Alex Smith maintains stranglehold on Chiefs’ starting quarterback job

Andy Reid has maintained all offseason that Alex Smith is the starting quarterback of the Kansas City Chiefs, even while Patrick Mahomes II was lighting up defenses during four preseason games.
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Andy Reid has maintained all offseason that Alex Smith is the starting quarterback of the Kansas City Chiefs, even while Patrick Mahomes II was lighting up defenses during four preseason games.

Chiefs general manager Brett Veach explained precisely why this weekend.

“Alex is so far advanced from the mental side,” he said, “in regards to his ability to read coverages, to shift to better plays and really play the chess game. He’s so far ahead of what Pat is.”

That’s not a knock on Mahomes, whom the Chiefs moved up to draft 10th overall in April, but rather some lofty praise for a quarterback that has been maligned most of his professional career.

Smith heads into Thursday night’s season opener in New England hoping to build on a season in which he led the Chiefs to 12 wins and an AFC West title. But all those bright spots have largely been forgotten after a playoff loss to the Steelers in which the Chiefs, struggling all day to move the ball inside frigid Arrowhead Stadium, lost to a team that failed to score a touchdown.

Unfairly or not, the criticism for the lackluster performance fell again on Smith’s shoulders.

Smith didn’t sulk about it in the offseason, though. The 33-year-old quarterback redoubled his efforts, spending extra time working out in Hawaii and making sure he was present for every workout.

While fellow veterans such as Eric Berry and Justin Houston skipped some of the voluntary work, Smith was always present, and he was ready to give those two defensive stars a couple of light-hearted jabs when they finally reported to a mandatory minicamp near the end of the summer.

“He’s playing good football,” Reid said. “Everything is a competition — the quarterbacks love it and thrive on it, but they support each other. And that’s fun to watch.”

It’s also a relief to watch.

Smith could have sulked when the Chiefs drafted his heir apparent, especially after the way things went sideways for him in San Francisco. But instead, he has spent nearly as much time helping Mahomes get ready for this season as he’s spent getting himself ready.

“Alex is the perfect person for me to learn from,” Mahomes said, “because when he came into the league, he had to play really fast, and he knows how to cut some of those things that I don’t need.”

Indeed, Smith was pressed right into the starting job as a rookie with the 49ers, a first-round pick expected to be the franchise savior. Mahomes doesn’t have to deal with quite as much pressure.

“It’s hard as a young guy. Sometimes it’s easy to become robotic out there,” Smith said. “Once the whistle blows out there, you want to just get back to playing quarterback and there are a lot of things that (Mahomes) does instinctively and has done that have gotten him here. You don’t want to lose that.

“Even though you are getting coached on a gazillion different things, you just want to get back to playing ball. I think he does a great job of that naturally, just cutting that loose.”

It may come naturally to Mahomes, but that level of comfort is something that Smith has learned over time. And it’s another reason why he’s the unquestioned starter in Kansas City.

“Going back to Pat, the development he has made and the strides he has taken in those departments has exceeded our expectations to this point. So we’re excited where we are,” Veach said, “and again the longer that Alex and Pat are together, the better we will be.”

Notes: Chiefs trainer Rick Burkholder said Sunday that OLB Tamba Hali will remain on the PUP list to ensure his balky knees are ready for the second half of the season. … RB Spencer Ware will return to Kansas City in about a week to begin rehab on his knee, Burkholder said. Ware had surgery a few days ago to repair ligaments he damaged in a preseason game in Seattle. … Reid said that CB Steven Nelson (hamstring) would not practice. He has already missed several weeks of work.