He danced awkwardly as he ran down the field, and no one could believe what they just saw. Hell yes, Alex Smith was celebrating, because he’d just unloaded a gorgeous, 75-yard touchdown pass against the reigning Super Bowl champions, and stuff like this does not happen often to the New England Patriots at home, nor to him.
In 13 years in the NFL, Smith has rarely showed emotion. He’s as conservative as a minister’s wardrobe. But it was opening night, the Kansas City Chiefs were picking apart the Patriots and Smith was on a roll so impressive that for a moment it conjured up dreams of him becoming the first Kansas City quarterback in more than four decades to lead his team to a championship.
“I love it,” Daniel says. “I think he’s gotten to the point where he’s just so — not fed up, but just doesn’t even listen to outside influences anymore. I’m not saying he used to, but it just seems like this year, he’s really focused on one play at a time and just letting the ball go and slinging it.”
The moment lasted five weeks.
The city is angry as the sun comes up on a wonderfully warm November Monday, and a Kansas City radio host has decided to do something different. Sports Radio 810 WHB normally doesn’t take calls in the early morning, but the station opened up the phone lines so that Chiefs fans could vent about an inexplicable overtime loss to the dysfunctional New York Giants the previous day, Kansas City’s fourth loss in five games. Pretty much everyone who called in, except for a jokester who pretended to be Smith’s dad, was in agreement: Smith needs to be benched, and rookie Patrick Mahomes II is the only one who can save the season.
In times like these, it’s probably best that Smith listens only to NPR on his way to work and has no social media accounts, because the tide has been against him since April, when the Chiefs moved up in the draft to select Mahomes with the 10th overall pick. By summertime, Mahomes — not Smith– had become the spokesperson for a local ticket broker. The rookie’s commercials run at least three times a day on the radio station, even though he has yet to play a regular-season down in 2017.
“The Mahomes jerseys were sold out everywhere,” longtime WHB host Kevin Kietzman says of the city’s offseason infatuation. “I couldn’t get one phone call on the show where anybody said, ‘Calm down, Mahomes needs some time, Alex is going to be OK for a year or two and then we’ll go to Mahomes.’ Not one person. They were completely and utterly excited and freaked out on draft night. And he needed to play right now.”
It did not matter that Smith led the Chiefs, a 2-14 team when he arrived in 2013, to three playoff appearances in four seasons. His detractors say he is a game manager who doesn’t have what it takes to lead a team to the Super Bowl.
But for five glorious weeks in early autumn, everything changed. Steady-and-safe Alex had suddenly been transformed into a badass, launching deep passes and playing with abandon. He handed Philadelphia its only loss of the season so far, beat Washington on Monday Night Football and led the Chiefs to a 5-0 start. He was being touted as an MVP candidate.
Now the Chiefs have lost 5 of 6, their seemingly impenetrable lead in the AFC West has been winnowed to one game and the calls for coach Andy Reid to give Mahomes a shot are getting louder. Smith has been through this before. In San Francisco, he led the NFL in completion percentage and had won 19 of 25 games before he suffered a concussion and was replaced by Colin Kaepernick midway through the 2012 season; two years ago, in the midst of an 11-5 campaign, Chiefs fans called for Smith to be benched to make way for Daniel.
Even before the slide, Smith was realistic about the future in an interview with ESPN in October. He knows that when a front office trades up 17 spots in the draft to take a quarterback at the 10th overall pick, it usually means that quarterback is going to play sometime soon. Smith is 33 years old and is owed $17 million next season, the final year of his contract.
He says he has approached the 2017 season as if it could be his last in Kansas City. But he always thinks that way, because he knows how this story can go.
“I don’t care how many years are on your contract,” Smith says. “If you can’t prove it, and you can’t go out and hold up your end of the bargain, you’re not going to be there. You know what I’m saying? I think that’s the name of the game for any veteran player, especially a veteran quarterback, regardless of us drafting a guy or not. If you don’t go out there and play winning football, they’re going to try and find somebody who can.
“I’m not planning on that. I mean, I hope — Pat’s a hell of a player, but I hope to make him sit for a while.”
Steve Young believes QB Alex Smith has the ability to push the ball downfield, but the Chiefs coaching staff needs to force it upon him with aggressive play-calling.
The Kansas City media swarmed Smith’s locker just after noon on Wednesday, armed with questions he couldn’t answer. No, Smith said, he is not injured, as some have speculated, even though he took a brutal hit on Sunday while desperately leaping for a first down that didn’t come. But something is clearly wrong. Two months ago, Smith was confident, seemingly buoyed with an attitude that comes when you’re 33 and all you can do is just play, until they decide it’s time for a kid to replace you.
Sunday’s home loss to Buffalo, in the eyes of his critics, was classic old Alex. He dinked and dunked and didn’t see open receivers downfield. He seemed skittish.
The Chiefs averaged 32.8 points a game heading into the sixth week of the season; they’ve managed just one touchdown in their past nine quarters.
“This isn’t an Alex Smith thing,” Reid says, reiterating that Smith is their guy. “It’s all of us. And I think — I know — our players understand that. So we’re all going to do better and raise our game.”
The slide started Oct. 15 against Pittsburgh. Using mostly zone coverage, the Steelers sacked Smith three times and delivered 10 hits on him. They stifled rookie running back Kareem Hunt, who up to that point had run for 100 yards in four of his first five games. Since then, teams have bottled up Hunt and forced Smith to make big plays. He hasn’t.
On Wednesday, Smith said he’s trying to pay more attention to details. He is working on his footwork and keeping his eyes downfield. Noticeably absent from the locker room was Mahomes. He is almost always there, two stalls down from Smith, chatting it up with his teammates and soaking in the atmosphere.
In the quarterbacks’ minds, there hasn’t been any controversy. Smith knew the Chiefs were probably going to draft a quarterback in 2017. But he did not expect them to trade up for the No. 10 overall pick. Reid would later say that it’s hard for a good team to draft a quarterback for the future, and that the opportunity was there and they pounced. The pick came late on the Thursday night of the draft, so Chiefs offensive coordinator Matt Nagy called Smith the next morning to talk about it.
“He’s a complete professional,” Nagy says. “He was fine. We told him, ‘All right, listen, this is what we have to do on the business side and for the organization. But you’re our guy and we’re rolling with you.’ And it’s been awesome.
“He has a realistic approach. Nothing’s sugarcoated. He’s real. He’s very authentic.”
Later that day, Mahomes was visiting the Chiefs’ facility when he got a phone call. It was Smith. He told the rookie that he’d help him in any way possible, and that he’d help teach him as they went through the season. Mahomes had heard good things about Smith — former 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh once said that Smith was a better coach to Kaepernick than he was — but the call still surprised him a bit. It made him feel comfortable. “He’s helping me out every single day, every single rep,” Mahomes says. “It is an awesome experience, something that will help me get better in the long term.”
For most of Smith’s career, observers have focused on what he’s not instead of what he is. He is not a gunslinger, not a charismatic spokesperson and not a social guy who takes his linemen out for beers. Perhaps he’s critiqued most harshly because he’s not Aaron Rodgers, the future Hall of Fame quarterback who was drafted No. 24 in the 2005 draft, 23 spots behind Smith.
“Is there something wrong with him?” was a question Reid and then-Kansas City general manager John Dorsey asked Scot McCloughan as they were researching Smith to possibly become their starting quarterback almost five years ago. That’s the question everyone asked after Smith played well in 2012 and was still ultimately benched for Kaepernick.
“Absolutely not,” McCloughan told them. “People think he’s a softer guy. He’s very articulate, he’s very smart, but he’s a tough guy. There ain’t no doubt about it.”
In the spring of 2005, McCloughan and the 49ers’ staff traveled to Utah to check out Smith. He was 20 years old. His teammates at Utah liked to call him Doogie Howser because he took so many advanced-prep courses in high school that he got his college degree in two years.
Most pro days are scripted and end with gushing reports of the college quarterback hitting 68 of his 70 throws. But Mike McCarthy, the 49ers’ offensive coordinator at the time, liked to mix things up. He had Smith do at least 10 different drills, many of them having little to do with throwing. McCarthy, now Green Bay’s head coach, had Smith run in circles and repeatedly move the ball between his legs. McCarthy wanted to take him off his game, to see how he responded.
It rattled Smith. He thought he was going to throw footballs and impress them with his knowledge. He apologized to McCloughan, to McCarthy and to everyone. “I’m so sorry I wasted your time,” Smith told them. “I promise you I’m better than that.”
McCloughan had never seen anything like it. “Right there, he got me. He had me right there.”
It seems weird, calling a No. 1 overall draft pick underappreciated. But before and after 2005, that’s pretty much the way Smith’s life went. He went to the same high school as Reggie Bush, so, naturally, Helix High was a run-first team. Smith was gangly and generally awkward in his younger days. His uncle, John L. Smith, says Alex got picked on because of his big feet and lack of coordination.
“We kept thinking, ‘He’s the biggest, clumsiest kid of all of the family,'” says John L., a longtime college football coach who’s now at Kentucky State. “I mean, this kid’s got no athleticism. His feet were so big he couldn’t run, he couldn’t keep up with them. Then, all of a sudden years later, he grew into those feet.”
Alex Smith received offers from just two teams — Utah and Louisville, where his uncle was head coach at the time.
He picked Utah and went 21-1 running Urban Meyer’s high-octane spread offense. But nothing has run smoothly since. The 49ers, like most teams that possess the No. 1 draft pick, were miserably bad in 2005. He’d endure seven offensive coordinators in the span of seven seasons. Several people interviewed for this story called Smith a pleaser who’d try to perform every coach’s direction to a tee. But football and life don’t always go according to script. And successful quarterbacks have to improvise.
Smith was booed in his own stadium, and critics suggested he retire even though he was just in his mid-20s.
“I carried around a lot of weight and anxiety,” Smith says, “expectations of being a top draft pick and fulfilling those. It was really burdensome and not fun. Stressful. I had to go through some things before I finally turned that around and got back to playing for the right reasons.”
Stability finally came in 2011, when Stanford coach Jim Harbaugh arrived. Harbaugh, who declined to be interviewed for this story, once told The Mercury News that he spent many hours watching film of Smith and visualizing what would make Smith successful. He said he came to the realization that Smith was “really good” and that he needed to be put in a better position with play-action passing and using his legs more.
Smith’s improvements were obvious in 2011, and he led the 49ers to a 13-3 record and the NFC Championship Game. But even that didn’t necessarily convince Harbaugh that Smith was his guy. Months later, when Peyton Manning was on the market, Harbaugh pursued him.
The same question dogged him back then: Was Alex Smith a quarterback who could take them to the Super Bowl?
Kaepernick initially filled in for Smith in 2012 when Smith suffered a concussion. Reggie Davis, the 49ers’ tight ends coach at the time, says the offensive coaches went from being concerned over whether Kaepernick could handle to the job to being so in awe of him that they weren’t sure what to do when Smith was ready to come back. They had a meeting, Davis says, and Harbaugh polled each coach for input on what they should do: go back to the safety of Smith or ride the arm of Kaepernick?
Davis says the room was split. As a young coach, he didn’t feel right picking one or the other; in his mind, it was too close of a call.
“I mean, we did go 13-3 the year before,” Davis says. “He was very productive up to that point, [but] seeing the things Kaep brought to the table, that rocket arm, that athleticism …”
They are seemingly opposites. Mahomes is a gunslinger. He can make you pull your hair out and jump for joy in the span of a few seconds. He has a cannon of an arm that can sling the ball 80 yards. On a dare once, he tossed a ball 65 yards from his knees. He oozes swagger, and scouting reports make him sound like the most exciting player in the 2017 draft, like he has the potential to make any throw, to be anything.
He is polished for a 22 year-old, a real professional, because he spent most of his childhood on baseball fields tagging along with his father. Pat Mahomes Sr. was a pitcher in the major leagues for 11 season. Young Patrick could’ve taken that same path, because he can throw a baseball 95 mph, and he was drafted by the Detroit Tigers in the 37th round back in 2014.
But Patrick loved football, loved airing it out, and Texas Tech was the perfect place to go to college. Near the end of his freshman season, he threw for 598 yards in a game against Baylor.
By the time 2016 was finished, he had racked up 5,052 yards in one season, and scouts were salivating. He was considered somewhat of a project, but that didn’t matter to Chiefs fans. They were star-struck. Watching him light up the Tennessee Titans in the NFL preseason finale made them yearn for Mahomes even more. But for most of September, the infatuation with Mahomes subsided. Smith was in a groove.
Two months later, the Chiefs keep losing, and the Mahomes hype has intensified. One man from Hiawatha, Kansas, started a petition this past week on change.org calling for Smith to be benched and Mahomes to start. The petition has just 282 signatures so far.
Mahomes, for his part, seems to shrug off the outside talk. Smith is the starter, and he’s comfortable with that. He knows he’s learning so much from the veteran.
When interviewed in October during the win streak, Mahomes said he’d be ready if he’s ever needed.
“Definitely,” he said. “But as of right now, I’m just here trying to grind out days, doing whatever I can to get better every single day and being the best teammate in the process.”
To get an idea of how long it had been since Kansas City drafted a quarterback in the first round before Mahomes, consider this: Former Chiefs great Len Dawson, who was captured in an iconic photo smoking a cigarette and having a Fresca during halftime of Super Bowl I, was still a relatively young man. It was 1983, before Mahomes and Smith were born.
That draft class was loaded, with John Elway, Jim Kelly and Dan Marino. The Chiefs were sitting pretty with the No. 7 pick. They selected … Todd Blackledge. For the next three decades, Kansas Citians watched their franchise avoid picking quarterbacks in the first round.
People close to Smith get frustrated when it’s suggested that his early-season surge was because of any pressure he was feeling from Mahomes. But Smith acknowledges that it was probably in his subconscious.
“It definitely affects me from a pure competition standpoint,” Smith says, “because I think we have a lot of talent in the quarterback room. When those guys make plays, it sure pushes you to make plays. But it’s not anything I’ve consciously talked about or decided, ‘I’m going to take more shots.'”
He never once thought about not helping Mahomes, even though Mahomes will eventually take his job. Smith has no regrets with the way he helped Kaepernick and how all of that went down. Smith believes in good karma — that if you treat people the right way, things will eventually work out.
Six of his backups were interviewed for this story and they all consider him a friend. Brian Johnson, one of Smith’s backups at Utah, vacationed with Smith in Hawaii this past year; Daniel still talks to him regularly and is one of his biggest defenders.
Smith, Mahomes and No. 3 quarterback Tyler Bray go out to dinner together every week, and Smith’s favorite place is Q39, the hottest new barbecue place in town. The guys sit on one end of the table and their wives talk on the other end.
The best piece of advice Smith has given to Mahomes is also applicable to himself: Do what the coaches say, but at the same time, just play football.
That’s exactly what Smith did on Oct. 2 in a Monday Night Football game against Washington. The game was tied 20-20, the clock was running out and Smith was flushed out of the pocket. He scrambled toward the sideline and threw a 37-yard strike to Wilson, who was knocked out of bounds to stop the clock and set up the game-winning field goal attempt.
“Heck of a play,” Mahomes told Smith when he found him on the field after the game.
“Yeah, that was awesome.”
Smith exited through the tunnel, past a bar full of fans on the way to the locker room. He passed a man wearing a Mahomes jersey. “MVP!” the guy shouted to Smith. The quarterback just kept walking, knowing that in the NFL, and especially in Kansas City, things can turn quickly.