Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith knows he has to perform this year
(Editor’s note: This story is part of The Star’s annual football preview, which will appear as a special section in the Sunday, Aug. 27 print edition and also on KansasCity.com and The Star’s Red Zone Extra app.)
Alex Smith will say he is blissfully unaware of anything that’s said about him, and that’s mostly true, but not entirely true. He is not on Facebook. Or Twitter. Or Instagram. Or Snapchat. Or anything else the kids use, and this isn’t an age joke about a quarterback who was drafted first overall when the guy the Chiefs just drafted to eventually replace him was in the third grade.
This is a conscious decision Smith made. He has three kids, dresses up with them for Halloween, and Facebook could be good for sharing pictures with family. But at some point the outside would creep in, and between keeping up with his nieces and nephews he’d see some blog post about Captain Checkdown and who needs that?
But, if he’s being honest, some of that drips into his life. Usually through his wife. Elizabeth Smith loves her man. She’s intense. And she does not share her husband’s aversion to social media. Alex Smith loves his woman. If she tells him something he doesn’t want to know every once in a while, well, it’s a small price.
“I don’t know if I should say this; probably not,” Alex said. “But Ryan Tannehill gets hurt, and she says, ‘Oh, someone said on social media you’re on the trading block to go to the Dolphins.’
“I’m like, ‘Babe, are you serious? Come on.’ You know what I’m saying? She’s not totally biting on it, some of it is because she knows I’m not on there, but she’s like, ‘This is what they’re saying,’ and it’s just, come on.”
So, yes, he is militant about shutting out the noise. This has come through trial and error. Mostly error, at least early in his career.
A quarterback’s existence is cluttered enough, between workouts and the playbook and earning the respect of teammates — most of whom put their bodies at greater risk, and nearly all of whom make less money and receive less attention while doing it.
The noise can only detract from that. Can’t help. Smith has always been surrounded by that, but this season will include more than any since he arrived in Kansas City.
He came here to win the Super Bowl he still feels was taken from him when he had a concussion in 2011 and 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh replaced him with Colin Kaepernick. So far, Smith has done enough to help the Chiefs win 43 regular-season games. Only the Patriots, Broncos and Seahawks have won more in that span.
And so far, he’s done only enough to help the Chiefs win one playoff game in four years. That’s the same number as the Texans, among others, and fewer than the 49ers, among others.
The NFL moves fast. The Chiefs already have Smith’s replacement on the payroll and next to him in the quarterback room. Patrick Mahomes is everything Smith is not — young, aggressive, big-armed and new — which means he is everything a loud and large portion of Chiefs fans want in a quarterback.
The Chiefs could save $17 million in 2018 salary-cap space by cutting Smith after this season. Their lack of cap space is sometimes pushed as part of the reason John Dorsey was fired as general manager, and it’s hard to imagine Smith being back for 2018 — even on a restructured contract — without significantly more playoff success this year.
So, this season, the noise around Smith will be both professional and personal. It’ll be about his conservative ways, his age, his worth. It’ll be about whether he should sell his house in Kansas City.
To say that he needs to shut out that noise more now than ever before would be ignorant to the brutal line of professional adversity he’s already faced. He was 20 years old and admittedly unprepared for professional football when the 49ers made him the first overall pick in the 2005 NFL Draft, and then propped him up as something like a savior.
That was a dysfunctional franchise, too. Constantly changed coaches. Angry fans, many of whom old enough to remember what a truly great quarterback looked like. Once, Smith required shoulder surgery and lost an entire season because the team doctor left a wire inside before stitching him up.
When Harbaugh finally brought some order and competence, Smith thrived.
In 2011, he threw the fewest interceptions in the league and the 49ers were a fluky special-teams turnover from reaching the Super Bowl. The next year, he was leading the league in completion percentage and passer rating when he suffered a concussion in the 49ers’ ninth game.
Kaepernick took over, and when Smith passed the concussion tests, Harbaugh stuck with Kaepernick. The 49ers lost the Super Bowl when Kaepernick, down five points, threw three consecutive incompletions from the 5-yard line late in the fourth quarter.
Kansas City was supposed to be a fresh start for Smith, and in most ways, it has been. New contract. New coaches. New teammates. But by now, he’s as familiar here as summer road construction, and to many, just as fun.
Smith’s strengths as a quarterback have always been in the subtleties. Accuracy, decisions, avoiding mistakes. Eating it on third down to punt will never be a popular move in the stadium, but if the alternative is an interception, it’s smart. These are the margins in which Smith typically operates.
His hand-picked successor, meanwhile, operates in the spectacular, with throws that Smith is simply unable to even consider making but a rawness that he still must leave behind. In other words, Mahomes is talented enough that some fans will scream for him at Smith’s first three-and-out, and green enough that the coaches hope they don’t have to play him for at least a year.
Smith’s existence, then, is essentially a machine for outside noise with the volume turned to 12. Smith can remember seasons he lost control in part because he was listening too much to things that didn’t matter. Tried to be someone he was not, or at least wasn’t yet.
He and many inside the organization have a catchphrase for this. They constantly talk about focusing on “what’s real,” and ignoring the rest.
“Both,” he said when asked if he had to succeed or fail to understand it. “You have to have some skins on the wall to earn that. I took my lumps early, and then by the time I had a little success in the middle of my career, that’s the switch. I felt like I earned it a little bit, and a little more confident. I’d been through so much. I was confident that those experiences, you learn from it all.”
Part of that is living a sort of 1990s life. No social media. In the car, it’s NPR. He has the Wall Street Journal app on his phone, and he’ll use ESPN to check golf or baseball or soccer scores. Pro Football talk is his headline feed for NFL news, which is how he heard about Tannehill before his wife, but he swears he’s never Googled his name or anything about the Chiefs.
This is a learned skill, the suppression of curiosity. The discipline to not check what people are saying about you is a very different thing than the apathy toward criticism that most athletes and coaches claim.
Smith isn’t saying he doesn’t care. In some ways, it’s the opposite. He’s saying that he does care, and if he heard the noise, would care too much to do his job effectively. NPR can be more than informative. It can be essential.
“The guys always make fun of me for it,” Smith said. “I’m coming in, talking about, ‘There’s this study that just came out...’ But that’s it. That’s all I listen to.”
Beats hearing about himself, and what he’s doing wrong.
“I’m totally OK not knowing any of it,” he said. “I sleep easy.”