KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The question was not fully out of the reporter’s mouth before Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith’s face took on a quizzical look. “Critics say when Alex Smith scrambles, he doesn’t look down field …”
Smith interrupted the question.
“Do they say that?” he asked with hints of both a wry smile and a look of disbelief. “Okay. Did not know that. Did not know that.”
Questioning the Chiefs quarterback often seems a full-time sport in Kansas City and the NFL. Sometimes critics label him as a game manager with disdain. Other times the words sound much more harsh.
“Alex never says anything, everybody else says everything,” head coach Andy Reid said following the team’s Monday night 29-20 win over Washington.
But Smith’s play continues pushing critics to the far edges while winning praise from teammates who always supported their quarterback through the good times and the bad.
“I think he’s been playing outstanding his entire career, at least the five years that I’ve been with him,” tight end Travis Kelce said.
“But it’s good to see that he’s finally starting to get the notoriety that I feel like he’s always deserved.”
Four games into the NFL season and Smith stands on the precipice of the best season of his career. He leads the league with a passer rating of 124.2. Smith also leads the league with a 76 percent completion rate and a 6.6 percent touchdown passing rate. He now has a league-best three game-winning drives in four weeks.
He’s on pace for 4,268 passing yards and 32 touchdowns, marks critics never though Smith could meet. In many ways it feels as if the previous four years of both successes and struggles in Kansas City have readied Smith for this season.
“I’ve told you before I love having this guy,” Reid said. “He’s everything you want as a coach and comes to work every day, he’s the first one in and the last one out. All of these things that you’re supposed to do he does.”
Smith showed the toughness, the quick-decision making and the downfield presence on Monday night that critics often fault him for lacking.
Behind a makeshift offensive line missing Mitch Morse, Laurent Duvernay-Tardif and Parker Ehinger, Smith showcased his willingness to take a hit to protect the ball, take off and run when the option presented itself and fire the ball downfield on the run.
Two plays summed up Smith’s 2017 season on Monday night. With time running out before halftime, center Zach Fulton delivered a shotgun snap on the ground at Smith’s ankles. The quarterback scooped up the loose ball. The Washington defense front broke through the left side of the offensive line, zeroing in on Smith.
Smith scrambled right and found open ground, sprinting past the Washington front seven for a 32-yard jaunt. The run came to sudden end when safety D.J. Swearinger caught up to Smith and grabbed him by the shoulder, throwing him to the ground WWE-style. Smith bounced up, laughing and smiling.
“I hope I’ve shown toughness all the time,” Smith said. “I think there’s a lot of ways to show toughness as a quarterback, it’s not always overtly running the football and getting tackled. I think the biggest thing for a quarterback is that mental toughness of you’re getting hit, and not letting that speed up your time clock.”
That scramble led to a missed field goal by rookie Harrison Butker. Yet it also setup one of the game’s biggest plays. With 42 seconds remaining in the game, Smith again found himself scrambling to his right. Instead of keeping it himself, he found wide receiver Albert Wilson for a 37-yard gain. That helped setup Butker’s game-winning field goal.
“Earlier I had a really similar scramble where I scrambled out to the right and everybody was turning and running and I had backs to me and I was able to get a big run,” Smith said. “Just trying to kind of play that game sometimes when you get out on the edge. Luckily I felt like that time around I got some attention on me and Albert was able to kind of hit the seam there.”
The Chiefs practice these situational drills time and again since Smith and Reid arrived in Kansas City in 2013. At some point during the last four years in a St. Joseph, Mo., training camp practice or a Wednesday afternoon at the team’s facility near Arrowhead Stadium, the offense likely took the field with 47 seconds on the clock needing a field goal to win the drill.
Everyone knew what to do.
“Alex does a great job of keeping the play alive,” Wilson said. “It was a scramble. Prior to that, I felt like I was open on the sideline and that time, I just stayed with it. He did a great job, I made a pretty good catch.”
The two plays also explain why Reid always held confidence in Smith long before the critics started swinging toward the quarterback’s way.
“This is what we see every day, Reid said. “This is what we have confidence in, players, coaches, we all have confidence that he does this. Whatever happened before he got here happened and he doesn’t worry about, we don’t worry about it, we just move on.”