Chiefs plot twist: they are the NFL’s last undefeated team largely because the quarterback much of Kansas City has wanted gone is something close to perfect.
Thirteen years into an NFL career marked mostly by every bit of professional adversity imaginable Alex Smith is, finally, at his fullest. The best version of himself. He is quick, decisive, aggressive, and — so far — undefeated.
You can see it on the field. You can hear it from his teammates. You can also see it in press conferences, where he is more comfortable than ever. Everyone thought the drafting of his successor would put pressure on him, but instead it appears to have lifted every burden.
Snapshot: a reporter asks a question about Smith showing toughness, adding, “that’s something we haven’t seen a lot here in Kansas City.” It was, objectively, hilarious. Smith has always been fair game for criticism for many reasons, but toughness?
He once played through a ruptured spleen, and returned after his head hit the concrete turf in Indianapolis so hard his ear was bleeding. He lost his job because of a concussion, watched his team lose the Super Bowl by 5 yards, and then was traded to a team that went 2-14 the year before.
So, when essentially told he was not tough, Smith could have done a lot of things in that moment. Could’ve been angry, could’ve been offended, could’ve been petty. Instead, he smiled, chuckled, and sarcastically finished the reporter’s question.
“Soft,” Smith said.
He is anything but, of course, which is a big part of why the Chiefs beat Washington 29-20 at Arrowhead Stadium on “Monday Night Football.”
Washington has one of the NFL’s better defensive fronts, and on this night the Chiefs had two backup linemen, one starter playing with a bad back, and another who will likely be replaced when an injury heals.
Smith was sacked four times, and hit eight others. When he did have time to pass, it was usually from a shrinking pocket, and a blink before he was hit.
“It’s not going to be pretty against those guys,” said Mitchell Schwartz, the healthy right tackle. “You’re going to have to do it ugly.”
Smith did his part, completing 27 of 37 passes for 293 yards, a touchdown, no interceptions, and 56 yards and another touchdown on the ground. He is having a spectacular start to the season — completing 76 percent of his passes with a 124.2 passer rating. Both marks are best in the league, and Captain Checkdown is averaging 8.8 yards per attempt, better than all but two league quarterbacks.
He’s doing all of this while still protecting the football — 155 times he’s thrown, run, or been sacked, and he hasn’t turned it over yet.
But none of that is the most encouraging part.
Because three of his fairest criticisms are each being obliterated so far: he’s throwing downfield, he’s scoring points late, and now against Washington he kept his eyes downfield after breaking the pocket.
Those last two points were particularly obvious against Washington. The Chiefs scored on all four of their possessions after halftime, including a 2-minute drill that went 50 yards in 39 seconds.
The biggest play of that drive — the biggest play of the game, really — came when Washington rookie Jonathan Allen all but shoved Chiefs guard Bryan Witzmann into Smith, who drifted to his right and could’ve gained a few yards with his legs but instead saw Albert Wilson breaking down the right sideline.
Smith laughed after the game when told he has a reputation for rarely throwing after the pocket breaks, but he does, and it’s been earned. You can go through most games and find at least a few opportunities missed.
“It’s tough,” he said. “At least for me, there are a lot of times you look back on scrambles and guys are open. It’s hard to see the whole field when you’re moving fast. Game speeds up on the edge.”
Here, though, Smith made a decision that changed the game, and went a long way in keeping the Chiefs undefeated.
“The more you run it the more you get together,” Wilson said. “Just a feel thing. Just react off what the defense gives you.”
Thirty-seven yards on that play, the Chiefs’ longest completion of the game, and it eventually set up the game-winning field goal.
That’s a play Smith hasn’t made often in the past.
This is a game the Chiefs have lost in the past.
This season is different so far, largely because Smith has been different so far.