It’s tempting to tamp down anything that happens in an NFL preseason game. It’s also impossible to know how to process much of the mishmash of the Chiefs’ 41-39 victory over Cincinnati on Thursday.
But there was no rationalizing or averting the eyes from this:
They began their game at Arrowhead Stadium in what might be called playoff form, which is to say immediately conjuring cringe-inducing flashbacks of their second-half defensive meltdown against Indianapolis in January.
In the process, in the most relevant sequence of a game in which many starters were yanked by the end of the first quarter, the Chiefs reinforced the notion that their secondary may be their greatest vulnerability.
Fortunately for them and agonizingly for cornerback Ron Parker, much of that damage was in the relatively contained area swirling around him.
This was a shame for the resilient Parker, who was auditioning for a precious starting job for the first time in his four-team, four-year career but appeared to lose his grasp on it almost instantly.
Here was A.J. Green zooming by Parker for a 53-yard reception, and there was Brandon Tate beating Parker for a 9-yard touchdown pass that Tate reeled in after Parker illegally clutched him off the line of scrimmage.
So the contrast couldn’t have been any more dramatic on Sean Smith’s first play in place of Parker, whose unsightly night won’t automatically jeopardize his place on the team: He’s proved himself in select situations and established himself as a valuable special-teams player.
But he doesn’t have the same attributes as Smith, who outmuscled the Bengals’ Cobi Hamilton, plucked Jason Campbell’s pass and returned it 36 yards for a touchdown.
Hamilton slipped some on the play, Smith conceded, though adding, “I guess I wanted it more or whatnot.”
Presto, Smith has to replace Parker on the depth chart.
Never mind that Smith, who this season switched from No. 27 to No. 21 in honor of Deion Sanders, started some silly high-stepping about 5 yards too early and that poetic justice would have been served if he’d been tackled for it.
“Not worried about offensive linemen catching me at point,” he said. “It’s never too early to celebrate I feel like.”
But even if it seems this is an inevitable correction in the lineup, Smith couldn’t celebrate that after the game.
Coach Andy Reid called it a “beautiful play” but hedged on the prospect of a promotion for Smith, mechanically saying only that he’s working hard.
Now, the eye test alone could tell you the 6-foot-3 Smith is the Chiefs’ best cornerback, especially considering the skills and assets defensive coordinator Bob Sutton values most.
His experience advantage also suggests that.
So it comes to this:
Even if no one has said it this explicitly, it can’t be coincidence that Smith only forfeited the starting perch in June after being cited for driving under the influence after allegedly driving into a light pole downtown.
Reid last week said that Smith’s status was “a football thing,” but … really? Fine if the Chiefs don’t want to disclose disciplinary measures, but it defies logic to think it’s about football.
Perhaps chastened by the incident, perhaps simply secure in where this is all going, Smith has expressed healthy perspective on his place with the team since his demotion.
That was no different after the game.
Asked if he expects to be first team as of Saturday, Smith said, “I don’t even think like that … I play hard and let the rest take care of itself.”
Smith can say that with some conviction after last season.
He had his lapses but also helped the team plenty, never more than with a 100-yard interception return against Buffalo as the Bills threatened to take a 14-point lead.
That play, eclipsed in Chiefs history only by Gary Barbaro’s 102-yarder in 1977, felt like “Christmas” to Smith.
“You go out there as a little kid, and there’s like a big box right there? That’s how I felt. He threw it right to me,” he said after the Chiefs improved to 9-0. “(And) I knew once I caught it no one was catching me.”
Most likely, nobody will catch him in the lineup now.
One play in a preseason game, of course, doesn’t tell or solve all at the position … or alleviate broader concerns in the secondary.
But given the juxtaposition with Parker’s performance, it sure seemed to provide a clarifying moment in a game that otherwise was a jumble of mixed and inconclusive images.