“Alex Smith was great for Patrick,” Chiefs Coach Andy Reid said. “Alex Smith is a great person and a great player. I wish I would have had him when he was young. I got him when he was a little bit older.”
Mahomes’s rookie season was spent as Smith’s backup with the Chiefs. As he waited his turn to play, he watched how Smith went about his business. He soaked up information. It went so well that Mahomes, after Smith was traded to the Washington Redskins, was the league’s MVP last season as a second-year pro. He has the Chiefs in the Super Bowl in Year 3.
“I attribute a lot of my early success to Alex, the way he was able to be a pro every single day and the way he was able to go about not only being a great football player but a great human being,” Mahomes said. “It showed me a ton. I learned a lot about how to read coverages and blitzes from him. He gave me a blueprint of how to go about a week and preparing yourself. It showed me how to have success at an early point in my career that I don’t think I would have gotten anywhere else.”
When the Chiefs beat the Tennessee Titans in the AFC championship game, the text messages flew back and forth between Smith and members of the Chiefs organization. Smith texted his congratulations and his admiration about what Mahomes had done. Those with the Chiefs, even while celebrating their victory, texted Smith that his role in all of it was not forgotten and that they remained appreciative. Those sentiments still are being expressed by the Chiefs during Super Bowl week.
“I think it meant a lot,” offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy said. “I mean, what better way? I remember when I came in the league, that’s how it used to be. Draft a quarterback. You had a veteran in there that helped the process. And it wasn’t that Alex was taking him by the arm and saying, ‘Hey, you’ve got to come with me.’ No, it was just his attitude and his approach to coming to work every single day.”
Mahomes has astonishing ability. The Chiefs knew that when they traded up to take Mahomes 10th in the 2017 draft out of Texas Tech, and his practice-field exploits during his rookie year showed the Chiefs he was even better than they had suspected. But it was through Smith, the Chiefs say, that Mahomes learned how to conduct himself as a pro.
“Alex came to work early every day,” Bieniemy said. “Alex studied. He took, I mean, immaculate notes. He stayed late. He took care of his body. So what better role model for Pat to have in the building with him, to learn what it takes to become a professional?”
Reid, known around the league as a master of developing quarterbacks, called the situation “perfect” and joked that Mahomes could not have paid Smith enough for such an NFL tutorial. He also said he never asked Smith to play a mentoring role for Mahomes, the player drafted to take his job in Kansas City.
“He just did that,” Reid said. “That’s the kind of guy he is.”
But Mahomes was told to be certain that he learned from Smith.
“Alex had been a professional for a long time,” said Chiefs quarterbacks coach Mike Kafka, who was an offensive quality control coach in 2017. “He was a smart, precise, regimented person. For any young quarterback, that’s a great system to walk into, with Alex’s approach. So of course everyone was telling Pat, ‘You need to watch him operate.’ And he did. He put in the work, and he made sure that whatever he did on a weekly basis mirrored what Alex did.”
With his NFL career on hold after the gruesome leg injury he suffered in 2018, Smith did not respond to an interview request through the Redskins.
Mahomes has become the complete package, with maturity and sound work habits to go with his otherworldly talent. Reid now calls Mahomes the team’s unquestioned leader. In 2017, he was a willing learner.
“Alex did a phenomenal job taking him under his wing,” Kafka said. “And then Pat was a sponge. Pat walked around, followed him wherever he went. Pat tried to emulate what Alex did and put his own twist on it and was himself. He wasn’t trying to be Alex. He was just trying to learn from Alex and apply that to his game.”
The way of today’s NFL is that quarterbacks chosen early in the draft tend to play sooner rather than later. This was an unusual circumstance. Smith still was playing well and even was mentioned early in the 2017 season as an MVP candidate.
“I never thought it was awkward,” Kafka said. “That’s a testament to Alex being a professional, being a true pro, not letting those things affect him, doing his job at a really high level. I mean, at one point he was under MVP consideration. He was playing phenomenal football.”
Mahomes’s first start came in the 2017 regular season finale, with the Chiefs locked into their playoff seeding. He threw for 284 yards in a narrow triumph at Denver, and suddenly the rest of the football-watching world knew what the Chiefs knew: Mahomes was on his way to NFL superstardom.
“I think each day, each week, he got a little bit better,” Kafka said. “He started seeing things a little bit clearer. Once he got to that Week  when he played against Denver, he had built up and gotten better and better and better each week. So he went out and played and was able to display the things that he had built on over that 16-week season.”