How Alex Smith and the Chiefs Turned a Season Around
KANSAS CITY — Maybe it’s a coincidence, the locals say, but did you know the Chiefs haven’t lost a game since the Royals made it to the World Series? That’s one of many ways to explain the drastic turnaround of the Chiefs’ season. But the most pertinent explanation has nothing to with destiny or chance—it’s how the trust of Andy Reid enabled Alex Smith to dig the team out of its early-season hole.
To tell that story, let’s start by discussing one play. There were 36 seconds until halftime of the Chiefs’ Week 16 game against Cleveland, the ninth win of their 10-game streak to close out the season, and the one that, as improbable as it would have seemed in mid-October, earned them a bid to the postseason.
In the red zone, the Chiefs called one of their bread-and-butter plays. They were in a 3 x 1 set, with receivers Jeremy Maclin, Jason Avant and Albert Wilson bunched to the left side of the formation, and tight end Travis Kelce the lone player to the right side. Kelce was supposed to run a corner route, but as Smith was preparing to take the shotgun snap, he didn’t like what he saw. The cornerback on that side, Tramon Williams, had outside leverage, so it would be hard for Kelce to get open on a route that veered to the outside. But the free safety over the top, Donte Whitner, was cheating slightly toward the three-receiver side.
Standing over the line of scrimmage, Smith turned toward Kelce and gave him a verbal cue—“he yelled at me,” Kelce says, smirking—to convert his route to a post. Kelce took off running, planted hard with his right foot to make the cornerback think he was going outside, then angled in toward the goalpost, right into the open void in the defense that Smith had anticipated. Touchdown.
On a very micro level, this is how the Chiefs turned around their season. The team was at a crossroads, falling to 1-5 and losing its top offensive weapon, running back Jamaal Charles. So to get out of it, they tapped into one of their most valuable assets: Alex Smith’s brain, giving the veteran more freedom to change protections, runs and routes at the line. For as many great quarterbacks as Reid has coached in his West Coast system—as Brett Favre’s quarterbacks coach in Green Bay, and in Philadelphia with Donovan McNabb—none has been given as much freedom as Smith has this season.
“We didn’t do those types of checks with Brett, no,” says Doug Pederson, Favre’s backup in Green Bay and the Chiefs’ offensive coordinator. “The game’s changed a little bit since then. Defenses have changed. But it’s funny, because I think Alex has changed Andy a little bit.”
The labels that have followed Smith through his 11-year NFL career are largely dubious ones: Game manager. A guy you can “get by” with. But in Kansas City, it’s hard to imagine the Chiefs would still be playing football in January without him.
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Running off the field at Arrowhead Stadium Sunday night, a grass stain across the back of his white pants thanks to his penchant for picking up first downs with his legs, Smith paused in the tunnel for a big hug from Reid’s wife, Tammy. Then he jogged into the locker room where, at 6:30 p.m. local time in Week 17 of the NFL season, the Chiefs were still in contention to win the AFC West.
There aren’t any TVs in the home locker room. No one was watching the final minutes of the Denver-San Diego game. Smith admitted that he was checking the score on his phone, but when the Broncos closed out their win over San Diego to earn the division title and home-field advantage in the AFC, Smith didn’t show any emotion either way. The Chiefs are going to Houston as a wild-card team to play the Texans on Saturday, but what challenge in a season could be bigger than rallying out of a 1-5 hole?
Proving how difficult that is, only one other team since the AFL-NFL merger has started 1-5 or worse and qualified for the postseason: the 1970 Bengals. The Chiefs didn’t panic, but they knew they had to adjust. The plan on offense was to simplify some of the moving parts for the unit as a whole, getting rid of some formations and motions, while giving Smith new ways to get into plays that have a good chance of succeeding and out of plays that don’t. The first game when they really did that, Pederson says, was against Pittsburgh in Week 7. Not so coincidentally, that was the first win of their 10-game win streak.
“For coach, where he had come from, that was a little foreign to him,” says Smith. “And it was something I want. You see things better the older you get, and when you do see things, you want to take advantage and strike. You have to do it in practice, you have to do it in games and have that success, for him to be able to say, alright, let’s run with this.”
In many ways, Smith is the prototype of an Andy Reid quarterback. That’s why one of Reid’s first acts as Chiefs head coach, along with new GM John Dorsey, early in the 2013 offseason was to ship two second-round picks to San Francisco in exchange for Smith, a price some deemed steep at the time.
Smith thrives on the intermediate throws that Reid loves, perennially completes more than 60 percent of his passes and is notoriously careful with the football (save for the anomaly of Sunday’s win against Oakland, when he was picked off on back-to-back passes). Four Reid quarterbacks rank in the top 12 in lowest career interception rate in NFL history: McNabb (8th), Nick Foles (9th), Jeff Garcia (10th) and Smith (12th). During a span this season from late September to mid-December, Smith threw 312 passes without a pick, the second-longest streak in league annals.
Smith will never put up eye-popping quarterback stats—he ranked 20th in the NFL with 3,486 passing yards and 20 passing TDs this season—because he’s not asked to. The Chiefs are built to win with a strong run game, an opportunistic defense and a quarterback who makes good decisions. Being given more power, to make better decisions, has been a process. Or, as Smith puts it: “A battle, for three years, on some things.”
He’s grinning as he says it, because he and Reid have a strong relationship. Smith had never been with a coach and offensive coordinator in the NFL as long as he’s been with Reid and Pederson (and when three years is a long time, that speaks to the upheaval Smith has been through). Reid’s system is set up for the quarterback to have defined reads so he can move through his progression quickly, and move through plays quickly. If the first option doesn’t look good, just keep it moving to find the next open guy.
That’s in contrast to Smith’s last offense before coming to Kansas City. With former 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman, Smith would go to the line with as many as five different plays and then choose the best one based on what he saw. What’s happened this season is a blending of these two approaches. Take that Kelce touchdown play again: During the offseason, Smith and the coaches added five different adjustments Smith could make, whether with a verbal call or a hand signal, to change a receiver’s route depending on the look the defense is giving. Watching from the sideline, the coaches knew what adjustment Smith would tell Kelce to make. They knew it’d be a touchdown.
Ask any of Smith’s receivers, and they can rattle off an example from this season when his machinations have worked. Maclin caught a 32-yard pass against the Bills in Week 12, when Smith checked out of a screen pass. The Chiefs’ only touchdown in their Week 14 win against San Diego came off an adjustment, too. When the deep safety, Eric Weddle, came up on a blitz, Smith gave receiver Albert Wilson the cue to switch his route to a quick three-step slant instead of going deep. Wilson worked inside the cornerback covering him, and when the defender whiffed on the tackle, Wilson was in the clear to run the rest of the way for a 44-yard score.
“It has opened our eyes as coaches who have grown up in this system to sort of branch out and go, hey, that’s pretty sweet,” says Pederson, who was Reid’s quarterbacks coach for two seasons in Philly. “This just makes us better. This makes this play that much better. Those are things Alex has brought to us, and to be able to put that on his plate, and let him get us out of bad situations or get us into a better situation, slowly kind of crept us out of our hole at the beginning of the season.”
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One of Reid’s strengths as a coach is to see the game through the eyes of his quarterbacks, no matter what style they play—and he’s certainly coached the gamut. Favre. McNabb. Michael Vick. Foles. Smith. Etc.
“I watched Mike Holmgren do that with Favre,” says Reid, whose first NFL coaching job was on Holmgren’s Packers staff. “Everything wasn’t like exactly like it was in San Francisco. Favre was different than Joe Montana. Steve Young was different than Montana and Favre. McNabb was different than those guys. You can go so many different directions with the offense, so you just kind of fit it into the personality of that player.”
Reid had followed Smith, from his college career in Utah, where he went 24-2 under Urban Meyer in his final two seasons (including 12-0 in 2004), through his early years in the NFL with the 49ers, when Smith started four games against Reid’s Eagles. Reid always thought Smith would be a good fit for his offense, so when the Chiefs traded for him in ’13, he already had an idea of how to play to his strengths.
Such as folding in some of the spread concepts from Meyer’s Utah offense. Smith has rushed for a career-high 498 yards this season, and against the Raiders he converted a fourth-and-1 with an option run out of the pistol formation. During all those Eagles-49ers games, Reid had also observed how good Smith was making checks at the line of scrimmage. It took time to get there, but he was willing to open that up to Smith.
“I tell him, he’s got the keys to the car,” Reid says. “He’s got ways in and out of plays, really every play, and I’ve got confidence that he can do it.”
Reid’s track record with quarterbacks was a big reason why Smith wanted to come to Kansas City—and yes, Smith had input into the trade. Most of his first eight seasons in San Francisco were a blueprint on how to ruin a No. 1 overall pick. Smith played for six offensive coordinators in his first six pro seasons, never being given a chance to master a system, or have his coaches master him. The 49ers never had a winning season those first six years, and he threw more interceptions (53) than he did touchdowns (51).
“You say a lot of quarterbacks would be ruined by that. I would say most. Most are ruined,” says Rich Gannon, CBS commentator and an 18-year NFL quarterback, to whose playing style Smith’s is often likened. “He was abused and mistreated those early years in San Francisco. It ruins your confidence and that of the people around you, whether it’s teammates, the coaches or the fan base. No quarterback should go through what he went through.”
By 2011, when Harbaugh was hired by the 49ers, “let’s just say it,” says Roman, Smith’s seventh NFL offensive coordinator, “he was considered a bust.” Though the 49ers had drafted Colin Kaepernick in the second round that year, Harbaugh and Roman decided to forge ahead with Smith. Their starting point was the same place that keyed the Chiefs’ turnaround this year: Smith’s brain. They wanted Smith to think through a football game, Roman says, like Jack Nicklaus used to think his way through a golf course. Smith was given the chance to find answers to problems on the football field, and when he did that his confidence started to rebuild.
Smith led the Niners to the NFC Championship Game during the 2011 season and was off to another good start in 2012. The entire NFL world knows what happened next: Smith suffered a concussion midseason, Kaepernick performed well in his absence, and Smith never got his job back. If Smith’s early years in the pros calcified his mental fortitude, his stint as Kaepernick’s backup confirmed his solidarity.
Roman remembers meeting with the quarterbacks the Monday before their second NFC Championship Game, which Kaepernick would start this time, and was impressed by the lengths Smith went to make sure that week’s game plan would be one in which Kaepernick could succeed. A few weeks earlier, in Week 16 of the regular season, the 49ers offense had struggled in a loss amidst the deafening crowd noise of Seattle’s CenturyLink Field. For the title game against Atlanta in the Falcons’ noisy Georgia Dome, Smith advocated for a no-huddle attack that wouldn’t rely on verbal communication. “He literally was like Kaepernick’s agent,” Roman says, “to make sure I didn’t pile too much on him in the championship game.”
It worked, and Kaepernick got the 49ers to Super Bowl XLVII, where they narrowly lost to the Ravens. With Kaepernick firmly set as the starter, it wasn’t feasible to keep Smith, his $8.5 million salary prohibitive for a backup. A few weeks after the Super Bowl, Harbaugh acknowledged publicly that Smith would likely be traded.
“We used to talk all the time about how can we keep both of these guys, but I don’t think it was fair to Alex to do that,” Roman says. “And he probably didn’t look at it this way, and I understand that, but I think there was a great effort on our part—and I’ve got to credit Harbaugh with that—to try to find him the best situation, because of how thankful we were for what he did and how he did it for us. It went beyond a business decision for us. We all wanted to see him have success.”
Smith does agree with that. After the 2012 season ended, he says the 49ers kept him in the loop about which teams were interested and presented options to him. He didn’t get to pick, per se—but he says he had a lot of input. And his input on Kansas City, which had young talent and a new coach with a track record of success with all kinds of quarterbacks, was that it was a place he would like to go.
“I absolutely wanted this,” Smith says. “When it all came down, when it was all laid out, this team was for sure my choice.”
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Late Sunday night the Chiefs’ locker room had emptied after the last home game of the season, but Smith was standing in an envious position. For the second time in three years in Kansas City, there was more football to be played after Week 17. Meanwhile, a couple time zones away, the team that had shipped him here was facing more turmoil. In the past year, the 49ers have fired Harbaugh and Jim Tomsula and benched Kaepernick. In a polar opposite from the Chiefs, they have no idea who their coach or quarterback will be in 2016.
From afar, Smith has to look back and think, Boy, they’d like to have that trade back. Right?
“For me, it was so long ago,” Smith says. “You see it. I certainly have a lot of friends on that team. And you do recognize it is—even for me—crazy to watch what has happened the last couple of years. But from day one, when the trade happened, I was so happy about the opportunity to come here, and was going to go full bore with it and not think about anything else, and try to make the most of it. I think, certainly, what happened with me there makes you appreciate the opportunity. The opportunity to play and start and how it can get taken from you pretty quick. So, yeah.”
He’s asked, Do you think they consider it a mistake?
“I have no idea,” Smith says. “It’s weird. None of them are there. They are out of there as well.”
Three years later, you can do a valuation. The 49ers turned the two second-round picks they got for Smith into three players they still have, DT Tank Carradine, LB Corey Lemonier and RB Carlos Hyde, and two they don’t, LB Chris Borland (retired) and WR Stevie Johnson (cut). The Chiefs got something every franchise wants, and something they haven’t had since Trent Green: Stability at the quarterback position. Over the past five seasons (two in San Francisco, three in Kansas City), Smith trails only Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Andy Dalton in quarterback wins.
What every franchise wants even more than stability at the quarterback position, of course, is a championship. The two go hand in hand, sure, but where on the quarterback spectrum between “stable” and “Super Bowl winner” does Smith register? He’s always been a challenge to appraise. And what about that tag, “game manager?”
“That’s okay,” Pederson says. “I’d rather have somebody that way, who is not going to turn the ball over, who is going to use his legs when he needs to run, who uses his brain all the time to get us out of bad situations. And if he manages the game that way and we win, then I’ll take that.”
“Everybody is into labels these days: Is he elite? Is he a franchise quarterback? Is he a game manager?” Gannon says. “If you think about it, all the top quarterbacks are game managers. I just think he’s a very unselfish player.”
“He’s an Andy Reid quarterback,” says veteran receiver Jason Avant, who has played nine seasons under Reid, “because what makes an Andy Reid quarterback is a quarterback who is willing to spend the time like Coach Reid does. A quarterback who knows as much about what’s going on as the coach does.”
That meeting of the minds turned a season around, and now the Chiefs head into the playoffs as the hottest team in football. Game manager? Alex Smith is that, and a lot more.