The most expected move in Kansas City sports this year also could be the biggest, a cataclysmic franchise shift with the Chiefs ending 40 years of dependence on someone else’s backup in long overdue favor of their own wildly talented, freakishly armed and curly haired new star.
You guys, it’s happening. It’s really happening.
On Tuesday night, the Chiefs traded veteran quarterback Alex Smith.
The Chiefs will receive a third-round pick and Kendall Fuller, one of the NFL’s best slot corners, plus clear nearly $16 million in cap space, so the implications stretch from immediately improving the roster with flexibility to do more plus the unleashing of the franchise’s most anticipated player since, um, jeez ...
We’re of course talking about Patrick Mahomes.
This move had to be made. Other than cutting Tamba Hali, which will almost certainly happen soon, trading Smith is general manager Brett Veach’s easiest decision of the offseason. The difficulty was always going to be in the details, in maximizing return, and the move happening so quickly is presumably a combination of the Chiefs being satisfied with the haul and wanting to minimize drama and put Smith in a place he can succeed.
For most of the last five years, Kansas City’s most common debates have been Smith’s ability to play quarterback and the region’s need for a new KCI. There is more than a drop of irony in his departure having so little to do with his actual play.
Smith leaves the Chiefs better than he found them. He has treated the team and the city well, took more grief than he earned, and without exception handled himself with class and a good heart. That should not be dismissed, or diminished.
But this move had to be made for boring, sound, financial reasons. The Chiefs were set to start the new league year about $8.5 million over the salary cap. Trading Smith puts them that much under the cap, so with this trade and cutting Hali and other bookkeeping moves, Veach gives himself a chance to get the roster closer to championship caliber.
The trade also had to be made for thrilling, fascinating, oh-my-gawd-did-you-see-that-Broncos-game reasons.
Mahomes is unlikely to match Smith’s 4,042 yards, 26 touchdowns and five interceptions from 2017. He is almost certainly incapable of the NFL-requisite next-level presnap reads and consistent ability to avoid interceptions — particularly when throwing over the middle — of Smith in 2018.
But — and this is said by someone who respects Smith to the moon and back — Smith will forever be incapable of the throws and moments Mahomes can make look so dang easy.
The 2018 Chiefs are better without Smith, and while much of that is in the cap space that can help fix holes on defense — edge rush and defensive line to start — much of it is also in what Mahomes makes possible.
He has played just one game, an otherwise objectively meaningless week 17 game against a Broncos team that appeared ready for the beach, but it was unforgettable.
He made at least six throws in that game that Smith is incapable of completing and too smart to attempt. He threw a dart 35 yards downfield into a window the size of a cereal box. He floated a touch pass over a blitzer into a window that had not yet opened. He dragged an unblocked blitzer around his legs long enough to complete a clothesline to a well covered receiver.
One more time: Smith took more grief here than he earned. He is a good quarterback, a critical piece in the Chiefs restoring credibility after the Pioli/Cassel wrecking ball.
But this is a true fact: six of the Chiefs’ seven losses, including the playoff collapse against the Titans, could’ve gone the other way with success on their final offensive possession.
Mahomes had one opportunity for a game winning drive, and he did it with one of the greatest throws in recent Chiefs history. Full disclosure, this one sent me out of my press box seat in completely unprofessional disbelief, but I can’t be held responsible for my actions when a quarterback in his first start drifts away from two pass rushers (including Von Miller) long enough to throw an against-his-body bullet between three defenders against the sideline on a game-winning drive.
I can’t know if the Chiefs would’ve been in position to win nine games from ahead with Mahomes instead of Smith in 2017. But I’m as sure as I can possibly be that they’d have won at least a few of those seven, too.
That might be the best way to describe what’s (finally) happening here.
Mahomes changes what the Chiefs are capable of.
He changes how they play, how they plan, how they look. He changes how we watch, how we think, what we expect.
The offensive line doesn’t need to be as good. Tyreek Hill’s speed matters more. Having the lead in the fourth quarter matters less.
The coaches become more important, Travis Kelce will have to adjust, and Chiefs fans are going to see more interceptions than they’re used to.
The expectations will be absurd. So many Chiefs fans have been waiting for someone just like Mahomes since — this is not an exaggeration — before Mahomes was born. He’s here now, ready or not, surrounded by every resource he needs to succeed for a franchise that’s been justifiably beaten up for repeated postseason letdowns.
No pressure, kid.
This is a move that had to be made, but still one that could shape Kansas City sports for a decade or more. We knew this was coming. We have no idea what will happen next, and that’s part of the point.
For the first time in what feels like forever, the Chiefs are capable of anything.