A quarterback respected by his coaches and loved by his teammates is having the best season of his life, and here he goes, likely gone after this postseason, the first man in NFL history to play for a new team the year after leading the league in passer rating.
It’s an entirely bizarre set of circumstances that could only be made more bizarre by this fact:
The quarterback has lived a similar story before.
This is about Alex Smith and the Chiefs, of course. A playoff game against the Titans on Saturday is the focus, but the mind tends to wander, and with Patrick Mahomes waiting and apparently ready, it is likely Smith will be somewhere else next year.
Gone, not forgotten. Replaced, but hopefully appreciated more as time goes on.
This is a tough place to play quarterback. Smith has handled it better than he’s generally given credit for, and in two years or four years or 10 years he will be remembered much differently in Kansas City.
At least, that’s how I think this will go. Time has a way of washing over annoyances and focusing on the bigger stuff.
Smith has done almost all the bigger stuff well. He is limited, but smart. He is cautious, but efficient. He is reserved, but respected.
For all the knocks about Captain Checkdown and missed shots downfield, he would be going out of Kansas City with the best regular season of his life and as the second- or third-best quarterback in Chiefs history, depending on what you think of Trent Green. And no matter what happens in the playoffs, he’d be going out with the best regular season of his life.
Kansas Citians have watched a steady line of someone else’s backups be good enough to lose in the playoffs, usually to someone else’s Hall of Famer, and the routine gets old after 48 years.
But if this postseason is it for Smith and the Chiefs, he’ll leave the franchise in better shape than he found it.
The same is true in reverse.
We tend to look at these things from the Chiefs’ perspective, about what’s good or bad for the franchise, and that’s natural.
But the symbiotic relationship here is interesting, too.
Smith helped the Chiefs. He brought a competency and confidence to the position that the team hadn’t had seen since Green’s concussion.
The Chiefs helped him, too. He had a stable and adept coach who believed in him for the first time in his career. Together, the team and player were each at their best — Smith was more effective than ever, and the Chiefs won consecutive division titles for the first time in franchise history.
The Chiefs have paid Smith $67 million over five years, and he has won 50 regular-season games, the Chiefs’ first playoff game in 22 years, and generally represented the franchise well. All business transactions should be this successful.
This franchise has received everything it could’ve expected from Smith. Not everything it could’ve hoped, because at least for now his time here has peaked in the division round. But everything it could’ve expected. This was not Matt Cassel 2.0.
We don’t usually think of these things from the athletes’ perspective, but for Smith, this all must come with a biting sense of déjà vu.
He put eight years into the 49ers, through a level of organizational dysfunction that has killed the careers of many young quarterbacks.
Finally paired with a competent coach — not a stable coach, but a competent one — he beat Drew Brees in a playoff shootout and helped the 49ers to within two awfully timed special-teams turnovers of a Super Bowl.
The next year, he was playing better than ever and lost his job because of a concussion. By all accounts, he was an exemplary teammate, even watching his team fall five yards short of a Super Bowl championship he’s sure to this day he could’ve won.
He’s lived, basically, an updated and in most ways less cruel version of the same story here in Kansas City.
His first year, he threw for 378 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions but lost a playoff game because teammates kept suffering concussions and the defense kept giving up scores.
Only one quarterback had ever lost a playoff game with a passer rating higher than Smith’s 119.7 that day, and only one team had ever lost a playoff game scoring 44 points or more. Only eight times in NFL playoff history has a quarterback thrown four touchdowns with no interceptions in a single game. Smith is the only one of those eight to lose.
Two years later, the Chiefs won that playoff game, and last year Smith completed a two-point conversion that would’ve sent a division-round game into overtime but was wiped out by a questionable holding penalty — by the letter of the law, it was a hold, but it was away from the play and such plays are usually not called.
That brings us to now, the quarterback with one more chance in Kansas City to either change his team’s mind or, more likely, drive up his trade value and lengthen the list of teams interested in his services.
They can help each other then, one last time.