Cover image: Pro Football Focus highlights Smith’s status as one of the league’s best deep passers of 2017.
The fact that Alex Smith made it onto the football field in 2020, let alone started, is nothing short of a modern miracle. Following a career- and life-threatening injury in 2018, many doubted Smith would ever play pro football again. His comeback was one of the most covered stories of an otherwise depressing 2020, so I won’t go over it again here. Instead, I want to discuss Alex Smith’s other miracle season: the time he led the league in passer rating, was the NFL’s best downfield passer, and topped 4,000 passing yards. These things sound like they shouldn’t go together. Alex Smith, an elite deep passer? 4,000 yards? Even though Smith is famous for his exceptionally clean (if unexciting) brand of football, hearing that he led the league in passer rating might seem surprising.
One of these stat lines is Patrick Mahomes during his Super Bowl-winning season. The other is Alex Smith in 2017:
14 starts, 4,031 yards, 26 TD, 5 INT, 65.9% complete, 105.3 rating, 176 rushing yards.
15 starts, 4,042 yards, 26 TD, 5 INT, 67.5% complete, 104.7 rating, 355 rushing yards.
Unless you have a photographic memory for statistics, you basically have to guess which is which. This illustrates just how good Smith was in 2017 – and how shocking it is that so many fans have forgotten this season. How did a season like this happen with Smith? And why have we largely forgotten it?
(Answer: the top line is Mahomes in 2019. The bottom line is Smith in 2017.)
Smith had been the number one overall pick way back in 2005, struggling in his first several seasons as the quarterback for an unstable and dysfunctional 49ers franchise. He finally found success in the early 2010s by adopting his current mistake-free method of passing under coach Jim Harbaugh. This rejuvenated Alex Smith didn’t try to be the savior of the world, who had been hailed as a second Joe Montana or Steve Young – he just tried to be efficient and precise and not worry about what everyone else thought. Everyone thought he was a bust anyway. Harbaugh and Smith guided the 49ers to 13-3 record in 2011. 2012 saw Smith put up some of the best numbers in the league through the season’s first half, boasting a 104.1 rating and completing 70% of his passes. However, an injury derailed his season when the younger, faster, and harder-throwing Colin Kaepernick proved to be electrifying in his own right. Smith recovered his health, but not his job. After suffering through a carousel of mediocre QBs in the post-Young era, the 49ers were suddenly a team with two starters. Just like with the Montana-Young rivalry, the Niners had a choice to make. Smith was traded to the Chiefs in the offseason, two decades after Montana had been traded there after also being supplanted by a younger, faster up-and-comer. The Chiefs had gone 2-14 in 2012, so they cleaned house and brought in Andy Reid to rebuild the franchise. Smith was the quarterback Reid chose.
Stability as a Chief: 2013-16
Thus began the most stable period of Smith’s long career. Under Reid and Smith, the Chiefs jumped from 2-14 to 11-5. From 2013-16, the Chiefs had a winning record every year and posted double-digit wins in three of those four seasons, along with three playoff appearances. Smith was steady as could be. In each of those years, he threw for between 3,200 and 3,500 yards, with a QB rating that generally stayed in the low 90s. He also began using his mobility more often, peaking at 498 rushing yards in 2015. That’s getting into legitimate dual-threat territory, although as usual, few recognized this unless they were playing against or watching the Chiefs and saw it firsthand. This stability (and mobility) did earn Smith his first Pro Bowl nod in 2013, at age 29, as well as another in 2016. In the 2016-17 postseason, he also led the Chiefs to their first playoff win since the 1993-94 postseason, a 30-0 shutout of the Houston Texans. The last QB to lead the Chiefs to a playoff win had been Montana.
This solid play also reinforced some of the more negative stereotypes about Smith, though. In his late 49ers career, Smith’s cautious but efficient play gained him a reputation as a game manager: an organized but bland player whose team wins with him, but not because of him. A game manager doesn’t put the team on his back and carry them; he efficiently distributes the ball to others who put the team on their backs.
This is important because Smith’s existing reputation helps explain why few of us remember his 2017 in the first place. Most people already had a fully-formed idea of Smith: he wins a lot of games, can run a little, and does not throw deep. He’s the sort of player the casual fan rolls his eyes at. He’s certainly not elite, so any success he has is chalked up to other players on the roster or written off entirely, as though it’s just a fluke.
2017: Alex Smith’s Career Season
Enter 2017. The Chiefs had just drafted a talented but raw quarterback, Patrick Mahomes II. Although Mahomes had more pure talent than almost anyone, the Chiefs had no reason to press him into duty immediately. They were consistently one of the NFL’s better teams and a few months earlier, they had won their first playoff game in decades. They had young and talented pass catchers like Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce. Things were looking up. But it’s also true that the Chiefs, for all their regular season success, just couldn’t seem to get over the hump with Smith at quarterback. It seemed that he was good enough to guide the Chiefs to the playoffs every year, beating up less-talented quarterbacks and teams during the regular season, but once he was faced with the Bradys and Roethlisbergers of the league, there was just no way he could keep up. 2017 began with Smith firmly entrenched as the starter, but the writing was on the wall: Mahomes was the future. Smith, a veteran who had been through nearly everything an NFL quarterback could go through, seemed like the perfect mentor for Mahomes. He was everything Mahomes was not: careful, guarded, and able to get the ball out before anyone knew what had happened.
The 2017 season began with a bang. The Chiefs had to start their year in Foxborough against the Patriots, who some pundits had already decided would go undefeated. Smith and Co. lit up the field with deep bombs, coming from behind to stun New England 42-27. Smith’s success continued the following week, defeating the eventual Super Bowl champion Eagles. And the next week over the Chargers. And again over Washington. In Week 5, Kansas City went up against Houston, the same team they defeated 30-0 in the 2016-17 playoffs. The Chiefs won again. But somehow, this 5-0 start was different than all the other strong starts in the Smith and Reid era. They were not just winning with Smith – they were winning because of him. In the Patriots game, Smith threw for some very Mahomes-like totals: 28/35 for 368 yards and 4 touchdowns with no interceptions, good for a 148.6 rating. It was a similar story against Houston: 29/37 for 324 yards and 3 touchdowns, with no interceptions and a 130.2 rating.
For a brief moment, the national media began paying attention to Smith. During the early and middle part of the 2017 season, he was viewed as a contender for league MVP. Through his first eight games, he had thrown for 2,181 yards, 16 touchdowns, and no interceptions. If Smith maintained his pace, he would end the year with 4,362 yards, 32 touchdowns and zero (!) interceptions. Smith gradually fell out of the MVP discussion, though, partly because the Chiefs took a nosedive during the middle of the season, losing six of seven games between Week 6 and Week 12. Smith continued to play at a high level during that span, but the damage was done. The conversation shifted from “Is Alex Smith the MVP?” to “Will the Chiefs even make the playoffs?”
Perhaps Smith’s most heroic effort of the 2017 season came during one of those losses, a 38-31 game against the Jets. He showed the full extent of his abilities in this game: the 33 year-old made good decisions, displayed his ability to repeatedly throw deep, and showed off his mobility in the most dramatic way possible. Smith threw for 366 yards and 4 touchdowns, with no interceptions; he also broke off a 70-yard run that saw him outrun much of the Jets defense and break several tackles. Smith had done exactly what everyone said he didn’t do: just like in the New England game in Week 1, Smith had carried the team on his back.
The Chiefs rebounded and won their next three games from Week 13 to Week 16, putting the Smith-led Chiefs at 9-6 and securing their spot in the playoffs. Even though Smith played at an elite level for the first 15 games of the season, he and many of the other Chiefs starters did not play in Week 17 because the Chiefs were already assured of their playoff spot, so they could not afford to let Smith get injured in a meaningless game. In Week 17, with Smith tucked away safely on the sidelines, Chiefs fans got their first glimpse of Mahomes in NFL action.
The next week, Kansas City’s well-rested starters were back on the field for their playoff game against Tennessee. Smith played well as usual, throwing for 264 yards with 2 touchdowns and – as you’re probably used to seeing with Smith – no interceptions. He completed 72% of his passes and put up a 116.2 rating, but the Chiefs lost a 22-21 nail-biter, partly because Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota threw a pass to himself for a touchdown. Just like during the mid-season slump, the Chiefs lost and it really wasn’t Alex’s fault.
However, it had happened again. The Smith-led Chiefs just could not advance deep into the playoffs. They were now 1-4 in the postseason during the Reid-Smith era. Most fans in Kansas City seemed to understand that after the Titans loss, Smith had played his final game as a Chief. He’d gone out with a bang in a 2017 season that saw him throw for 4,042 yards, 26 touchdowns, 5 interceptions, and a league-best 104.7 rating. He also added 355 yards on the ground. It was the first time a Chiefs quarterback had eclipsed the 4,000-yard mark since Trent Green in 2005. It was the first time a Chief had ever led the NFL in passer rating (Note: Hall of Famer Len Dawson had led the AFL in passer rating numerous times with the Chiefs in the 1960s). It was the best-ever passer rating by a Chief.
Smith was traded to Washington after the 2017 season, having thrown for 17,608 yards, 102 touchdowns, 33 interceptions, and a 94.8 rating in his Chiefs tenure. At the time of his departure, he had the best career passer rating, completion percentage (65.1), and interception percentage (1.4) in Chiefs history. All three records have since been broken by Mahomes, but Smith, whose mobility has been constantly underrated, still holds records for the most rushing yards and touchdowns by a Chiefs quarterback (1,672 and 10, respectively). These are two records that Mahomes isn’t likely to pass any time soon.
The Causes of Smith’s 2017 Season
But how did this season happen in the first place? Even though Smith had been a good quarterback for years at that point, there is no denying that 2017 is a clear outlier among his career numbers. There are several factors that contributed:
One is that Smith had an incredible cast to work with in 2017. He had Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce as his main targets, both of whom were (and still are) legitimate superstars. Smith was willing to throw intermediate passes to Kelce, who is a big target and can catch just about anything. He was willing to throw deep because Hill could simply outrun the whole defense. Smith had thrown deep here and there in the past, but I do think this shows how passing is a two-way street. It takes a quarterback and a receiver, not just one or the other, and Smith had a lot more to work with by 2017 than he did in 2013. In 2013, there was no Kelce (he was injured for his rookie year) to throw to at tight end, only anonymous castoffs from other teams, and no legitimate deep threats at wide receiver. His main target in 2013, just for comparison, was the aging Dwayne Bowe, who had been drafted two general managers and three head coaches ago.
Stability is another contributor that I think gets overlooked a lot. From 2013-17, Smith got to work in Andy Reid’s offense for five seasons. Compare this to Smith’s early career in San Francisco, when he had to work under five offensive coordinators in five seasons.
A simpler reason that Smith heaved the ball all over the field in 2017 is that he had to. The Chiefs defense had been one of the league’s best units from 2013-15, with some decline showing in 2016. By 2017, the Chiefs’ former strength, defense, had become a weakness. Smith, for the first time in his Chiefs career, had to throw the ball a lot just to keep Kansas City in the game. A good example of that would be the Week 1 Patriots game, where the Chiefs fell behind against an elite quarterback in Tom Brady. There weren’t many options: throw deep or lose.
Finally, Smith’s overall career arc should be taken into consideration. NFL starting quarterbacks tend to last longer than players at other positions. Smith was 33 in 2017, undoubtedly on the older side, but still not among the league’s oldest starting quarterbacks. He had the benefit of years of experience while also still retaining the physical skills to be successful, including enough mobility to make things happen with his legs.
Why We Forget About Smith’s 2017 Season
As noteworthy as Smith’s 2017 campaign was in Chiefs history, it pales in comparison to what happened next. Mahomes came out of nowhere to throw for 5,097 yards, 50 touchdowns, and a rating of 113.8 the very next year. Smith had been considered as league MVP in 2017, but Mahomes actually won it in 2018. The Chiefs’ 2018 season was like an exaggerated, fun-house mirror version 2017: the superstars like Hill and Kelce were still there, but now Sammy Watkins was added to the mix. The defense that had played poorly in 2017 suffered a complete implosion in 2018, meaning that if 2017 Smith had to throw a lot to keep the Chiefs in the game, 2018 Mahomes had to throw even more. And if there was ever a quarterback well-suited to that type of team, it was Mahomes. In short, Mahomes had the benefit of an even more talented receiving corps, had to cover for an even worse defense, and had the arm talent to out-throw nearly every QB in the league. All of this meant that Smith’s 2017, which was one of the best seasons in Chiefs history, was blown out of the water just one year later.
Winning the big one also has a funny effect on people’s memories. All the things they used to cling to during less-successful eras become unimportant. When the Royals won the World Series in 2015, Kansas Citians no longer had to reminisce about that one fluke season in 2003 or how good Zack Greinke was in 2009. Likewise, Chiefs fans simply have little reason to reflect on Alex Smith’s 2017 season because the Chiefs won it all with Mahomes, not Smith. Ironically enough, Mahomes’ Super Bowl-winning season is the one I used as my example up top for comparison with Smith’s 2017.
The final reason I will offer is the most unfair, and it’s one I had alluded to earlier: People had already made up their minds about Smith anyway. Since Smith, unlike Mahomes, had been in the league for a long time when he put up his elite season, fans already knew what to expect from him: 3,500 yards, maybe 15-20 touchdowns, a 90-ish QB rating, and a single-digit turnover season – effective enough, but not all that attractive. Because this reputation had already been established well before 2017, his final season with the Chiefs is overlooked as a fluke, if it’s recognized at all.
However, Smith deserves far more credit for what he did in 2017. Whether it conforms to your pre-existing ideas about Alex or not, it did happen. It’s not just a thought exercise. For one season, in 2017, Alex Smith was the league’s highest-rated quarterback, who threw for more yards than any Chief had in over a decade.
This is why when 2020 Alex Smith threw for 390 yards on his cyborg leg, I wasn’t too shocked. He’d put up impressive numbers before. Likewise, the next time you hear someone say that the Chiefs’ reign as the league’s most terrifying offense began under Mahomes in 2018, know that they’re wrong. It began one year earlier, in 2017, under Alex Smith.