Alex Smith, In the Right Place
KANSAS CITY—Mid-morning in the Chiefs’ practice facility. An off-day in the NFL world for players, a Tuesday, but Alex Smith and his backup, Chase Daniel, will be here until about 4 in the afternoon. There are four full Buffalo game tapes to study. This is a quarterback’s life. Smith has been blessed to be with two good coaches on two good defensive teams in recent seasons, but San Francisco and Kansas City have been fortunate too: Smith doesn’t make the dumb mistake, the big mistake. And though he’s not the explosive passer a Matthew Stafford is, he wins. Quantify that any way you want. But no quarterback in pro football has won at Alex Smith’s rate over the past three seasons. His teams are 27-4-1 in his last 32 regular-season starts. Smith, sitting with me in the office of Chiefs PR czar Ted Crews last week, dishes on his new life and his old one.
On Andy Reid
Smith: His first question when he called me after the trade was, “Can you run 22 Z-In?” That’s a staple play of the West Coast offense, and he knew that’s what he was going to use here. And I think in a lot of ways that does kind of sum it up. Because one of the best things he does as a coach is just keep this about football. With the players, keep it about football. That probably sounds stupid to some people. But it’s hard at the NFL level to keep it about football week in and week out. Every single day. Let’s just keep this about the details. Hey, we’re football players. Our job is to prepare to play a game and then go out there and compete and win a game. That’s our job. We’re not thinking about anything else. That’s what we’re thinking about. That’s what our mindset has been, and I think he does a great job of keeping it about that. This is football. There’s no magic. It’s about us executing a game plan—coaches teach, players play, and together we go out and try to win games. I think he does a great job of eliminating all the other BS that can come with being an NFL player. You don’t fight the battles that don’t matter.
On Reid the teacher
Smith: To see the passion that he has for teaching—for me it’s not an X’s and O’s thing, although obviously he’s as good as they come with that. The thing he talks to me most about that really helps me is fundamentals. He sees everything fundamentals-wise. Especially my feet, my balance in the pocket. But overall he continues to teach the decision-making: What were you seeing here? What were you thinking there? Against Houston, down in the red zone, one play stands out in my mind. The ball should have gone to Dexter McCluster on a shallow cross—Andy saw it that way, but in my mind it was playing out different, and I was going in a different direction. I ended up getting sacked. But what I like about Andy happened then. He didn’t say, “Why didn’t you throw it to this guy?” It was, “What did you see?” Because he trusts me. It’s those little nuances that help you play quarterback for him.
On Reid telling the team in the preseason to loosen up and have fun
Smith: The team needed to hear that. He loves what he does, so I think that’s contagious. He loves teaching and he loves coaching. He does a great job of letting his personality shine through to the guys, and he wanted everyone else’s personality to start shining through. People only see him through the media and at his press conferences. But to get to see him around the guys and his personality—it is contagious. Those things set the environment in the building. It allows for guys to get to enjoy coming in here. He always says it: “This week we get the opportunity to play the Bills. We’re gonna have fun preparing to play this game.” He means it. It shows every day.
On the shock of being the NFL’s last unbeaten team
Smith: I don’t think anybody here is surprised. If you asked me in March then, yeah, I don’t think I ever would have said this. But I don’t think a single guy in there would have told you that this was out of the realm of possibility at all—that this wasn’t achievable. It certainly was. I’m not saying this to be cliché at all. Literally, our mindset the entire offseason and entire fall was, Let’s get 1-0. Let’s get the first game, and then we’ll talk about anything else after that. Let’s just get to 1-0. It was at Jacksonville, and that’s all that was on my mind the entire offseason. We’re at Jacksonville, let’s win that game. We’ve done a good job of making it a series of one-game seasons.
On not being a “game manager,” playing cautiously to avoid turnovers
Smith: That’s definitely not the mindset you want. If you play in that mindset, then you aren’t going to be successful. There’s certainly a sweet spot there where you’re going out and playing football, but what you’ve been coached to do and what you’ve been taught to do in your fundamentals is take care of protecting the football. Don’t get me wrong, there have been some times when I’ve gone out there [with the game manager mentality]—and it’s never been good. You don’t ever want to go out there saying that. You don’t ever want to go out there just saying you’re not going to turn the football over. You’re out there to execute an offense. People can look at it however they want, but for me the goal is to score points as an offense. You can put up however many freakin’ yards you want. The goal is to score points. And with that, yeah, protect the football. I watch a lot of football, and not just the NFL, and you see teams just giving it away. It’s hard enough to win football games when you’re not giving it away. For us, it’s not about being conservative. We’re trying to score points. Can we do a better job of that? No question.
On avoiding football media
Smith: I watch football. I certainly watch other games. I watch the Sunday night game. I watch the Monday night game. But I don’t read the paper, watch the studio shows, read the internet. What’s it do for you? At this point in my career, it doesn’t do me any good. What is it doing for me to hear anyone talk who’s outside this building about what they think we are, what they think I am?
On transitioning to Midwestern life after living in the West all his life
Smith: It’s my wife too. You know, California girl who’s never lived anywhere else. I was so excited about this new opportunity and this new chapter. We’ve never been out of the West. This is a new part of the country that we don’t know anything about, and that’s so exciting. It’s been such an easy place to move to, such an easy place to live. And the climate—you actually get seasons. I like that. To say we’ve enjoyed our time here, at this point, is an understatement.
On Arrowhead Stadium
Smith: My family’s experienced every home game so far. To see it, and hear my wife talk about the difference in the environment—what a healthy environment Arrowhead is compared to other NFL stadiums. There’s a lot of stuff that goes on in NFL stadiums. There can be a lot of crap fights. Just how healthy an environment this fan base is, and what pride they take in being good fans.
On his 49ers experience
Smith: Complete. For me, it’s complete. Lot of ups and down, but I was ready to get out of there. For me that journey had come full circle. When you get drafted No. 1, and you go to the worst team, you want to be part of the turnaround. And eventually I was part of that. It took longer than any of us wanted, but Idid get to kind of see it through to a certain extent. So definitely complete for me, and ready to move on.
On Jim Harbaugh
Smith: Good coach. I think a lot of people make a big deal about lot of things, even about me and him. I’m still thankful for the opportunity he gave me a few years ago. My contract was up, and it would be so easy to go in a different direction. I remember going out and throwing with him and working out, before the lockout, he and I just playing catch, and all of a sudden it developed into a relationship and an opportunity. So I’m thankful for that to this day. That’s the honest truth. My career would be very different, and I know that, if I didn’t get that opportunity back then. I learned a lot of football.
King: You’re not just saying that?
Smith: I’m not, at all.
On being benched last year
Smith: I disagreed with it, and I disagreed with it 100 percent. I thought I should be playing. But it wasn’t my decision. I’ve been through enough, and I know that if you sit and dwell on things that are out of your control, you’re going to go crazy, and it’s not going to help you. I knew when the decision was made that at some point I was going to have an opportunity. I didn’t know if it was going to happen the next week, or in the Super Bowl, or here.
On concussion openness, after losing his job in part to a concussion last November
Smith: It would have been no different if it were my ankle or my arm. This is the nature of sports—if you’re injured the next guy gets an opportunity. I don’t care if it’s your head or your knee. For me, the symptoms, and it being your brain, I don’t think that’s something to be messing around with. Is the protocol for concussions perfect? No. But the whole injury and someone taking your spot and playing well—it could’ve been for anything. Those opportunities happen all the time. It’s hard enough to play quarterback in this league. It’s probably impossible to play fuzzy, and if you can’t see very well. And for me, that’s what I was dealing with. It came down to this, to be honest: I didn’t think I was helping us when I was out there.
On regretting being the first pick of the 2005 draft
Smith: No. Never. I don’t think I was ready to play as a rookie, for sure. I was 20, I had come from such a different system [Urban Meyer’s spread offense at Utah]. Was that a good position? No. But there are so many things that have come, so many things I have learned in where I am today—my wife, my boys, my family—that have helped make me who I am. Those are all positive things for me, and I wouldn’t change that. But I do look back at those early games and I’m like, “What was I doing out there?” It was so foreign to get under center, so foreign to see a fullback and then a tight end, so foreign to see that many defensive players in the box. It was really hard for me, let alone playbooks and how different that was.
Smith: I think it’s helped me, honestly. It’s easy to do the right thing when things are going well. Having been in so many stressful times, when you’re losing, when the situation is rough, it’s hot, it’s uncomfortable, having gone through those—I had never gone through those before I got to the NFL. In high school, in college, it was the same situation. I had never been in adversity like that. Ever. I think I almost needed it. I learned so much about life and people and dealing with adversity. And losing and stress. It does funny things to people.