Even wielding gaudy MVP-worthy numbers along the way to stoking the Chiefs to a 5-0 start, quarterback Alex Smith typically had offered merely a wry smile when asked how much he was enjoying his breakthrough first few weeks and, in fact, revived reputation. Because at 33, he understands how fickle fortune can be — especially in the ever-churning NFL.
From literally the first seconds he was made the overall top pick in the 2005 NFL Draft by the dysfunctional San Francisco 49ers, Smith was cast into a volatile situation that came to inform his thinking.
The would-be savior had trouble getting traction for an organization in flux, an organization that cut him loose just as he was maturing.
So he knows how quickly circumstances can change, including the whims of fans.
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And, indeed, a snippet of them by the end of the abominable Chiefs’ first half on Sunday against Pittsburgh were calling the previous five games irrelevant and hollering for Smith to be yanked for rookie Patrick Mahomes — he of the shimmering future and not one NFL snap.
The notion was rash and extreme, of course.
But it’s also true that Smith looked far more like previous versions of himself than the superior model that had emerged this season, and it opens up to speculation whether he was on his way to regressing toward the mean the rest of the way.
Here’s the thing, though: Smith is the same guy he was a week ago.
And the point here isn’t merely some sentimental “stand by your man.”
Kansas City Star Chiefs beat reporter Terez Paylor breaks down the KC Chiefs at Oakland Raiders game (7:25 Thursday night on NFL Network and KCTV Channel 5) with four keys to a Chiefs win and his prediction. Terez A. Paylor and David EulittThe Kansas City Star
It’s that one blip doesn’t change the truth about the difference in Smith this season, which has been marked by a certain abandon and aggressiveness that he’s seldom consistently flashed before.
He didn’t play well against Pittsburgh, at all, but the game illuminated something more than that Smith is human.
It was a stark reminder that his play is directly linked to his supporting cast.
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If Kareem Hunt can’t shake loose (nine carries for 21 yards), and if the injury-torn offensive line can’t protect adequately and if the injury-depleted wide receiving corps on the last series of the game is De’Anthony Thomas, Demarcus Robinson and Marcus Kemp …
It’s an entirely more uphill task to lead, make instantaneous decisions, synchronize and trust what’s around him – all essential elements to making the offense go.
There is some chicken and egg in all this, too.
Smith took at least one sack he shouldn’t have, a few times threw to covered targets downfield as others broke open, and simply overthrew several times.
But … why?
At least one of those throws was under instant pressure with no chance to get his feet set, and his misfire to Robinson on the last drive of the game was so off-target that it leaves room to wonder how much was aim and how much was miscommunication on the cut.
Smith is the pitcher of record, though, and ultimately responsible for his own play. And whatever factors went into it, including dropped passes by Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill, this still was a clunker on his ledger.
But that’s also less important than what’s ahead, especially in a short turnaround week as the Chiefs seek to extend their AFC West winning streak to 13 on Thursday at Oakland.
And with some substantial caveats, Smith still is very much on trajectory to the season of his life … with this a reasonable time to expect a reset.
If the Steelers recently have been kryptonite to the Chiefs, 3-0 against them the last two years while the Chiefs are 17-3 against everyone else, the Raiders have been an elixir — both for Kansas City and Smith.
Against Oakland, Smith is 9-1 as a starter (7-1 as a Chief) with 166 completions in 263 attempts (63.1 percent) and 2,113 yards with 19 touchdowns and four interceptions.
Even accounting for the loss to Pittsburgh, in which Smith completed just 19 of 34 passes, those numbers don’t stand out as much as what he’s done this season: 140-192, 72.9 percent, 1,637 yards with 12 TD passes and zero interceptions.
The Chiefs may not beat the Raiders, who were 12-4 a year ago but off to a 2-4 start this season and figure to bring a little edge and desperation to the game.
But logistics notwithstanding, it’s a good week to move on for the Chiefs and Smith.
“You just have to go. The next one is more important,” Smith said. “You can’t change yesterday.”
Which is no different, really, than the way Smith saw it last week, knowing you’re always only as good as your next game … not to mention those around you.