Chiefs’ Smith keeps winning but can’t shake debate about his ability

Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith has won lots of games, but questions abound about whether he can lead a team to the Super Bowl. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
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KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The can-he-or-can’t-he debate rolls on when it comes to Alexander Douglas Smith, better known as Alex, the quarterback of the playoff-bound Kansas City Chiefs.

As in, can a QB who has thrown 13 touchdown passes all season lead a team to the Super Bowl?

Answers never seem to be “yes” or “no,” but rather accompanied by an “if” clause: if the defense causes a turnover. Or if tight end Travis Kelce and wide receiver Tyreek Hill are able to continually score game-breaking touchdowns, as they did last weekend against Denver.

One person has no doubt about Smith’s ability.

“Alex, I think, has had a good year. He’s had a good four years,” said Chiefs coach Andy Reid, who went on to call the Denver performance “one of his better games since he’s been here.”

“That’s a tribute to him,” Reid added, “because nobody works harder or spends more time at it. He’s very diligent to his work. It’s always good to see him play well.”

Statistically speaking, it was indeed one of Smith’s best days. He completed 25 of 36 passes for 244 yards and a touchdown, ran for 46 yards and another score and kept the Kansas City offense on track.

But he also threw an interception that led to the Broncos’ only touchdown, and many continue to argue that 244 yards passing is hardly a good day. This is an era when top-shelf quarterbacks expect to throw for 300-plus, and often toss three or four TD passes in a game.

Smith hasn’t thrown three touchdown passes in a game since the season opener — of last year.

Reid and other Smith supporters counter the critics by pointing out that he rarely makes a big mistake. He’s thrown only seven interceptions this season, wisely makes the smart choice when things are going haywire and is content to let the Chiefs’ strong defense win games.

So far they have, too. The Chiefs are 11-4 heading into Sunday’s regular-season finale in San Diego, and can win the AFC West with a victory and an Oakland loss in Denver.

Naturally, the first question after clinching a playoff berth, which actually occurred earlier on Sunday, when Pittsburgh rallied past Baltimore, was how deep the Chiefs can go. That question goes hand in hand with how far Smith can lead them.

He has never reached a Super Bowl, though he did get the 49ers to the doorstep. But that was before things went sideways in San Francisco; he lost his starting job to a concussion and Colin Kaepernick and wound up getting traded. He is now a 32-year-old quarterback with limited arm strength who may have lost a step, yet is still being asked to shoulder a significant burden.

Turns out Smith himself thinks his age is a reason for his success this season.

“When you play a long time, you appreciate winning and all the different ways to do it,” Smith explained. “That’s what this game is about. It’s amazing, and it’s the highest of highs when you’re winning, you’re doing it well and you’re doing it together. The lows are crummy. It sucks to lose. Nobody likes it. You put a lot of work and a lot of time in and you want to bear fruit, so to speak.”

It’s been working in Kansas City. And there happens to be plenty of precedence for quarterbacks who didn’t put up gaudy touchdown numbers leading their teams to the Super Bowl, too.

As much as he’s heralded for his big arm, the Steelers’ Ben Roethlisberger threw just 17 TD passes in the regular season when he won the Super Bowl in 2009, and 17 of them in 12 starts when he won in 2006. Troy Aikman had 16 touchdown passes while starting every regular-season game in ’95, when he led the Cowboys to the title. He threw 15 in 14 starts when he won two years earlier.

So it seems the answer to the question whether a quarterback who has managed 13 touchdown passes in a season can lead his team to a Super Bowl is affirmative.

Now, it’s up to Smith to turn that opportunity into a reality.

NOTES: Reid said OLB Justin Houston continues to have “some inflammation” in his surgically repaired left knee. He did not practice Wednesday. … RB Spencer Ware had an MRI exam that showed bruised ribs, but he was able to practice Wednesday and is optimistic about playing Sunday.