Tonight, Alex Smith and the Kansas City Chiefs will play Tom Brady and the New England Patriots to kick off the 2017 NFL season. According to whichever predictive source you prefer—the betting line, the pregame picks of television yakkers, the broad patterns of the universe—the Patriots are likely to win. In fact, the matchup seems designed for exactly this purpose, to get the year off to a competitive but tidy start, with the defending champions going 1-0.
Brady's Patriots reliably perform well on the national stage, of course, but nearly as reliable is the Chiefs' knack, under Smith, for playing at a small but crucial degree removed from real excellence. If things go according to plan, Kansas City will challenge but fade. The game could feel close in the moment; the outcome will seem obvious afterward.
In the harsh ecosystem of the NFL, this has become Smith's accepted function: to gauge the competence of the sport's highest class of team. If you've watched him play a single game, and if the announcers calling that game were doing even the most rudimentary version of their jobs, then you know his reputation. Smith presents the midpoint between the two most important quarterbacks in the NFL: the untouchable Brady, who he faces on Thursday, and Colin Kaepernick, who won Smith's job in San Francisco in 2012.
Five years later, the bigger, faster, more mercurial Kaepernick is out of work for non-football reasons, and Smith is going into his fifth season as a starter in Kansas City. He is proficient but unspectacular. His gifts (pocket awareness, nimble hands and feet, accuracy, a pathological avoidance of turnovers) are tethered by his limitations (a weak arm, short stature, that same pathological avoidance of turnovers). He exists to win more than he loses, to lead his teams to playoff contention, and eventually to be outdone by the Bradys and Roethlisbergers of the world. His extensive and admirable charity work goes largely unnoticed. When he spoke up on behalf of his former teammate and competitor Kaepernick last month ("Crazy to think he's not playing"), nobody seemed to hear him. Smith is considered chum, if chum could sell play-action and hit the eight-yard slant.
But that thinking, while basically accurate, undersells Smith. Buried in the reductively hierarchical, all-or-nothing language built into football is the fact that he may be one of the best dozen in the world at his job, which happens to be the toughest in American sports. He has achieved and maintained that status without the benefit of the usual physical gifts: height that would let him survey whole defenses, an arm that could put the ball in any window. Smith tops out at adequacy's uppermost margin, but that adequacy is his own, a blend of guile and fine-tuning that represents not so much a waystation in the evolution of quarterbacking as a rogue offshoot. The methodology won't ever win him an MVP; not many do. That doesn't make it worthless.
Here is a play, from the second quarter of what would become a 21-13 Chiefs win over the Oakland Raiders in Kansas City last December. It is first and 20. Smith takes the snap and the pocket collapses around him, so he has to escape to his right. He half-tucks the ball, but his eyes keep scanning downfield. He looks ready to take off—the defense starts swarming; Smith's left foot touches the line of scrimmage—until at the last moment he backpedals, cocks his arm, and throws. He's spotted a silver helmet turned the wrong way, a momentarily blind Raider. The ball slips over the defender's shoulderpad, some 15 yards away, and into the arms of Chris Conley, who carries it forward for a 31-yard gain.
It was a beautiful, representative play, all timing and deception and spatial awareness. Smith's well-noted deficiencies do shrink the field, but within that shrunken field almost nobody is better. He sees openings and measures angles, counts nanoseconds and senses trouble. The same prudent tendencies that prohibit big plays make possible reams of smaller ones. For a team like the Chiefs, with a stout defense and the resourceful playcalling of Andy Reid, he is a nearly seamless fit: the NFL's maestro of the increment.
The problem, for Smith, is that watching him overcome his shortcomings inevitably leads to thoughts of quarterbacks without those shortcomings to begin with. Kaepernick got his first chance in San Francisco as a result of a Smith concussion, but he kept the job because he could do things Smith couldn't (until coming to represent, in the eyes of NFL owners, an altogether different and less acceptable kind of risk). Kaepernick didn't have to dupe defenses on every down; he could throw over them and run past them. In April, the Chiefs moved up to draft Patrick Mahomes, who likewise has a bigger arm and margin for error than Smith. Reid has confirmed his faith in his starter—"Do I still think we can win with Alex? Yeah, we were right there"—but announcing support is altogether different than not needing to. Smith has spent his career on the brink of dismissal, appealing to coaches' risk-aversion while simultaneously tempting them to roll the dice. His caution is both virtue and hindrance, keeping him working and looking over his shoulder.
Still, for all the hypothetical sheen of the alternatives, Smith retains value, both to his team and as a general worth-rooting-for figure. The Chiefs, while not as close to true contention as Reid would have it, are closer than two-thirds of the league, and Smith keeps them there, eligible for a good break. This is not nothing; it is hope. It is a harder brand of hope than Kansas City fans might prefer—requiring stronger patience and greater optimism—but it is real, and present, and trying its darndest to pick up yards.
The cynic's question concerning Alex Smith stands: What is the use of being good at a task that usually rewards only greatness? Smith is worlds better than, say, Blake Bortles, but the crucial gap is the one between him and the true star quarterbacks, the guys who set records and lead comebacks from huge deficits and can send a football from one hashmark to the opposite sideline, forty yards downfield. They win titles; Smith, to this point, has only acted as a beatable obstacle along the way.
The answer to the question can't be wholly strategic. It hinges on what type of emotional investment you prefer. Mahomes, whenever he takes over in Kansas City, will offer the chance to do what most professional football teams and their fans spend most of their time doing: wait and see if they've hit it big with an all-world type. But Smith, right now, gives the Chiefs a purpose. Sometimes the manifestation of that purpose is taxing and bleary-eyed—checkdowns, three-and-outs, field-position tug-of-war—and sometimes it is quick and clever. In either event, it provides something more satisfying than biding time. It moves the chains.