Why was Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes able to break out in 2018?
Amaze. Inspire. Surprise. You’ll be hearing those words a lot in the coming weeks—together, they cut to the heart of why we love sports in the first place. So in the days leading up to the naming of SI’s Sportsperson we’ll be looking back and shining a light on the athletes, moments and teams (and one horse) who did one—or all—of those things in 2018. There can be only one Sportsperson. But it has been a year full of deserving candidates.
If there's any quarterback in the NFL who's been through more trials than Alex Smith, I'd like to meet him. From being drafted No. 1 overall in 2005 by the 49ers, to seeing his job snatched by a talented newcomer named Colin Kaepernick, to being traded away from Kansas City after his best statistical season, to suffering a gruesome leg injury in his first season as a starter in Washington, Smith has been through the emotional wringer, and it's no surprise his return from that leg injury at 34 is reportedly no guarantee, even if medically possible.
If Smith does decide to hang it up, the most impactful slice of his legacy may not be on the field anyway. Back in Kansas City, where the Chiefs drafted Patrick Mahomes out of Texas Tech in 2017 to compete with Smith for the starting job, a young quarterback on track to be in the NFL MVP conversation at season's end has taken every opportunity to credit Smith. Likewise, talk to anyone in Patrick's circle—from Chiefs head coach Andy Reid to Patrick's mother or father—and they will tell you Smith is a big reason the Chiefs are 10-2 at the moment, with the most prolific debut passer in NFL history.
When Mahomes was drafted, the Chiefs already employed a veteran quarterback with starting chops and playoff experience. Smith, Reid says, wasn’t a tutor for Mahomes; that wasn’t his job. But he made himself available to Patrick at all times, and kept him abreast of his schedule. “I don't even think Alex was trying to do it. Alex was being Alex, and he left the door open for Patrick to join him,” Reid says. “So he didnt make him come, but he just said, you know, I'm gonna be here at this time, whether it was lifting, eating dinner, watching tape, watching more tape, studying the pictures of the gameplan, discussing it vs. all the coverages and doing all the little drawings and doodles to figures it out on your own. He gave that freely to Patrick and, that doesn't always happen.
"Thats a big ego position. He didn't make any demands of him or treat him like a little brother, but he didn't close the door on him either. Patrick can't pay him enough for that opportunity. He's been lucky to be in a good room. That quarterback room can be a little snitty at times."
Had Mahomes not made the decision to go pro a year early, he might have been selected by some team as an immediate starter, rather than a developmental piece for Kansas City. "I think it was the best decision he made, his family made," says Texas Tech head coach Kliff Kingsbury, "because he got that year to learn from a guy who is a consumate professional, has played in different organizations, is a brilliant guy. You can't recreate that opportunity he had.
"If there's one thing that surprised him about the NFL I think it's the amount of preparation it takes and the lifestyle you have to lead to be the face of a franchise. Alex showed him that."
So as you watch the Chiefs this postseason, and marvel at the rapid rise of Patrick Mahomes and an offense busting norms and expectations on a weekly basis, be sure to pour one out for Alex Smith, The Un-Snitty.