Alex Smith can thank the position he plays and the Royals’ run to last year’s World Series, because by now there is no question that his name is the easiest way to start an argument in Kansas City.
Smith is the Chiefs’ quarterback, and three years into his time here, he understands the baggage that comes with that title. He is the eighth backup from somewhere else to start for the Chiefs in the 37 years since they won a game with a quarterback they drafted. He is, depending on how you do the math, the sixth primary quarterback in the 21 years since the Chiefs won a game in the playoffs.
There are those of us who think Smith is a good quarterback. Not great, mind you, but smart and talented in ways that can be accentuated with the right pieces around him.
And there are those of you who think Smith is a noodle-armed, overly risk-averse anvil with a fittingly dull name — a dud at the most important position in American sports.
Those of us on Team Alex like to talk nuance, and bring up the fact that he was drafted by the NFL’s equivalent of the 2005 Royals, a franchise that gave him six coordinators and a botched shoulder surgery in seven years. To us, last year with the Chiefs, Smith showed only that it’s hard to play quarterback when the offensive line often resembles a grade-school game of red rover.
Those of you on the other side are beyond sick of all of that, wondering what excuses we’ll come up with now that Smith is surrounded by a dynamic set of playmakers, an improved (if still suspect) line, and (finally) the same coaches for a third straight year.
And, well … on that point we have no comeback. This is an important year for Smith, and for those of us who believe he has the goods.
If Smith does not have the best year of his career, something has gone wrong. If Smith does not have the best year of his career, and Jeremy Maclin has not suffered an injury and the offensive line is better than a year ago, then something has gone wrong with Smith.
A huge chunk of the Chiefs’ success depends on that not happening.
A huge chunk of their success depends on Smith proving he is more than a guy good enough to almost win with.
Alex Smith is about to have the best of his 10 seasons in the NFL because, finally, the context is right.
He should’ve never been the No. 1 pick in the 2005 draft. We know that now, and not just because Aaron Rodgers was the second quarterback taken. Smith wasn’t ready. Wasn’t particularly close to ready.
He wasn’t even 21 years old when the 49ers gave him the keys to their disoriented franchise. More reporters covered his first NFL practice than all but his last college game, and the experience spooked him. He admits that now. Says it took years — four, five, maybe more — to get past.
That’s on him. This is where the blame game heats up, so that’s important to say. Smith is not in a position to complain here. He is 31 years old and has been paid well over $60 million during a career that has so far included a 1-2 playoff record. The 49ers should’ve given Smith more support, but he should’ve been better, too.
There have been successes and failures, and he owns the quarterback’s responsibility for both. But he has never been in a position this teed up for success. Not even those last few seasons in San Francisco, when he came within a freak special-teams mistake of the Super Bowl one year and the next season was benched after returning from a concussion despite leading the league in completion percentage.
In Smith’s first five seasons in San Francisco, he needed a competent organization. In his last two seasons there, he needed one that believed in him.
Here, finally, he has both.
This is why some of us believe he is about to have the best season of his career.
Smith’s strengths are mostly subtle and widely misunderstood. He brings an element of certainty in a game defined by chaos. His quick feet, good instincts on when to break the pocket, and knack for avoiding the hardest collisions are particularly helpful as the Chiefs try to sort out the offensive line.
Game manager has become an overused and somewhat ambiguous term in football, but part of what makes evaluating Smith difficult is that there are not a lot of plays on either extreme. For the most part, he does not throw the boneheaded interception. For the most part, he does not create touchdowns from his own awesomeness. He is more Muzak than Metallica.
But the strengths are there, and not just in the sense that — particularly with Jamaal Charles, Travis Kelce, Jeremy Maclin and a potentially great defense — avoiding mistakes is a terrific thing.
There was a play last year in Arizona, where Smith ran away from a sack, creating extra time, and threw on the run into a window that hadn’t yet opened. The play probably should’ve been a 6-yard loss. It was a 29-yard gain. It was a terrific play, brilliantly executed, and symbolic in its subtlety.
But Smith’s biggest strength is accuracy. At the wonderful Pro Football Focus, they calculate accuracy percentage by taking away drops, spikes, and throw-aways. In their calculations, Smith was at 79.8 percent last season, behind only Drew Brees.
Now, some of that, yes, is a lack of downfield passing. No quarterback threw deep less often than Smith last year. It is an acknowledged point of improvement, both by Smith and Reid.
This is where those of us who believe in Smith are on the hook this year. Because a large part of believing in Smith means believing that his hesitancy to throw deep is at least as much about what he’s been surrounded by.
It’s not just about the offensive line — you need time to throw deep. It’s also about the receivers. Smith has not had receivers capable of getting open down the field, or receivers he fully trusts.
It’s interesting that when Jason Avant signed with the Chiefs late last season, Smith seemed to trust him immediately. Avant is a respected veteran, but he was also cut by the Panthers and turned 32 this year. Still, Smith took chances with Avant that he had not taken before.
There are reasons to believe that Maclin can have a much bigger impact. Training camp, practices, and preseason games have been full of examples of Smith focusing on Maclin. Smith seems willing to make throws to Maclin that he hasn’t made to anyone in Kansas City.
This is just practice and practice games, of course, so the consequences of failure are negligible. But common sense lines up with what we’ve seen.
Smith is conservative by nature, and he’s not all of the sudden turning into Brett Favre. But he doesn’t need to. The Chiefs don’t want that. They just need him to be willing to gamble a little more knowing he has better cards and a better understanding of what’s around him than at any point in his career.
Which is why this has to be the year.
One of the problems with the argument about Alex Smith is that, like most arguments in politics and marriage, we all tend to cherry pick points without really listening to the other side.
But one of the tenets of Team Alex is a recognition of the reality that he is the best the Chiefs can do. He is not Aaron Rodgers, but he is not Matt Cassel, either. If the Chiefs had the first pick in 2012, instead of 2013, Smith would be somewhere else and Kansas City would be obsessed with Andrew Luck.
But, like a B student who has to study a little harder on the SAT, teams without that top-tier franchise quarterback have to work a little harder on the rest of the roster. In that way, Smith is in the best position of his career.
Assuming the offensive line is improved, there is more than enough around Smith for him to shake the notion that he is holding back the bigger cause. Those of us on his side of Kansas City’s biggest sports debate are counting on that.
If it doesn’t happen this year, we’re all out of excuses.