ST. JOSEPH, Mo. — When the Chiefs broke training camp at Missouri Western, general manager John Dorsey was preparing to make the hour-long drive back to Kansas City with a warm and fuzzy feeling about his quarterback.
“This is the best camp I have seen Alex have,” Dorsey said. “He has gone downfield with accuracy; he’s made the right reads. There is just an ease about him.”
Training camp is the time for unbridled optimism around the NFL. But watch a practice or a preseason game, and it’s hard not to notice Alex Smith’s sharpness in his fourth season working with Andy Reid and his West Coast offense. Take the 37-yard throw he lofted down the sideline to Chris Conley in last Saturday night’s preseason game, placed out in front of the speedster so he could get to it before the safety came across the top. A few plays after that, Smith hit Jeremy Maclin with a 20-yard strike for a touchdown when his top receiver broke free off a double-move.
Smith has never been known for his big arm, but he’s coming off a season in which the offense was opened up to him more than ever before—a trend that will continuing in 2016. Last year, after the Chiefs fell to 1-5 and lost top offensive weapon Jamaal Charles to an ACL tear, they rattled off 11 straight wins, in large part by handing the keys to the offense over to Smith.
“It is really a compliment to Jamaal when I say: I feel like we got more complex when he was out,” Smith says. “Because Jamaal is such a freak player, he gets you out of stuff. When you run into bad looks, it doesn’t matter, because Jamaal will sometimes break those into his longest runs. I felt like we grew not being able to always lean on him.”
Smith’s performance last season raised expectations for the Chiefs’ offense in 2016, but Smith, a 12-year veteran, understands the importance of not trying to do too much. For example, he’s working on what he calls eye discipline—trying to rein in how much he uses his eyes to move and fool the defense.
“As an older guy, sometimes I get carried away with doing too much with my eyes,” Smith says. “I have overdone it certainly at times here and there. Talking with Coach Reid and [co-offensive coordinator Matt Nagy], let’s be more eye-disciplined, don’t give the opponent too much credit; trying to simplify what I am looking at, and my reads.”
This is what Reid is talking about when he describes Smith’s “full command.” It’s a comfort level at the position that exceeds what both Smith and the Chiefs have felt in a long time—and it has a team that came within one game of winning the AFC West last season feeling optimistic.
Five Things I Thought About the Chiefs
1. Uncertainty persists about Justin Houston’s availability this season. The outside linebacker had surgery in February to fix an ACL that doctors said was not functioning correctly, and the recovery window was set at six to 12 months—which ranges from playing most of the season to playing none of it. “With Justin, he makes you feel like he’s going to play this year,” Reid says. “So we are all optimistic. But in reality, we all just have to see.” GM John Dorsey said in the spring that Houston will play at some point this season, and says he’s not backing off that assertion—at least he’s not yet.
2. Perhaps the biggest question the Chiefs face right now is how they’ll generate a pass rush. In addition to Houston, who is one of the league’s best young edge rushers, veteran Tamba Hali has been sitting out after having an offseason procedure on one of his troublesome knees. With no certainty how much production they can get from either of those two players, the Chiefs will have to look to other places. Dee Ford, a 2014 first-rounder, will have to take the next step in his transition from a college 4-3 defensive end with great burst to a complete 3-4 outside linebacker. Inside linebacker Derrick Johnson also mentioned blitzing more, something defensive coordinator Bob Sutton, who runs an attacking scheme out of multiple looks, will not be afraid to do. But as Johnson said bluntly, the Chiefs can’t be a good defense without a good pass rush.
3. The Chiefs are quietly confident that safety Eric Berry will be in uniform by the time they open their season Sept. 11 against the Chargers. One of the offseason surprises was that the team and Berry, who was the league’s comeback player of the year in 2015 after a battle with cancer, couldn’t reach a long-term deal before the July 15 deadline for franchise-tagged players. Berry has not yet signed his tag nor reported to camp, but the Chiefs are saying all the right things as they await his return. “I’d love for him to be here now,” Dorsey says. “You just be honest. The two sides couldn’t make a deal, and I feel at the appropriate time he’ll be back.” Dorsey didn’t expand on what the “appropriate time” is, but Johnson is confident his teammate won’t miss any games. “He’ll be back. He loves football,” Johnson says. “We know there’s a business side, and we respect what he has to do off the field. But he’s a ballplayer, and when he gets back, he will fit right in.”
4. The work the young Chiefs offensive line still has to do was on display against an excellent Rams front in Saturday night’s preseason game. Left guard Parker Ehringer, a rookie, gave up a few pressures and a sack of Smith in the game. Right tackle Eric Fisher was also beaten for a hit on Smith.
5. In the middle of a conversation with Dorsey, he shared a great story about Bob Sutton. The 65-year-old former Army head coach is known for sharing inspirational sayings with other members of the organization, and sometimes leaving post-it notes on the desks of his fellow coaches. So during last season, he walked up to Dorsey and asked him, “Do you know what the most powerful weapon in the world is?” He waited until Dorsey gave him an answer. Then he looked right at Dorsey, and shook his head no. “When your soul is on fire,” Sutton told him.
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