KANSAS CITY, Mo. – The spotlight always falls on the quarterback in the NFL.
The strength of its unblinking glare has melted the careers of many men that played the position. Others have crashed from the attention, then learned how to survive and deal with the unique pressures presented to the team’s offensive leader.
It’s never more visible than in the postseason.
Without a quarterback capable of playing well and producing points, it’s darn near impossible for a team to win one of the 11 games that make up the NFL’s postseason tournament, let alone string together multiple victories needed for a championship.
Certainly, it’s more than a one-man effort, but the effect a quarterback’s play has on winning or losing in the playoffs cannot be ignored.
The Chiefs play the Houston Texans on Saturday holding an edge at the position thanks to Alex Smith. He started all 16 games, a major feat in a season where starting quarterbacks fell to injury every week. Houston’s starter Brian Hoyer started nine games, missing six others due to injury.
It was more than Smith’s availability that proved his worth to the Chiefs. It was his skills as a passer, a runner and yes, a game manager. All those traits were major keys to the club winning 10 straight games and a spot in the playoffs.
“He gets in and he studies the game plan and he studies the defense that we’re playing against and the personnel on that defense and then we roll from there,” head coach Andy Reid said of the way Smith approaches his preparation, whether it’s a September regular-season game, or a January outing in the playoffs.
It’s part of the personality package that Reid wanted when the head coach landed at Arrowhead Stadium in 2013. A quarterback was needed and Smith’s resume from his time in San Francisco featured so many check marks on the positive side that bringing him to Kansas City was the obvious move.
Three seasons later, Smith’s performance has justified the decision to trade a pair of second-round choices in the 2013 and 2014 NFL Drafts to San Francisco for his services. Add a 5-year contract extension signed by the quarterback last year that guaranteed $45 million in the first three years, and the Chiefs have dumped a lot of capital into him.
Smith’s statistics in the 2015 season all rank among the best of his career. He threw for 3,486 yards, his most prolific season. With 307 completions in 470 attempts for an average of 7.4 yards per attempt and 20 touchdown passes, his production stands as his second best season throwing the ball.
Then, there’s his ability to make plays with his legs.
Smith is the Chiefs second-leading rusher with 498 yards on 84 carries, for 5.9 yards per run. All of those numbers are top marks for him personally and in franchise history. He finished the regular season as the No. 4 rushing quarterback in the league, and the only one that ran on 31-year old legs.
And, his role in the play calling on game day has expanded this season, as Andy Reid and offensive coordinator Doug Pederson loosened their grip on the game plan.
Every week, Smith has gotten the offense out of bad plays and into better options that have led to big plays and touchdowns.
“I think he’s having the best season of his career,” Pederson said. “The numbers may not be up there with the top guys in the league. But his wins and losses are. He understands what we want him to do. We’ve given him more opportunities to get us out of things and put us into certain things. He’s leading this football team like we knew he was capable of doing.”
He was at the helm two years ago when the Chiefs came flying out of the starting blocks against the Colts in a wildcard game.
Smith had the offense humming that day, as he threw for 378 yards and four touchdowns, while running eight times for 57 yards. With 28 minutes to play, the Chiefs held a 28-point lead. Led by quarterback Andrew Luck, Indianapolis mounted a historic comeback and ended up with a 45-44 victory.
Smith’s career struggles since he was the first selection of the 2005 NFL Draft are well known to football fans in San Francisco, Kansas City and beyond. Smith is happy those memories are no longer fresh, shoved to the back by three seasons with the Chiefs.
He knows that the postseason is where he can validate the decision.
“Everybody’s road is different; it is just a matter of staying out there and keep getting back up and continuing to get better and not let some of that stuff get to you and get you down,” Smith said. “You control what you can control and don’t worry about the rest and try to just keep improving every game and help your team win. The more you play, all of that stuff just continues to register and you continue to bank all of that and it really helps down the line.”