KANSAS CITY, Mo. — It hasn’t taken long for Alex Smith to become the leader of the Kansas City Chiefs.
The weight of the franchise was foisted upon his shoulders from the very second word leaked out that former No. 1 draft pick would be sent from the San Francisco 49ers to the Chiefs during a topsy-turvy offseason.
If he wasn’t considered the leader in the huddle then, he certainly is now, as the Chiefs toil away in summer-like heat during the first full week of voluntary practices.
A quick survey of his teammates will confirm it.
“Just watching Steve Young back in the day, he’s that kind of guy,” wide receiver Dwayne Bowe said Wednesday. “He’s not too vocal about it, but when he’s in the huddle, he makes his presence known. He’s demanding guys speed up — I mean, I never had a quarterback like that.”
It took Smith more than five years in the NFL to adjust to the expectations that come with starting at the game’s most glamorous position. But given a fresh chance under a new regime in San Francisco, he thrived during the 2011 season, going 13-3 and leading his team to the playoffs.
He was doing it again last year, too, as the 49ers got off to a 6-2-1 start. But when a concussion forced him from the field, Colin Kaepernick stepped in and emerged as the next big thing in an era of mobile quarterbacks.
Kaepernick led the 49ers to the Super Bowl as Smith watched from the sideline.
All along, though, Smith handled the adversity with the kind of professionalism that teammates and executives around the league had come to expect. So when Andy Reid was hired as the new coach in Kansas City, and longtime Packers executive John Dorsey came aboard as GM, they made an upgrade at quarterback their priority and targeting Smith their primary mission.
“For me, it’s certainly not something to relax about,” Smith said, when asked about the comfort of being the clear starting quarterback. “It’s you know, full-steam ahead. I’m working as hard as I can, trying to push us as far as we can go.”
That sort of leadership has come in handy as the Chiefs learn yet another offense.
“He’s a great quarterback, a guy that’s mobile, a guy that knows how to read defense and take advantage of mismatches,” wide receiver Dexter McCluster said. “He’s definitely confident. As a quarterback, you need to be confident. But knowing him, he’s never shaken.”
Even when everybody on the field seems to be on a different page.
In fact, that may be when Smith is at his best.
Several players have said this week that Reid’s offensive system is deeper and more complex than what they’ve run elsewhere, and picking it up has been a chore. Not even extra time studying the playbook in the evenings has gotten everybody on the same page, as evidence by Reid more than once calling his team back from the line of scrimmage to huddle up and try again.
Yet during these early growing pains, Smith has become a sort of traffic cop, pointing wide receivers and running backs to the right places and adjusting his offensive line’s protection.
“He seems to be picking things up fairly easily,” Reid acknowledged earlier in the week, adding that Smith has stood out as a “very hard worker, very diligent, and I appreciate that.”
His wide receiving corps certainly appreciates it, too.
They’ve had to make do the past few years with crippling uncertainty at quarterback. Longtime starter Matt Cassel struggled so much that he was ultimately benched last season, and backups such as Brady Quinn and Tyler Palko haven’t fared a whole lot better. The result was an offense that failed to put points consistently, one that looked at times haphazard, at times downright disastrous.
That’s the void that Smith has stepped into.
“We communicate all the time. We text back and forth, talking about different things we see, different things we want to do,” wide receiver Jon Baldwin said. “He kind of understands where I’m going to be, and I understand what he’s thinking, and the more you have a relationship with your quarterback off the field, the better it is on the field.”
It’s still early in the offseason, of course. The Chiefs won’t begin mandatory minicamp for another few weeks, even though the entire team has been present for organized team activities.
Training camp in St. Joseph, Mo., is still more than two months away.
But already, Smith has emerged as the leader of a franchise desperate to turn around its fortunes, one that has been starved for success the past couple of seasons.
“He’s been to the Super Bowl as a backup, so he brings that leadership,” running back Jamaal Charles said. “And I know he’s probably hungry because he didn’t play in the Super Bowl, but bringing that here and wanting to get back to the Super Bowl, yeah, he’s one of the leaders. Everyone looks up to him.”