In the last few weeks before the season got underway, I was doing a lot of thinking about what it would mean if Alex Smith played extremely well in his first couple of regular season games as a Chief. And a lot of time thinking about what it would mean if Alex Smith played very poorly in those games.
I knew the answer to both of those questions was going to be the same: very little.
Early in the season, you just can't put too much stock in either a great game or a poor game from your new quarterback. It's likely that we won't really know what Alex Smith can do with Andy Reid and the Chiefs until we're at least midway through the season.
With two games in the books, all of those things remain true. But as so often happens in sports, something entirely unexpected happened when Mr. Smith went to Arrowhead: he proved that he is the real deal.
No... I'm not saying that Alex Smith has provided enough evidence to prove or disprove any of the arguments that have been raging since he became a Kansas City Chief. We don't know if he really has a "touchdown ceiling," or if he is nothing more than a "game manager," or if he deserved to be benched in San Francisco. We don't know about his capability to throw deep. We don't know if he can help bring the Chiefs to the playoffs or the Super Bowl.
But here's what we do know: Alex Smith is a player.
In the opening drive of Sunday's game, the Chiefs were facing third and 15 at the Dallas 35 after a false start penalty on rookie right tackle Eric Fisher. With no receivers open and the pocket collapsing, Smith found an open lane around right end and ran for it. Facing defenders short of the down marker, he did exactly what quarterbacks are not supposed to do: he went in headfirst, vaulting over a tackler to clear the down marker with two yards to spare.
In fact, Smith ran the ball five times for 40 yards on this drive - a couple of times by design, and the rest in order to make plays. Any other quarterback might have taken a couple of sacks on that drive - or slid feet first on third and 15, ending the drive on the edge of field goal range. Hey... it was only the opening drive, right? There would have been plenty of chances to get a touchdown later in the game.
But the Chiefs were playing their home opener following a win over a not-very-good Jaguars team, and Alex Smith knew how vitally important it was to score a touchdown on the opening drive. It was important not only to the fans of a long-suffering franchise, but also to his teammates. So Alex Smith made it happen through sheer force of will, carrying the team to the end zone on his back. Let's not forget: this is a guy who missed the better part of two seasons with a collarbone injury, and here he is on third and long, doing a somersault and landing on his neck in order to convert a third down on the opening drive.
Alex Smith was sending a message: I'm here to play - and play HARD. And I'm here to lead this team to WINS.
I hated John Elway when he played for the Broncos. Over the years he systematically beat the Chiefs, I eventually concluded that he wasn't even human. Instead, he was an alien dropped here on Earth by inhabitants of a distant planet as a cosmic joke on the AFC West. I imagined Elway's fellow beings watching TV on Sunday afternoons, and chortling over their interstellar shenanigans.
But then came Super Bowl XXXII. With the score tied at 17, John Elway made one of the gutsiest plays I've ever seen a quarterback make, helicoptering over Green Bay defenders to put the Broncos in a position to win. On that day, I learned that Elway really was a human like the rest of us - and more importantly, he earned my respect.
We know Alex Smith is human. As a Chief, he could still prove to be one of the NFL's "elite" quarterbacks, or he could prove to be nothing more than a stopgap solution to a longstanding problem for this franchise.
But on Sunday, Alex Smith earned my respect. Whatever his strengths or faults may prove to be, I am proud to have him as a Chief.