• Alex Smith’s standout performance in the loss to the Jets has quieted calls to bring in the first-round pick. Truth is, the problems in Kansas City likely aren’t something a QB change would fix
By Tim Rohan
December 05, 2017

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — During the Chiefs-Jets game on Sunday, whenever the Chiefs had the ball, their backup offensive players would huddle on the sideline near the line of scrimmage, close to the coaching staff, presumably so they could enter the game at a moment’s notice if their number was called. It was noticeable, then, that one backup was standing away from the group, all alone, 25 yards downfield. The backup quarterback, Pat Mahomes.

Oh, how fascinating would it have been to stand next to him and hear his thoughts, as the Chiefs lost to the Jets 38-31, their sixth defeat in seven games. Mahomes has had a unique perspective on what has been a strange season. When the Chiefs started 5-0 and Alex Smith was being heralded as an MVP candidate, Mahomes was an afterthought. Kansas City had traded up and drafted him in the first round, 10th overall, this past April, but it seemed as though he’d spend his rookie year on the bench, taking mental reps. Then the losing started, and Chiefs fans started turning on Smith—and calling for Mahomes to replace him.

Before Sunday, those fans might have had an argument. In their previous five losses, the Chiefs had averaged 15.8 points per game and Smith had been largely to blame. In those five games, ESPN calculated that he had QBRs of 35.8 … 84.9 … 42 … 38.8 … 31.4. Remember, 50 is considered league average. He was a below-average QB. 

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Then on Sunday, Smith had his best game of the season. He looked sharp from the start, leading the Chiefs to touchdowns on their first two possessions, taking a quick 14-0 lead. He looked like he did earlier this season, especially when he connected on deep balls to Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill. Perhaps this had something to do with Andy Reid handing over the play-calling duties last week to Matt Nagy, the offensive coordinator. Smith finished with 366 passing yards, four touchdowns, one 70-yard and a 95.3 QBR, his best of the year. 

“I’m sick of hearing Alex Smith is the reason we aren’t winning,” said Kelce. Added Hill: “I still feel like we can get better. We could have scored every possession if we wanted.”

If only Smith were the Chiefs’ sole problem during this rough stretch. They seem to have reached a point where the losing streak is hanging over them like a black cloud, and it’s affecting their play in close games. Of their six losses, five have come by seven points or fewer. Even if the offense is humming, as it was on Sunday, they seem to find new ways to lose—through defensive lapses, coaching miscues or just losing their cool in general.

On Sunday, they had a combination of three. When the offense was going score-for-score with the Jets, the coaches decided to run a trick play—a pass to a backup lineman—on a third-and-1 that failed. Kicker Harrison Butker also missed a 38-yard field goal. And the defense allowed the Jets to compile 488 yards, convert on 13 of 20 third-downs and pick up 30 first downs overall. On the Jets’ final drive, cornerback Steven Nelson was called for two holding penalties—one that set up the go-ahead touchdown, and another that allowed the Jets to retry a two-point conversation attempt, which they made. After that second penalty, Marcus Peters picked up the flag and threw it into the stands. It immediately turned into a viral video, and one that could sum up these last two months for the whole Chiefs team.

It also made for a weird atmosphere in the locker room afterward. While the offensive players were praising Smith, some of the defensive players were avoiding comment. Peters dressed, cleaned out his locker, and left before the locker room was opened to the media. Then a team spokesman told media members that Nelson wasn’t available for comment and that he would answer questions come Tuesday. “[We’re going to] give him today off,” the spokesman said.

“Nobody’s pointing fingers at each other,” Reid said at his press conference.

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Some players didn’t know how to feel, considering they were still 6-6 and would end the day in a three-way tie with the Raiders and Chargers atop the AFC West. They still had a relatively easy remaining schedule and a clear path to make the playoffs. “You have to find the right balance of being frustrated and determined,” says Mitchell Schwartz, the right tackle. “Taking a step back and realizing: It could be a lot worse. San Diego and L.A. could both be 10-2 right now. So we need to understand, there’s so many positives still out there for us. We’re lucky to be going through this [losing streak] and still have [the division] in front of us.”

As of now, it seems unlikely the Chiefs would pivot to Mahomes, especially after how Smith played Sunday. But if the season continues going sideways, who knows what might happen in the last four weeks? “[The fans calling for Mahomes] doesn’t change the way he prepares,” said Tyler Bray, the third-string quarterback. “He’s still going to work his ass off every week. He’s going to come in and do the same thing regardless of what’s going on.” Bray was asked, Does Mahomes hear the fans’ calls? “Are you fishing for something?” he responded.

The Chiefs are trying to quiet the outside noise, in time to make a playoff push. To do that, they may need Mahomes to stay out of sight and mind. When a reporter approached him in the locker room on Sunday, he declined to give an interview. “I don’t know if I’m allowed to talk today,” he said. Then he made a beeline out of the room, toward the team bus.

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