A year ago, this idea would have seemed preposterous.
Not that he was bad. Alex Smith seldom was bad.
Just ordinary so often that there was a clamor for a more dynamic quarterback.
And, presto, here he is:
For the first five games of the season, anyway, Smith has been the most valuable player in the NFL … albeit with budding rookie of the year Kareem Hunt hovering nearby.
After Smith was the catalyst in a 42-34 victory over Houston on Sunday night at NRG Stadium, the Chiefs are 5-0, the only undefeated team in the league for a couple weeks now.
His raw stats are impressive enough, both against the Texans (29 of 37 for 324 yards and three touchdowns) and for the season (121 of 158, 1,391 yards and 11 TDs with no interceptions).
He leads the NFL in completion percentage (76.6 percent) and, most tellingly, yards per attempt (8.80) as he’s pulled off a start unprecedented in the history of the league.
Per ESPN Stats & Info, he’s the first to start a season 5-0 with an average of 250-plus passing yards a game at least 10 touchdown passes and no interceptions.
Kind of cool even if it’s a bit of a convoluted and contrived landmark.
But it’s the substance behind the numbers that animates his impact on the season so far.
Like being more willing — and able in ways many hadn’t realized before — to go downfield, throwing receivers open, extending plays out of the pocket and the multiple escape acts on third and long that defined his game against the Texans.
It remains to be seen to what degree this can be sustained, of course, especially as the Chiefs continue to lose roughly a player a game to injury — the latest being Chris Conley to a ruptured Achilles’ tendon that figures to end his season and Travis Kelce to a probable concussion that would seem to have him out for at least a week.
And while the Chiefs were without Kelce for the second half, it merits noting that they no doubt benefitted Sunday from the Texans losing J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus to season-ending injuries on the first drive of the game.
That said, this is less about some sort of hot streak than it is a combination of forces that have bubbled up the best in him at age 33 and established a mindset that isn’t going away — and makes you wonder how this will affect the timetable of the Patrick Mahomes succession plan.
It’s tempting to think one particular thing or another has provoked Smith’s improvement, but the ingredients are inseparable.
For instance, consider what running back Charcandrick West had to say after Smith connected with him for two touchdown passes — including an ad-libbed 8-yard throw on which Smith had roamed to his left before planting and firing the ball back to his right in the end zone.
“He’s coming in with a point to prove; I feel like he’s got a point to prove, you know?” West said. “We all know the situation here. We ain’t got to talk about that. He’s coming in, he’s making a lot of decisions hard for a lot of people.”
The reference, naturally, was to the Chiefs trading up to 10th overall in the 2017 NFL Draft to pick Smith’s successor, Mahomes, a move that some believe stoked a fire under Smith.
In fact, a back-burner subplot of this game was what it might have looked like to see Mahomes starting against Deshaun Watson, whom the Texans picked 12th overall in a selection that will be measured against that of Mahomes for years to come.
In a sense, though, the draft matchup was reflected in a game that featured Watson throwing for five touchdown passes but laboring at times.
Call it coincidence, but since the Chiefs drafted his inevitable replacement, Smith is playing much closer to the ceiling of his potential than he perhaps ever has.
But while you could make fine cases for the idea he has been pushed by Mahomes’ presence to be more aggressive, or that he has decided since the end in Kansas City is near there’s nothing to hold back, those ideas don’t tell the whole story.
For one thing, there’s something that seems insulting about suggesting Smith somehow only has picked up his game in response to a perceived threat to his job: He’s a fierce competitor who has never been complacent.
For another, that doesn’t account for Smith having the best line protection and most diverse arsenal he’s enjoyed in Kansas City, signified by the trio of Hunt (29 carries for 107 yards), Kelce (eight catches for 98 yards in the first half) and Tyreek Hill, with whom he connected on a key 38-yard pass on a third and 16.
So from where coach Andy Reid sits, he doesn’t see Smith suddenly playing with more abandon.
“I think it’s more just trust in the guys that he’s got out there,” he said. “All these kids, he kind of raised and knows about every move they’ve got. They like playing with him, and they know every move he’s going to make.
“So it’s kind of a good marriage right there.”
While Reid acknowledged Smith seems more consistently able to extend plays, he also attributed that to the chemistry among the group.
“Eyes are downfield, seeing things, kind of knows where everybody’s at and … where these guys are going,” said Reid, who also credited offensive coordinator Matt Nagy with doing a “phenomenal job putting things together that are Alex’s best stuff.”
Through some fusion of all this, Smith has been at his peak — and is creating a critical mass for a Chiefs offense that has been just as sound as ever (no turnovers since the first play from scrimmage) while adding flourishes it’s never had before with Smith at the helm.
In the process, Smith has been the MVP of the NFL for the first five games of the season.
That won’t even be so much as a trivia question if it doesn’t hold up.
But if it does, and for many reasons it’s built to be that way, he will be the key to something far more than an ordinary season for the Chiefs.
Because the Chiefs found the dynamic quarterback they needed by Smith being transformed into the best version of himself.