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Alex Smith deserves admiration, but it hasn’t been enough

“The ceiling is the roof.” - Michael Jordan

For once in my life, I would like to see the Chiefs best five games of their season be their last five. Specifically the last three or four, ending in championship.

This season always felt like one last ride. Not as drastic of a transition as the Royals are about to experience, but still looming decisions with organizational staples like Derrick Johnson, Tamba Hali...and Alex Smith.

The Chiefs didn’t allow a touchdown to Pittsburgh in last year’s playoff loss at home to Pittsburgh. They needed only 19 points to win. They got 16. There were more than 16 points available on the field that day. Opportunities weren’t seized. Good opportunities. Smith’s worst statistical season in Kansas City ended on a sour note.

It was a breaking point for Reid. He didn’t fully endorse Smith immediately following that game. You don’t trade up to draft someone like Patrick Mahomes the next chance you get if you don’t think something needs to change. No one is that aggressive without a plan in mind.

Speaking of aggressive, Smith responded by coming back with a willingness to throw downfield that he needed in 2016. Whether it was self reflection, Reid’s prompting, Mahomes’ presence or all three, Smith was motivated to change. It wasn’t a full on change in philosophy. He was still reliant on short passes. It wasn’t a willingness to be aggressive everywhere. He wasn’t throwing a ton of aggressive attempts in the intermediate zones. He was just willing to take shots in a relatively low-risk way down the field. Throw it deep, let Tyreek Hill get under it. Not too much bad can happen in those situations. Smith added enough to his arsenal to change game plans.

The NFL is built on reputation. You have to be the one to prove the NFL wrong. Teams will build plans to dare you to change your narrative. Reid and company set out to change some early.

From game one on, there was a noticeable attempt to be aggressive offensively. It worked. Smith was an MVP candidate because of a willingness to push the ball downfield to elite pass catchers Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce. A reinvigorated run game added to the headaches due to rookie Kareem Hunt’s breakout. Heads were spinning, defensive coordinators weren’t sleeping and the Chiefs soared to a 5-0 record.

Then the Steelers came back to town, challenged the new narrative and slowed down the juggernaut. They showed a lack of respect for Smith and he did nothing to prove them wrong. Then the Cowboys. Later, the Giants.

The playing style was definitely different from Smith this year. It was also slightly superficial and a little inconsistent. Not that it wasn’t better, it was. It was just too convenient and easy for Smith to revert back to what he’s been. Instead of wholesale changes, he got a new haircut.

That’s probably all you can ask of a QB in his 30s. Instincts kick in at some point. I think he had to fight himself a lot. His mentality required upkeep. That shows in the inconsistencies of the middle of the season. He did the most he could.

The Chiefs needed to build momentum and to flip narratives. They had the most talent on offense they’d ever had. They put plenty around Smith to give him a chance at a career year. The longer they could be propped up on their new found reputation, the better.

It didn’t last long enough. Teams started daring Smith to beat them, and in the middle of the season. He didn’t.

Smith is such an odd case. A bland cliche machine that is as polarizing a player as there’s ever been in Kansas City. A rare feat. His career is defined more by what he’s not able to do than what he has done.

Alex Smith deserves an immense amount of respect. He deserves a lot of admiration and appreciation from fans. I have been far from an Alex supporter in his tenure. But he complemented the roster and he and Reid were able to get this team to four playoff appearances. He’s also better than the guy we saw in Jacksonville in Week 1 of 2013. He has worked hard to become the best version of himself.

Sadly, his best hasn’t been enough to elevate this team to where it desperately wants to be. He facilitated the success of Hill and Kelce. He gave them chances to thrive He needed them more than they need him though. A pedestrian 5/10 for 33 yards in his likely last half of football as a Chief without Kelce is proof.

Reid and defensive coordinator Bob Sutton deserve plenty of blame for allowing Tennessee to control the second half. They waited way too long to try. Smith isn’t completely to blame for this game. Same with Indianapolis in 2014 or Pittsburgh in 2017. Some of his best has come out in the playoffs.

But in big, late moments where he needed to elevate the team around him, he couldn’t. Throwing the last pass in the loss to Indianapolis out of bounds, missing big play chances against Pittsburgh and Tennessee. The sample size of postseason failures has grown. At some point, your best may not be good enough. You can only play above your head so long. We’re there.

Nothing will ever be perfect for any team ever. There will always be injuries. It’s the nature of the business. The best version of this Chiefs team was one of the best in football. They had a chance. They needed to be close to their best. They needed a healthy Kelce and Hill.

Reid helped elevate Smith to new heights. He deserves credit for Smith’s growth too. The Chiefs got the most out of Smith. He helped stabilize this organization. He should be thanked. They’ve also outgrown him. There’s a ceiling.

Mahomes might have a ceiling. It has a chance to be significantly higher than the one we saw Saturday though. Six days before the end of the year, he led an offense without Kelce or Hill, or the offensive lineman that account for most of the position’s budget to a win on the road, against a good defense in the cold.

Smith’s ceiling falls short of someone able to bail out a bad team performance, a bad game plan or bad coaching decisions.

Mahomes might be the guy whose ability, personality and playing style are able to defy those things. Being the solution despite everything going wrong is in his developmental range of outcomes. That kind of ability allows you to be the last team standing in February.

The Chiefs were always going to need an unrealistic amount of things to go right for them to win a title. That shouldn’t take anything away from Smith or his legacy.

Thank you, Alex. You’re a model teammate, leader and human being. The Chiefs are a better organization for having you here. Your best on the field was better than I thought it could be. You helped get this organization on the right track. You earned everything you got. I hope you prove more people wrong in your next city. I hope you prove this article wrong. It just can’t be here.