Sam Mellinger

Sam Mellinger: Is Alex Smith good enough to win a Super Bowl?

Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith during Sunday's football game against the Oakland Raiders on October 16, 2016 at O.co Coliseum in Oakland, California.
Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith during Sunday's football game against the Oakland Raiders on October 16, 2016 at O.co Coliseum in Oakland, California. jsleezer@kcstar.com

You’d have fun here. The Super Bowl has long been a weeklong celebration of football that shuts down major American cities in the name of capitalism, fun, football, and also capitalism.

There’s enough to do, no matter what. Interactive games. Music. Football shows and football stories and football laughs. But you want your team here. It’s a lot of money, and a lot of time, to spend celebrating someone else’s squad.

Heck, even some Patriots fans might not be convinced. In line for coffee, a few lamented that next year’s game is in Minneapolis. Too cold. They might stay home.

Chiefs fans, of course, would not have the same decision-making process. Their team’s playoff loss last month marked the 47th consecutive year without a Super Bowl. In major North American professional sports, only the Jets and Lions in the NFL, the Hawks and Kings in the NBA, and the Maple Leafs in the NHL have gone longer since their last championship appearance.

All of which brings up the question: after 12 years in the league, and four in Kansas City, do we know whether Alex Smith is good enough to ever lead the Chiefs to this game?

“Oh, that’s a good question, man,” said Marshall Faulk, the Hall of Fame running back and analyst for NFL Network. “In today’s league, watching what they call a quote-unquote franchise quarterback, it makes you say no.”

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This week, I asked seven football men this question — Faulk, Deion Sanders, Kurt Warner, Dick Vermeil, Terrell Davis, Steve Mariucci and Gil Brandt. All but Mariucci have won Super Bowls.

Faulk stood alone in saying no, but the yesses came in varying shades of certainty, from Vermeil (”Yes, no question”) to Sanders (”Yes, but he can’t do it by himself”) to Warner (”Yes, but I believe he has to change the way he plays”).

Actually, Warner gave the most thoughtful and nuanced answer, touching on a thought that several expressed but none articulated quite as well. He said he believes Smith is good enough, but needs to shed some of his natural caution in pursuit of bigger successes.

“You have to be willing to lose games for your team, in order to win games for your team,” he said. “By that I mean, you have to be willing to take chances to make big plays, and you might make more mistakes than he makes, because he does a great job protecting the football. But you have to believe, ‘I’m going to make more big plays that are game-changing type plays, that can help us win against the best teams in the league.’ Especially come playoff time.

“Alex has the ability to do that. I see him do that. But he plays more of a game manager role, instead of saying, ‘It’s going through my right arm.’

“I don’t know. If he never makes that switch as a guy who’s willing to lose games for his team, but more importantly believes he can win games for his team with his right arm, I don’t know if they ever get over that hump.”

This is, of course, a version of something many in Kansas City have been talking about for years. But it does hit a little differently hearing it from Warner, a Super Bowl winner and new Hall of Famer.

The Chiefs have gone through stages of encouraging Smith to take more chances. He’ll never be Brett Favre in that way, and he shouldn’t be, not with a strong defense. And Andy Reid’s offense tilts toward a short, controlled passing game anyway. But particularly with Tyreek Hill’s emergence, Smith knows he can and should take more chances downfield.

Because what Warner is talking about — and this is a point alluded to by Davis, Mariucci, Sanders and Vermeil, too — is that without Smith making big plays and “throwing receivers open” the rest of the team is required to be something close to perfect.

Four years ago, the Chiefs lost a playoff game because the defense gave up 35 points in the second half. Two years ago, they created no pressure on Tom Brady and couldn’t score enough. Last month, they simply missed too many opportunities — Smith and others.

At some point, unless the rest of the team is overwhelming, the quarterback is probably going to need to do more than simply not screw up.

“He always takes the side of, ‘I’m not going to make the mistake,’ vs. trying to make the big play,” Davis said. “Part of that is good. But part of it is that’s where the great plays come from, taking those chances.”

The problem with this is the idea that after 136 starts and 4,108 passes Smith is suddenly going to make a drastic change. How often does that happen?

But the other side of this is the Chiefs are too good to start over. Chairman Clark Hunt believes the team is good enough to win a Super Bowl with the right breaks, a stance backed up by most here.

The best quarterbacks are often unavailable without a high first-round pick. The Chiefs are set to pick 27th. The Falcons used two first-round picks, a second, and two fourths to move from No. 27 to No. 6 in 2011. The Jaguars used a first, two thirds, and a fourth to move from No. 26 to No. 8 in 2008.

This is a point made by several this week: it’s one thing to believe the Chiefs could use a better quarterback, but it’s quite another to figure a way to find that upgrade.

“It’s like getting divorced and getting a new wife,” Faulk said. “You better know who your new wife is going to be. You better know. Because that old wife is going to cost you. And if you get another one, and it’s not as good as the first one, it’s going to cost you two times now.”

This is the impasse, but the Chiefs have some advantages they can use right now if they choose.

Smith’s contract becomes easy to get out of after the 2017 season. The Chiefs have extra picks in the upcoming draft, which includes four top quarterback prospects generally thought by the industry to be good fits.

That means they can trade up without ruining their draft, if they want, and bring in a talented quarterback to possibly take over in the future. If the pick develops, they can cut or renegotiate with Smith. If they’re not sure, they can keep Smith and continue to search for an upgrade.

They don’t have to get divorced, in other words. This doesn’t have to be monogamous. Smith is good enough to win with, but limited enough that Faulk’s and Warner’s analyses ring true to many of us who watch the Chiefs regularly.

This is the most logical and sensible path for the Chiefs to chase the Super Bowl. It’s the one they haven’t tried in more than 30 years, to get where they haven’t been in more than 40 years.

You really would like it here, too. Especially if you came to watch your team.

Sam Mellinger: 816-234-4365, @mellinger

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