Sam Mellinger

Chiefs’ Alex Smith can be more than a ‘game manager,’ and needs to

Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith (11) escaped the tackle attempt of Denver Broncos outside linebacker Von Miller (58) in the second quarter on Sept. 14, 2014, at Sports Authority Field at Mile High in Denver. The Chiefs lost 24-17.
Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith (11) escaped the tackle attempt of Denver Broncos outside linebacker Von Miller (58) in the second quarter on Sept. 14, 2014, at Sports Authority Field at Mile High in Denver. The Chiefs lost 24-17. The Kansas City Star

Alex Smith usually laughs when he hears it. Sometimes he feigns ignorance. Game manager? What does that even mean?

Smith knows exactly what it means, of course. He knows that it’s basically a nice way of saying he’s the kind of quarterback expected to basically stay out of the way. Don’t screw up.

The Chiefs’ quarterback knows this, even if he rejects the premise. Smith’s coach, Andy Reid, has tried to spin the label. It’s a compliment, he says, because no great quarterback has ever been unable to manage a game.

But they both know the situation here, even if they don’t like it. They both know that Smith has never quite gained acceptance as much more than a guy you can win with — but not because of.

They also have to know that, as far as these things go, Smith has an opportunity to change what’s said of him around the league.

Smith played what may have been his best game with the Chiefs on Sunday, pushing to within two yards of tying or (more likely) going for the win at Denver. He did this behind a mostly bad offensive line, and without Jamaal Charles for virtually the entire game.

The Chiefs aren’t saying anything, beyond that Charles was limited in practice on Thursday. High ankle sprains typically take at least a month to heal, but “typically” rarely applies to Charles.

At the very least, after a foot injury and now the ankle, Charles is nicked up the season after accounting for 37 percent of the Chiefs’ offense. Even if Charles is healthy, the Chiefs don’t have the kind of linemen (particularly the guards) to make the screen passes as big a part of the offense as they were last year.

You don’t hear much about that, but it’s an important change. Maybe you remember the game in Oakland last year, when Smith completed all but three of his passes for 287 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions.

His passer rating — which, yes, is an imperfect measurement — was perfect. But he wasn’t just being humble afterward, saying “I don’t feel like I did much.” Four of the touchdowns and most of the yards were to Charles, mostly on screen passes.

The Chiefs can’t play like that this year. Smith often plays through safety valves, and those are now diminished.

It’s not just Charles and the screen passes, either. Dwayne Bowe hasn’t resembled a No. 1 receiver in three years. Travis Kelce looks like a potential star, but tight end is the only spot around Smith that’s improved from a year ago.

Smith has an opportunity here. It is not an opportunity he asked for, wanted, or particularly cares about. But it is an opportunity, still.

This all comes at an interesting time for Smith. He signed a contract extension just before the season that put him in the same financial space as some of the league’s highest paid quarterbacks.

He is the highest-paid player on the team, and he’s never had this much responsibility — at least not since the 49ers buried his early years with a horrendous lack of support.

Now more than ever, when the Chiefs move the ball, it will be because of Smith. We’ve seen signs of this already, the Chiefs rising and falling with Smith’s ability to navigate the complexities of playing NFL quarterback behind an often shaky offensive line.

Smith mostly failed that test in the season opener, breaking the pocket before he had to, throwing three interceptions and missing throws he knows he needs to hit. He was much better in Denver, protecting the ball, waiting in the pocket when he had time and making plays with his legs when he didn’t.

The Chiefs got zero points on two drives that went inside the 5. In order, that is on Smith, Reid and kicker Cairo Santos. Smith knows that he has to be better there, both for himself and the team.

His team is counting on (and paying) him like never before. If Charles is out or playing hurt, the Chiefs offense is Smith’s in new and critical ways. He’s shown himself up to the challenge in flashes before. They lost the game, of course, but without Charles, Smith threw for 378 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions in scoring 44 points in the playoff loss to the Colts last year.

The Chiefs are going to need that more often this season. If Smith can do it, he’ll change the course of the Chiefs’ season — and the validity of that game manager tag he pretends doesn’t bother him.

To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365 or send email to smellinger@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter at @mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

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