When things were going very well this season for the Kansas City Chiefs, quarterback Alex Smith was being mentioned as an MVP candidate. When things were going very poorly for them, Smith was being called a candidate for something quite different: a benching.
That never happened: Coach Andy Reid stayed the course and stuck with Smith while prized rookie Patrick Mahomes waited his turn. But Mahomes’s time to play meaningful games will come soon enough, and that creates another oddity for Smith and the Chiefs as they ready to open the AFC playoffs Saturday against Tennessee: Smith, the NFL’s highest-rated passer this season, probably is in his final days in a Kansas City uniform.
The Chiefs, the AFC’s No. 4 seed, host the fifth-seeded Titans on Saturday at Arrowhead Stadium. A victory for the Chiefs could lead to a return trip to New England, where the Chiefs began the season with a stunning victory over the Patriots, for a conference semifinal.
But whether Smith and the Chiefs falter or somehow manage to disrupt the expected Patriots-Steelers rematch in the AFC championship game, Smith likely will be sent elsewhere during the offseason to clear space for Mahomes to be the starter next season.
“He’s one of the guys we’re expecting to be out there,” said a high-ranking executive with an NFL team planning to be in the quarterback market. “He’s certainly a guy we’ll have on our list, and we’ll look into him and his situation.”
Smith turns 34 in May and has one season left on a contract that will pay him $17 million next season. Any team interested in him would have to trade for him. And it will be a crowded market that will include intriguing options in veterans, perhaps led by prospective free agent Kirk Cousins of the Washington Redskins, and rookies, with a highly regarded group of quarterbacks in a draft class led by UCLA’s Josh Rosen, USC’s Sam Darnold and Wyoming’s Josh Allen.
“He probably won’t be anyone’s first choice,” said an agent familiar with the way the offseason quarterback market is shaping up. “But he will be somewhere. He will be someone’s starter. He’s a good player, an unappreciated player.”
Actually, there have been doses of appreciation for Smith throughout his 13-year NFL career; that appreciation just never has been long-lasting. He entered the league as the top selection in the 2005 NFL draft by the 49ers. He spent eight years in San Francisco and initially was regarded as a major disappointment. But he developed into a reliable quarterback, only to lose the starting job to Colin Kaepernick.
So it was on to Kansas City, where Smith developed a reputation as a risk-averse game manager who did what he could to avoid losing games but rarely was responsible for winning them. That made Smith a two-time Pro Bowl selection. But it took the Chiefs’ 5-0 start this season, beginning with the win over the Patriots, to put Smith in the conversation with the NFL’s upper-tier quarterbacks. The offense had been revved up with dynamic rookie tailback Kareem Hunt and speedy second-year receiver Tyreek Hill. Smith was making it all work, and there was early-season talk of him being an MVP front-runner.
Such talk ceased when the Chiefs went into a 1-6 spiral. Asked about the possibility of sitting Smith in favor of Mahomes, taken 10th in last year’s draft after the Chiefs traded up to get him, Reid backed Smith, saying everyone on the roster and coaching staff deserved a share of the blame for the team’s struggles.
The Chiefs righted themselves to win their final four games, including a meaningless finale in Denver started by Mahomes, and capture the AFC West title. Smith had his first 4,000-yard passing season and finished with 26 touchdown passes, five interceptions and an NFL-best QB rating of 104.7, putting him ahead of Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Carson Wentz and all the rest. Even so, Smith was snubbed in the Pro Bowl selections.
Now he returns to the postseason stage, on which he has thrived in the past. In six career playoff games for the 49ers and Chiefs, Smith has 12 touchdown passes and two interceptions.
“I think having been there can only help you,” Smith said when he met with reporters this week. “Good and bad, all those experiences, I think having been at this stage before — yeah, I think you carry those with you. They don’t make or break anything, but they only contribute.”
The Chiefs will have the far more seasoned quarterback Saturday: The Titans’ Marcus Mariota will make his first NFL playoff appearance.
“I think for that position, that does help,” Reid said at a news conference this week. “Alex has been there and done well there. I can’t tell you that we sit there and evaluate that. We’ve got Alex. So we build on what he does and kind of go with it. And then I’m sure [the Titans will] do the same thing. But it sure doesn’t hurt for him to have been there and done well.”
If this postseason indeed does represent Smith’s farewell to the Chiefs, he will do what he can to make it a fond one. The franchise hasn’t had a home playoff victory since the 1993 season, when Joe Montana was quarterback.
“It’d be nice to obviously break that,” Smith said. “But you can’t add any extra motivation once you get to this stage. All the work we’ve been putting in as this team, from Day 1, this team, and putting in our goals and talking about them. We completed the first step. And now it’s on to the second one, which is winning this game. It’s tough to add any more motivation of historic streaks or things like that. I’d love for those to be byproducts of obviously hard work and getting a win.”
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