KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The Kansas City Chiefs will be the most improved team in the NFL this season, primarily because Alex Smith will be their starting quarterback. It's difficult for some people to see that today because this team won two games in 2012. It's hard for others to understand because Smith lost his job with the San Francisco 49ers midway through last year. But the change will come.
When the Chiefs traded for Smith in February, they picked up exactly the kind of quarterback necessary to help them dig out of the wreckage that was last season. Smith wasn't solely valuable because he'd been an integral part of the 49ers' success in San Francisco over the previous two years. He was important because he understands how to turn miserable experiences into masterful play. No quarterback in the NFL has been as beaten down as this man since he became the top pick in the 2005 draft. The fact that he's still standing and starting says something about his heart.
The Chiefs will appreciate Smith's leadership on offense, mainly because the previous four years with Matt Cassel had been mostly disastrous. "Alex is doing a good job," said Chiefs coach Andy Reid. "He's working. He shows nice control of the offense. Guys respect him and he's got good command in the huddle. He gets people's attention. He's demanding of himself but he's also demanding on the guys around him. They seem to respond to that."
It's important to note here that Smith isn't the long-term solution for the Chiefs just yet. He needs a year or two for Reid and general manager John Dorsey to make that determination. (Even though it's telling that the Chiefs didn't draft a quarterback when a few options, including USC's Matt Barkley, fell to later rounds.) In the interim, Smith should prove to be the perfect quarterback to play the kind of football the Chiefs need to embrace this coming season. His trademark is efficiency and that is exactly what Cassel couldn't give them.
Kansas City could've won seven or eight games last season if Cassel hadn't handled the football as if it were a live grenade. He turned it over a mind-boggling 14 times in the first five games of 2012. By the time Cassel sustained a concussion in a loss to Baltimore, some fans openly cheered the fact that he finally was going to the bench. It was a story that made national news and also spoke to the disenchantment with the position in that town. The locals would have been thrilled with a QB who merely could have delivered the ball consistently to the people wearing the right colors.
Smith can do that. After five years of struggling in San Francisco, he found his groove under 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh. The training and confidence that Smith gained in 2011 helped him lead the 49ers to the NFC Championship Game. A year later, he was leading the NFL in passer rating before a concussion knocked him out of a game against St. Louis. That injury created an opportunity that Smith's successor, Colin Kaepernick, used to become a star.
The people who write off Smith as an overrated retread should pay close attention to those last two years in San Francisco, when he threw 35 touchdown passes, 10 interceptions and helped the 49ers go 20-6-1 in his last 27 regular-season and postseason starts. He had a found an undeniable comfort level along with a clearer understanding of how best to succeed in this league. As long as Smith excelled at managing the game, the 49ers had a supporting cast that could help victories come more easily. They relied on a time-tested formula -- a strong running game, a stronger defense and a smart quarterback -- and rode it to consecutive NFC West titles.
Smith has the resources to play a similar style in Kansas City. He has one of the league's top backs, Pro Bowler Jamaal Charles, lining up behind him. Smith also has a rejuvenated star receiver in Dwayne Bowe and a defense stocked with five Pro Bowl-caliber players and six former first-round picks. If the Chiefs can stabilize their young offensive line with the addition of rookie right tackle Eric Fisher, the top selection in this year's draft, they will be one step closer to playoff contention.
More than anything, Smith has Reid in his corner. Harbaugh helped Smith's career, but Reid can take it to another level. He has proved capable of working with all types of quarterbacks, and he already has suggested a willingness to be more creative with Smith. The minute word spread that Reid had invited former Nevada head coach Chris Ault to be a consultant this offseason – the same Chris Ault who invented the pistol offense that turned Kaepernick into a star -- it was clear Smith would have ample opportunity to show other facets of his game.
Smith was so quickly forgotten in the midst of Kaepernick's mercurial rise that people don't recall his own athletic gifts. When Smith became a college star at Utah, he was running the same system that Urban Meyer has thrived with at Florida and now Ohio State. Smith has the ability to make plays with his feet. One of the biggest highlights of his career came in an NFC divisional playoff win over New Orleans during the 2011 season, when he raced around left end for a late 28-yard, go-ahead touchdown.
Reid also will help Smith become more comfortable with being aggressive. The coach mentioned the value of pushing the envelope during minicamp practices and he hopes his quarterback got the message. "We're finding out what we can do, what we're capable of and really pushing these guys," Smith said. "You have to find that out at some point. This is what the practice field is for. For me, what kind of throws can I make? … He wants us to be aggressive."
Reid also wants his new quarterback to help his new team understand what it takes to reinvent yourself. It's a lesson Smith knows better than most, and that experience will mean plenty come this fall. There may be a lot of people wondering what Reid and Dorsey will do with a team that won twice all last season. By putting Smith under center, they've already taken the first major step toward answering those questions.