On Tuesday the Kansas City Chiefs traded quarterback Alex Smith to the Washington Redskins. In exchange, the Chiefs will receive Washington’s 3rd round pick in the 2018 draft, along with (former Virginia Tech standout) cornerback Kendall Fuller.
The Alex Smith experiment — which lasted five seasons — proved a successful endeavor for Kansas City. If you can remember all the way back to 2013, an eternity in football time, the San Francisco 49ers ultimately traded Smith in for the younger, newer model that Colin Kaepernick represented. For their trouble, the 49ers received the Chiefs’ second-round draft pick that year.
Smith’s fresh start in KC coincided with head coach Andy Reid’s arrival, a marriage that immediately transformed the Chiefs from an also-ran into one of the NFL’s best quarterback-coach duos. The media tend to overrate the effect quarterbacks have on the outcomes of games (notice how often they cite a QB’s win-loss record, as if the fate of each game rests squarely on them), and tend to underrate the effect head coaches have. But in this instance, I suppose it doesn’t really matter. From 2013-’17, Smith (and Reid) drove the Chiefs to a composite 53-27 (.663) mark during the regular season, made four trips to the playoffs (’13,’15-’17), and captured two AFC West crowns (’16-’17).
From the perspective of a Chiefs fan, I don’t think there is any other way to say it: Alex Smith was pretty fucking good during his half-decade in Kansas City. Discounting the playoffs, KC won about two-thirds of its games with Smith under center.
Yet, even submitting these merits and accomplishments, I can’t imagine very many Chiefs fans who were very upset about Tuesday night’s news. It doesn’t upset me, per se, but only because it wasn’t unexpected. People have basically been asking who would be Kansas City’s quarterback after Alex Smith since the year the Chiefs originally acquired him. Once Andy Reid moved up 16 spots in last year’s draft to select quarterback Pat Mahomes out of Texas Tech, the elephant in the room had finally arrived and Smith’s days in Kansas City were numbered.
In essence, history has repeated itself. For the second time in his career, Alex Smith has been replaced by a prospect.
Analyzing the NFL is not my specialty, but I do think there’s a better-than-not chance that this trade backfires on the Chiefs and that Pat Mahomes will eventually end Andy Reid’s stint as head coach. In my mind it’s the classic tale of the grass not always being greener on the other side, and I think this for a couple reasons:
- With Alex Smith, the Chiefs knew what they had. Maybe he was only a fringe top-10 QB at his absolute peak, but we have seen that — with a good defense and a running game that can control the clock — teams with shoddy quarterback play can certainly challenge in the playoffs. (This year alone we saw Case Keenum, Nick Foles and Blake Bortles on Championship Sunday.) If Kansas City committed more of its resources to the offensive and defensive lines, they could have gotten away with Smith performing at only a “game manager” level.
- Due to a contract dispute before training camp, the Chiefs fired their general manager, John Dorsey, an oft overlooked transaction that, I believe, hurt the team’s chances in 2017. Dorsey was the architect who built Kansas City’s roster during the five years Reid and Smith have been/were at the helm. The effect of his absence wasn’t fully felt last year, since Dorsey basically handed a 10-win team to Andy Reid before taking his leave, but the jury is still out that the current GM, Brett Veach, can replicate the same success.
To Veach’s credit, it seems like the general consensus is that Kansas City got the better end of the trade with Washington. I was familiar with Kendall Fuller well before he was a first round pick of the Redskins a couple years ago, and even (I’m partly ashamed to admit) before he was a three-year starter at Virginia Tech. This, after all, because I knew of him when he was just 16 years old, as he was one of the best high school prospects in the country, and paying attention to college recruiting has been a small obsession of mine since I was a 13 year-old.
For the Chiefs, this was a challenge trade. The challenge goes like this: with Alex Smith there was a consistent not-so-high ceiling and not-so-low floor. Kansas City could have survived another year not so unlike this last one, on the idea that they (probably) wouldn’t lose more than 8 games and (probably) wouldn’t win more than 11. Not the worst thing in the world for a franchise that hasn’t won a Super Bowl since 1970.
Instead they are rolling the dice on Patrick Mahomes, and Andy Reid’s ability to work his magic. It’s a gamble that will either go extremely well, where the Chiefs actually turn their strong regular seasons into real postseason wins, or extraordinarily awful, where Mahomes struggles, the team finishes 5-11, and Andy Reid hangs on to his job for dear life. That last sentence is basically the limit of my football knowledge: It will either be a good trade for the Chiefs or a bad trade for the Chiefs, because Patrick Mahomes will either turn out to be a good quarterback or Patrick Mahomes will not turn out to be a good quarterback. It’s a binary proposition.
You probably have a good idea which side of the fence I’m on, but it’s worth mentioning that I’m never like this. I rarely advocate for my favorite teams to play it safe and take the conservative approach (as in sticking with Alex Smith); almost always I default to the romantic idea of youth and potential (as in handing the keys to Pat Mahomes). This time it just feels different. It feels like Smith is leaving Kansas City with business forever left unfinished, and we’re hoping on the — what, 25 percent? — chance Pat Mahomes is as advertised.
Without burying the lede, even though I probably should have mentioned it sooner, economics had to have played some role in this move. By trading Smith the Chiefs have freed up $17 million of cap space in 2018, which could go a long way in shoring up both lines, and possibly procure them a number one wide receiver for Mahomes to throw to. The reason I only mention this now is because I think the Chiefs were likely to make the swap either way; in the modern NFL, teams just don’t have a lot of financial incentive to draft a quarterback in the first round and force them to sit (and learn as the backup) for two or three years like they used to.
Regardless if Pat Mahomes turns into the guy, or just another guy, everything about this post comes back to Alex Smith. His career has been nothing if not interesting, and even a little sad if you pretend like he hasn’t made tens of millions of dollars to play a game for a living. He was the #1 overall pick of the 49ers in 2005, but had a different offensive coordinator every year through the rest of the 2000’s decade, and didn’t come into his own until Jim Harbaugh became head coach in 2011.
Then, after leading the 49ers to a division title in 2012, Smith went down with a concussion and never saw the field again in San Francisco. He watched from the sideline as Colin Kaepernick — the player Harbaugh wanted as his starting quarterback all along — took the 49ers to the Super Bowl that year. San Francisco traded Smith that offseason to Kansas City.
With the Chiefs, Alex enjoyed the successes I’ve already mentioned. But he was never really wanted, it seems, which is why the first chance Kansas City got to take a quarterback (in an especially weak draft for such prospects, as it turned out) they did, and why Smith is now a member of the Washington Redskins.
If absolutely nothing else, I’m happy that he found a team that (apparently) likes him. Alex Smith has already signed a 4-year extension, meaning the team he is with has a real investment in him. That means something right now, even if the model of the NFL is designed for Washington to do the same thing the 49ers and Chiefs have done before, and discard the veteran for the cheaper, younger player when it’s convenient.