Before the 2005 NFL Draft, Scot McCloughan called Urban Meyer, then the head coach at Utah. McCloughan ran personnel for the San Francisco 49ers, who held the first overall pick. He wanted to know about Alex Smith, Meyer’s quarterback, and Meyer told him a story.
During offseason team workouts, Meyer arranged wrestling matches, in which any player could challenge another. When he first arrived at Utah and Smith was a sophomore, Meyer goaded offensive linemen into wrestling Smith, in the hopes of making Smith quit.
“I tried to run him off,” McCloughan recalled Meyer telling him. “I wanted these O-linemen to whoop him. And they did, but he wouldn’t quit. He said, ‘I’m not going anywhere. I’m here.’”
He is still here. Doubt and rejection have defined Smith’s career. He entered the NFL as a first overall pick in a doomed circumstance. He piloted a Super Bowl run, only to be benched on the way there, for reasons beyond his control. This offseason, the Kansas City Chiefs traded up to draft his replacement. Somehow, there he’ll be, taking the field Sunday night against the Houston Texans, the spectacular Chiefs offense huddling around him.
At 33, Smith helms the league’s only remaining undefeated team. He torched the New England Patriots for 368 yards and four touchdowns in Week 1. His 124.6 rating leads the league and would break Aaron Rodgers’s record, set in 2011, over a full season. He is completing 76 percent of his passes while gaining 8.8 yards per attempt, and he has thrown eight touchdowns against zero interceptions.
Cast as a bust, derided as a game manager and questioned as the leader of a Super Bowl contender, Smith this season has performed better than any other NFL quarterback.
Questions remain about Smith’s ability to win in the playoffs after last season’s flameout, a home loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in which the Chiefs failed to score a touchdown. He likely will never live down comparisons to Rodgers, whom the 49ers and McCloughan passed over to take him.
At the moment, though, Smith occupies the top rung of NFL quarterbacks. He built his path there with steadfastness. He believed his skills would translate once he found stability and a coach willing to exploit them. And now it’s happened.
“He comes across intelligent, articulate, all that,” McCloughan said. “But he has some pitbull in him, too, now. There’s no doubt about it.”
Smith has landed in a perfect place, as the triggerman of Coach Andy Reid’s explosive, science experiment of an offense. To make it there, he had to start in a horrible place. When the 49ers drafted him, he was only 20 years old. He was among the first wave of spread quarterbacks — he didn’t huddle and rarely lined up under center at Utah. The 49ers planned for him to sit an entire year, and the take the reins after he learned the speed and subtleties of the pro game.
Smith became the starter midway through the season. Injuries and ineffectiveness sidelined Tim Rattay and Ken Dorsey. San Francisco’s horrendous offensive never gave Smith a chance, and he was too green for it to matter even it did. The 49ers went 2-5 in Smith’s seven starts as he threw 11 interceptions and one touchdown.
“I used to get so angry when I heard people rip him apart,” Meyer said. “Like it’s the quarterback’s fault. When he was a young player, he was stuck on a really poor team.”
The offseason presented the start of a trend. Offensive coordinator Mike McCarthy left to coach the Green Bay Packers. The 49ers would lose or fire offensive coordinators after the first five seasons of Smith’s career. Rather than develop, he struggled to learn new systems.
In his third season, 2007, Smith separated his shoulder in Week 2. He tried to play through it, changing to a sidearm delivery because of pain and weakness in his throwing arm. The 49ers had to shut him down before he’d pull himself out of the lineup, and he missed the entire 2008 season, too.
By 2011, Smith’s career seemed to be stuck in a spiral. The 49ers had gone 19-31 in his starts. He had thrown 53 interceptions and 51 touchdowns and passed for 300 yards in a game just twice. But two developments revived him. The 49ers’ woes had enabled to accumulate high draft picks and build a stacked roster, particularly along the lines. And the team hired Jim Harbaugh to be its next head coach.
Harbaugh, a former NFL quarterback, devised an offense built around Smith’s strengths and the power running of Frank Gore behind an excellent offensive line. Smith led the 49ers to a 13-3 record and the NFC title game. He kept rolling into 2012, leading the 49ers to a 6-2 record halfway through the season, when doubt sidetracked him again.
Smith suffered a concussion, which led to the insertion of second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Harbaugh became enamored of Kaepernick’s athleticism and speed. Though Smith had won in 20 of his previous 25 starts, Harbaugh benched him for Kaepernick, who led the 49ers to the Super Bowl.
“I knew Alex was playing probably his best ball yet in the NFL at that juncture,” said McCloughan, who had moved on from San Francisco. “It surprised me they made the move. Alex wasn’t doing anything wrong. I don’t know if they saw more upside in Colin, because he’s so athletic, so fast. But it surprised me.”
Reid had become the Chiefs’ new head coach, and he called around old coaching friends to inquire about Smith and acquired him. “When I saw the coach he was going to go with, I was ecstatic,” Meyer said. “I think it’s the perfect two guys working together.”
Under Reid, Smith has flourished, never more than this season. Reid has devised a scheme reliant on several concepts more familiar to the college game, many borrowed from former Pittsburgh Panthers offensive coordinator Matt Canada. Plays are heavy on shifts, intricate bunch formations and misdirection. Tight end Travis Kelce has become weaponized on option plays in which Smith can toss him a shovel pass, and occasionally takes direct snaps from center. Star rookie running back Kareem Hunt is used as both a runner and a pass-catcher.
Those motions occupy the collective mind of the defense while Tyreek Hill, quite possibly the fastest player in the NFL, is a constant threat to run behind it. Smith excels at decision-making, play fakes and accuracy. Reid created the offense to emphasize his skills. Like Harbaugh in San Francisco, Reid did not force a system down Smith’s throat.
“They identify strengths and weaknesses and put them in a position to be successful,” McCloughan said. “They’ll switch their offense to tailor to the quarterback. Not, ‘This is my offense. No matter what, this is what we’re running, because my name is on it.’ They’ll cater the offense to what a quarterback can do. That’s what Andy is doing now.”
Still, the organization proved it is not fully behind him. They moved up in the draft to select Patrick Mahomes with the 10th overall pick in 2017. Mahomes, like Kaepernick before him, possesses otherworldly arm strength and unique scrambling ability. Smith has said he expects this will be his last season in Kansas City. Smith has one year left on his contract after this season, and the team has the option of either trading him or releasing him with minimal financial penalty.
Given his track record, it would be unwise to count Smith out again. This week, Meyer was talking with Nick Bosa, one of his defensive ends at Ohio State, over highlights of the Chiefs’ victory over the Washington Redskins on Monday night. He recalled the quarterback he once coached at Utah, the kid would refused to go away. “I was just bragging about how smart and how competitive he was,” Meyer said. “I see the same thing happening now.”
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