done.”
With Smith unchained, the Chiefs started winning games again — they reeled off 11 straight victories before their playoff loss to the Patriots. In the process, some — like former Super Bowl-winning coach Jon Gruden — began dismissing the game manager moniker that have been bestowed on Smith.
“He’s a hell of a lot of more than that,” Gruden said. “What’s a game manager? He’s a game changer, man. You just don’t know all the ways that he changes the games unless you really watch carefully. How many yards did he rush for last year? You think that’s a game manager? That’s a game saver.”
Still, others with a keen football eye will find weaknesses in Smith’s game.
Greg Cosell, a senior producer at NFL Films, pores over countless hours of video each year.
And while he generally likes Smith, and stops short of saying you can’t win a Super Bowl with him — “You’ll probably have a hard time saying (Russell Wilson) was way better” when the Seahawks won in 2013, he noted — Cosell believes that leopards Smith’s age don’t often change their spots.
In this case, an overly cautious nature and lack of elite arm strength.
“I think he has a pretty defined track record,” Cosell said.
About Smith’s delivery, which is quick enough, Cosell says he’s a locked-front-leg thrower, which prevents him from generating the velocity that enables other quarterbacks to hit guys in tight windows.
“He’s been throwing his way his whole life,” Cosell said. “When you lock your front leg when you throw, you can’t truly drive the football … he’s not going to sit in the pocket like the Joe Flaccos of the world and stand tall in the pocket and just drive the ball with people around him on deep digs at 22 yards.”
This also speaks to Smith’s other issue: his cautious nature. Only the Patriots have posted fewer turnovers than the Chiefs since 2013, Cosell acknowledged, but there’s “no statistic for throws that should be made that aren’t.”
And while Smith does a nice job of throwing with anticipation, Cosell says Reid and his finely designed play calls, plus better personnel, deserve some of the credit for that.
“I remember a touchdown against Cleveland where they shifted to an empty set and (Jeremy) Maclin was, I believe, on an inside slot on the left and they got him matched up on a safety,” Cosell said, referring to a touchdown throw that Smith rocketed between three defenders in the end zone. “You can create more when you have better receivers.”
Reid knows all of Smith’s flaws, Cosell added, and no coach in his right mind is going to discuss his own player’s weaknesses in the media. This is true: For years, Chiefs brass has sidestepped questions of Smith’s spotty record in the come-from-behind, fourth-quarter situations that help define elite quarterbacks.
Rather, general manager John Dorsey recently hinted at Smith’s competitive fire, a trait the Chiefs believe helps offset his weaknesses.
“I love the kid — all he does is win games and guys believe in him,” Dorsey said.
Teammates and coaches say Smith — whose passer rating of 95.4 ranked 10th in the league last year — is pushing himself even harder this year, his fourth in Reid’s offense.
Veteran inside linebacker Derrick Johnson said Smith gets visibly irritated whenever he throws an interception in practice — “he’s very, very hard on himself,” Johnson said. Reid said Smith is striving to be perfect in terms of ball placement on all throws.
“Quarterbacks are constantly working on the small things, especially when you get to his age,” Reid said. “We’re talking about inches on throws.”
This summer in camp, Smith impressed spectators such as Sirius Radio host and former NFL scout Pat Kirwan, who predicts Smith will have a “home-run year,” and his broadcast partner, former NFL quarterback Jim Miller.
“At quarterback, you’ve got to be Teflon,” said Miller, who played 12 years in the league. “And I think with all the tough love that he got in San Francisco … he’s very comfortable with where he is.”
But Smith is not satisfied with his reputation as a Brad Johnson- or Russell Wilson-type of quarterback — someone who needs a good running game and stout defense to win. And with the status of stellar Chiefs linebacker Justin Houston uncertain, and the run defense looking shaky throughout the preseason, the time has never been better for Smith to prove people wrong.
This brings us back to the playoff game in New England, and the amazing throw that will be remembered as either the genesis of a better, more dynamic Smith, or a simple fluke.
Asked if he could’ve made that play even three years ago, it’s telling that Smith — the Mensa candidate — paused for a few seconds, stared at the ground and thought.
“That’s a good question,” Smith said, his eyes not blinking once. “Yeah, I don’t know … I certainly feel like I’ve embraced more and more of this and just the system and letting me be creative and do my thing. …“(The) biggest thing to me is you want to win. Losing (stinks), and I’ve played long enough that I don’t really care anymore how we (win). Winning is winning.”