In 2015, the Kansas City Chiefs were absolute trash for five of their first six games of the season. No one remembers any of this now, especially given the winning the Chiefs have done over the past three seasons, but I know it’s true because I was there.
It’s a badge of honor, in a way, since there weren’t many reporters who can say the same. At the time, Kansas City’s baseball team, the Royals, were hot and smack-dab in the playoffs, marching toward their first World Series title since 1985. With the Chiefs off to a miserable 1-5 start, television stations and radio stations had essentially abandoned Arrowhead Stadium to plant their flags across the parking lot at Kauffman Stadium, home of the Royals.
Not that I could blame them. The Chiefs were playing so poorly at the time, I probably would have done the same if I didn’t have a Michael Jordan-level obsession with covering football. But I was the Chiefs’ beat writer at the Kansas City Star, which obviously gave me another compelling reason to stay in the red-and-gold portion of the Jackson County Sports Complex, all while fielding questions from the few fans who still cared about whether quarterback Alex Smith needed to be benched (he didn’t) or whether coach Andy Reid would make it to the end of the season (LOL).
Still, while I doubted major changes would be made — Chiefs chairman Clark Hunt is wary of being one of those franchises that switches things up all the time — there seemed to be little hope of a resurrection that season, especially with star running back Jamaal Charles already lost for the year in the fifth game due to a torn ACL.
I’ll never forget one chilly and gloomy day in particular, I was the only local media member in attendance for Reid’s weekly Friday afternoon news conference. It was crazy. I actually shook Reid’s hand before his presser and asked him how he was doing that day. He just nodded, seemingly appreciative of my presence.
Things were that bad.
The Chiefs never stopped fighting for Reid, who remained unwavering, and Kansas City ended up embarking on a 10-game winning streak to end the season. I bring all of this up now because the Washington Redskins have just lost stud rookie running back Derrius Guice for the season due to a torn ACL, and many are already writing the ’Skins off. That’s understandable, somewhat, since Guice, a power-packed 5-foot-11, 224-pound second-round pick who runs with juice and patience, had the potential to lift the Redskins’ ground game to a different level. That would have been nice, considering Smith — the veteran quarterback the Redskins acquired from the Chiefs this offseason — thrives off a strong running game.
But — and not to go Stephen A. Smith on you or anything — let me tell you something, man. Don’t write Washington off just yet, and much of that has to do with what Smith did in 2015, when he was forced to shoulder the load when Charles went down.
Smith not only carried his weight in Charles’ absence, he responded with, at the time, a career year. He started using his legs more, rushing for a career-high 498 yards, and punishing teams for spying him with a single linebacker by outrunning them. Combined with his improved pocket play, which had developed under Reid, he guided the Chiefs to their first playoff victory in 22 years that season and was named co-team MVP with safety Eric Berry, who was happy to share the award with Smith, even though Berry had just finished a season that was good enough to win the league’s Comeback Player after beating freaking cancer.
That’s how much Smith’s steady presence meant to that team. His demeanor with the media never changed, even when questions got increasingly tougher and critical amid the 1-5 start, and he diligently filled in the gaps he could to make up for Charles’ absence.
It was truly a remarkable feat, and you probably didn’t notice, since football fans on either coast rarely pay attention to Kansas City. Even with the emergence of tight end Travis Kelce (who was just coming into his own) and the steady presence of big-money free agent receiver Jeremy Maclin, the version of Charles the Chiefs had to replace that year was an elite weapon, one who was far and away the best option on that team.
Even though Smith, 34, is older now, he still has that similar competitive spirit in him he used to bounced back from that 1-5 hole. When I sat down with him at Redskins camp a few weeks ago, he lit up when he elaborated on how much fun he was having playing professional football. Just the competition of it — the satisfaction of proving people wrong —means so much to him.
It’s why Smith responded with a career season in 2017 following the franchise’s decision to give away a small bounty to move up and select a young gunslinger, Patrick Mahomes, with the 10th pick in the draft. Smith could have crawled into a corner, as other quarterbacks have when faced with a “play-better-or-else” threat, but he gritted his teeth, furrowed his brow and went to work on his weaknesses.
All that work led to a season in which Smith, the man so many dubbed “Captain Checkdown,” improbably becoming the league’s best statistical deep-ball thrower and top-rated passer, all at age 33. Smith rightfully drew some criticism for the Chiefs’ horrendous home playoff loss to the Tennessee Titans in which they blew a 21-3 second-half lead, but mixed into a few bad plays in the second half — in which he reverted to old habits of missing open receivers downfield — were some money throws thwarted by some awful drops. Five, in fact, according to Pro Football Focus.
That’s why, barring injury, I’d stress Washington fans to give Smith and the ’Skins a chance this season. For one, the Redskins’ backfield — which features a mix of third-down types (Chris Thompson, Kapri Bibbs, Byron Marshall) and thumpers (Rob Kelley, Samaje Perine) — is a little more accomplished and certainly deeper than the Chiefs’ backfield was when Charles got hurt, as Spencer Ware and Charcandrick West were unproven youngsters.
What’s more, the Redskins’ offensive line, featuring the likes of bonafide maulers like left tackle Trent Williams and right guard Brandon Scherff , is actually a better run-blocking group than the Chiefs’ was at the time, meaning Redskins coach Jay Gruden has more to work with than Reid did when he and Smith pulled the Chiefs out of the gutter.
With Smith’s athleticism, Gruden also figures to sprinkle in some of the zone-read, quarterback-driven principles Smith has loved so much the past few years in Kansas City. Between all this, there’s reason to believe the ’Skins can compensate for the loss of Guice enough to coax improvement out of the league’s 28th-ranked ground game, which will only open passing windows and make play-action — Smith’s preferred method of attack — more effective.
But really, even if the ’Skins don’t consistently move people on the ground, I find it difficult to imagine Smith losing more games than he wins this season, provided he stays healthy, of course. Since 2011, he has posted a 69-31-1 record as a starter, and the big reason for this is his calm and ability to avoid costly mistakes. You can count the games he lost single-handedly during his five-year stint in Kansas City on one hand.
Just trust me, folks. You kind of have to see Alex Smith up close over a period of time to appreciate his strengths. He’s one of those guys who’s destined to win nine-plus games a season in the NFL … even in the middle of a seemingly lost season when things look so bleak, only one reporter shows up for the team’s media availability two days before the game.
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