Sam Mellinger

Alex Smith’s path to ‘(Buck) it’: or, how the Chiefs quarterback learned to let go

This being a family newspaper, we will not print the exact motto Alex Smith is living in the best year of his professional life, but the general idea is perhaps best censored by a teammate’s translation.

“Screw it and do it,” Chiefs right tackle Mitchell Schwartz said.

The quarterback’s actual term — years in the making, but first said publicly in an offseason interview — is three words shorter and two levels deeper on the movie rating system.

Rhymes with, um, bucket.

“I know people were caught off guard,” Smith said. “They haven’t seen me talk like that.”

They haven’t seen him play like this, either, and the two are intrinsically linked. The most common criticism of Smith is that he is boring, too cautious, Captain Checkdown in an NFL era that favors the bold. But here he is, objectively the best quarterback and leading MVP candidate through five games, with an R-rated personal mantra and NSFW on-field boldness.

We don’t get one without the other.

Smith is completing 76.6 percent of his passes for 11 touchdowns, no interceptions, 8.8 yards per attempt and a 125.8 passer rating. Each of those numbers is best in the league, except for touchdowns, which ranks third.

Merely saying it like that understates just how good he’s been. Going back to at least 1960, no NFL quarterback had a higher completion percentage through five games. In the last five years, only Peyton Manning in his 2013 MVP season had a higher passer rating through five games.

Over and over and over again, Smith has been asked what’s different. Same with Chiefs coach Andy Reid, offensive coordinator Matt Nagy and many of Smith’s teammates.

The most logical answer is in that two-word mantra, and what it means, even if he hasn’t put it on T-shirts (yet).

“No,” said Tyler Bray, in his fifth year with Smith in the Chiefs’ quarterback room, “he has not come up to me and said, ‘I’m going full (buck) it.’”

“But,” Schwartz said. “I think I can gather what it means from the context. I think it’s showing, too.”

Pretending that his personality or attitude is as different this season as his results makes for an easy and fun story, but it’s also a lie. Smith has been building toward this moment for at least 13 years.

The biggest single factor may have been the experience of losing his previous job with the 49ers because of a concussion, watching his team come up five yards short in the Super Bowl, and then being traded. This particular team is more talented — particularly at the skill positions — than any Smith has played on, which has amplified the results.

But he’s been on this winding path ever since he was drafted first overall by a dysfunctional franchise before his 21st birthday. There is no way to overstate the problems he faced then, or how fundamentally unprepared he was at the time.

The marriage of player and team could not have been worse. The 49ers flipped offensive schemes every year, and fans still had fresh memories of Steve Young. His head coaches were defensive coaches, and he once lost an entire year because a doctor left a wire in his shoulder after surgery. Shortly after that, his best friend took his own life.

Smith was not the right man to handle any of that. He is by nature a perfectionist, and at that time he was unable to accept that the position was more art than science. He is exceptionally intelligent, earning an economics degree in three years, and comes from a family of overachievers. He was an afterthought high school recruit who assumed he’d go to law school before his football career spiked.

In fact, he only played one game at Utah with the knowledge that NFL teams were interested. That was the Fiesta Bowl his junior year, and only because his brother talked to some scouts. More media covered his first OTA practice with the 49ers than any of his college games but one.

He’d never failed before, in anything. And now he was failing in football — and failing in handling that failure.

“I carried around a lot of anxiety,” Smith said. “About living up to the standards. I felt like I had to prove all of that, constantly. Every single play, I played like that. It was just really, really miserable.”

He comes by this honestly, is the point. (Buck) it came more from necessity than genius, more to survive than thrive. He did not choose this. It chose him. With hindsight, Smith thinks he started to live this way about six years ago. That’s when Jim Harbaugh took the 49ers job, and Smith began to focus more on himself and less on living up to anything else.

According to friends, as much as anything else Harbaugh galvanized Smith’s confidence. Showed him he’s capable, and that the past failures were not just his own.

“Screw this,” he said in describing his thoughts at the time. “I’m not going to play like that anymore. Not only is it not good for me, it’s not productive. It’s not helping me.”

This is an oversimplification, or at the very least an under-representation of the difficulty. Because we’d all do better to work this way, and to live this way — to completely let go of anyone else’s opinion and free ourselves to be our own best version.

But you can’t just decide to do that, no more than you can decide to run fast, or lose 20 pounds. Smith needed help to get there, and time, because the journey to that sweet spot of full commitment and no anxiety is as exacting as it is rewarding.

You must be locked into the moment, but also free of mind. You must be relentless in your preparation, but with ease in execution. You must be uncompromising in your standards, but secure enough in a results-only business to judge yourself primarily on the process.

“It’s a full lifestyle,” Smith said. “Absolutely. You can’t just do it on the field. Yep. No question. You have to live it.”

The results are extraordinary, and it’s not just the numbers that say Smith has the league’s highest passer rating when throwing deep. There is a (buck) it style to how Smith is achieving those numbers, too.

He is throwing into coverage when the defender doing the covering isn’t watching for the ball, or otherwise unable to get to the exact spot Smith is targeting. The football jargon for this is “throwing receivers open,” and he’s done it every game.

Against the Eagles, he threw into tight coverage down the right sideline because he knew a ball over Chris Conley’s right shoulder could not be intercepted. It went for 35 yards.

Against the Texans, Smith saw a linebacker fake blitz, then drop to cover the middle. He waited a beat longer than normal, planted his feet, and dropped the pass into Travis Kelce’s hands between the dropping linebacker and two safeties. It went for 20 yards.

He’s also getting greedy, in all the good ways. When breaking the pocket, he used to carry himself like the prey — worried primarily about defenders, forgetting about receivers, sliding before being hit.

Now, he’s more like the predator.

Against Washington, with less than a minute left and a tie score — precisely the opportunity Smith and Reid have been accused of wasting through risk aversion in the past — he felt pressure on the backside, drifted right and could’ve run for yardage and a stopped clock. Instead, he kept his eyes downfield and waited for Albert Wilson to break behind the linebacker. It went for 37 yards, and set up the winning field goal.

Against Houston, on a third and 4 near the goal line — again, a spot he’s gone risk-averse in the past — Smith moved to his left after pressure up the middle, and kept his eyes toward the end zone. He waited until the last possible moment before a rushing defensive linemen could’ve hit him to throw against his momentum and ahead of the coverage to Charcandrick West. It went for a touchdown.

Each of these plays, to differing degrees and in differing shades, are plays the old Alex Smith probably did not make.

He would’ve looked off the covered receiver, or away from the dropping linebacker, or taken the five-yard scramble instead of tried to make more.

The Chiefs have generally been a good or even very good team with Smith operating that way. They’ve never been great.

Not until right now, with their (buck) it quarterback.

“You know what?” he said. “I’m just going to roll. Going to roll as hard as I can. Whatever happens, happens. I’ll live with it. I’ll be comfortable with it.”

Sam Mellinger: 816-234-4365, @mellinger

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