A year ago, a cursed Chiefs team couldn’t so much as finagle a lead for a microsecond during a game until the ninth time they played (though once in that span they beat New Orleans on an overtime field goal).
The charmed and charming 2013 version of the team, which seized a 7-0 lead Sunday on a quirky touchdown its coach didn’t even see, had enjoyed almost the opposite circumstances.
Through a 4-0 start, they had lagged behind for a total of 15 minutes, 5 seconds and never trailed in the fourth quarter until Sunday at Tennessee, where they trailed 17-13 after bungling a 13-0 lead and appeared in distress.
The offense, after all, had yet to produce a touchdown, and quarterback Alex Smith had looked uncomfortable much of the day.
Smith had completed just two of his first nine passes, seemed repeatedly to hold the ball too long and had been intercepted on a badly overthrown toss that set up the Titans’ go-ahead touchdown.
But as the Chiefs took over with 11:28 left, coach Andy Reid said, “the eyes that I’m looking into are positive eyes. That was my picture. That’s what I’m looking at.”
No one’s eyes were more alive, or more significant, than Smith’s.
And sometimes those intangibles matter as much or more than the tangibles or the spectacular moments.
“They look at him every snap, right? That’s their leader out there,” Reid said. “So if you’re wavering at all, or you don’t have the right look in your eye, these guys sense that. And they can tell. So how you present yourself is huge.”
So receiver Dexter McCluster peered into that window to Smith’s soul, and he saw this: “He knew we were going to go down there and score. He was pumped up, and to see a quarterback like that, it makes you want to rally for him.”
Tight end Sean McGrath saw “that look in his eye,” too, and he felt it surge through him.
“It's not so much what he says, it's the way he carries himself, the way he emits what it is to be a leader,” McGrath said. “We just go in there, fully confident in him, knowing that he's going to lead us to the promised land.”
Call it coincidence, but two plays later Smith rolled to his left and hit Dwayne Bowe for 17 yards.
Three plays after that, he scrambled around right end and on his way out of bounds absorbed a 15-yard unnecessary roughness penalty.
“He didn’t blink,” McGrath said. “The guy’s a beast, man. He’s shown it over and over again (that) he can tuck the ball and get it done with his legs.”
Three Smith passes and a Jamaal Charles run later, it was first and goal at the 1-yard line, from where Charles plowed in to put the exclamation point on a 10-play, 66-yard drive that consumed 5:05 and proved the game-winning score in a 26-17 victory.
That was the only touchdown the Chiefs would manage other than the ol’ knuckling-punt-off-a-stray-man-on-the-return-team-bouncing-22-yards-into-the end-zone-to-be-recovered-for-a-Chiefs-TD trick.
Obviously, the game, in occasionally rainy conditions, didn’t represent Smith at his best. He completed 20 of 39 passes for 245 yards, 110 of which came on passes of 44 and 41 yards to Donnie Avery and 25 to McGrath.
And, really, even some of his completions weren’t exactly on-target, something Smith knew. He smiled and nodded when asked about not seeming sharp.
“They were mixing (looks),” Smith said. “It’s tough. They’re good up front and they’re pressing outside and trying to disrupt your timing. It’s hard to get the ball out on time, and it’s such a fine line there playing that type of defense. It’s such a fine line between big plays on offense (and struggling).”
From Reid’s perch, the struggles were less about Smith’s inaccuracy than adjusting pass patterns for primarily man-to-man coverage from the Titans’ stout defense.
“When you’re playing man coverage, there’s going to be some that don’t look as pretty,” Reid said. “You’ve got to keep firing, and he knows that. He’s a veteran player. You’ve got to keep firing, you don’t get down on yourself and then you’re going to hit a big one. That’s just how it is. That’s how it rolls with man coverage.”
Whatever the case had been, it came down to this:
When Smith needed to come through, he expected to. And he did.
“You get into those situations enough as a quarterback, and I feel like I’ve played in a lot of tight games over the years,” said Smith, the ninth-year man acquired from San Francisco in the offseason. “With 8 minutes, 10 minutes left in the fourth, you don’t press. You just go out there and do your job.
“You kind of focus in that much more and bring the guys in that much more. You know you’re only one play away. Really, that was my mindset.”
And it was the mindset of the team around him which now has all the more reason to believe in him next time it faces this situation.
“He’s a leader,” Charles said. “He pumped the whole offense up, saying, ‘Let’s go. Let’s move the ball. We’ve got to get this done.’ The defense was doing their part, and he stepped up as the leader.”
In what Reid called, simply, “a resilient win,” perhaps Smith embodied that as much as any Chief. The eyes, it turned out, had it.