The Kansas City Chiefs' seemingly endless search for a quarterback has settled on Alex Smith, and the deal – which includes multiple draft picks – will work or wilt based on a simple question.
Is the Alex Smith the Chiefs are getting the same one who played well for the San Francisco 49ers the past couple of years, or is that guy mostly the product of Jim Harbaugh's coaching?
Smith's performance prior to Harbaugh's 2011 arrival to coach the Niners compared to his performance under Harbaugh's leadership is striking.
If Smith can maintain what he learned and sustain, or even escalate, his recent development, then the Chiefs' nearly two-decade hunt for a quality QB – it's been 19 years since Joe Montana's final act ended – is over.
If Smith can't play well without Harbaugh, a former longtime NFL QB himself, then this could be the latest pratfall for a franchise that is always scrambling for a franchise QB – and a waste of a 2013 early second-round pick (33rd overall) and a conditional pick in 2014.
The numbers are too obvious to ignore.
From 2005-10, Smith's per-game QB rating was 76.5. From 2011 until Colin Kaepernick replaced him in the middle of the 2012 season, it was 95.9.
Interceptions per pass attempt fell from .035 to .015. Touchdowns per pass attempt rose from .034 to .045. Yards, completion percentages, just about any tangible number improved dramatically. That includes the most important one: Smith was 20-5-1 as a starter the past two seasons (playoffs included) and just 19-31 before.
Smith was one of the NFL's better quarterbacks this season, replaced only because of injury and Kaepernick's unique and undeniable skill set. That made him expendable. The Niners were set to release him in March if they couldn't find a reasonable deal.
K.C. became that deal.
So now we see what Smith is – sans Harbaugh. Is he a guy who is finally living up to the immense expectations of being the top overall selection in the 2005 draft? Or is he the product of one of the NFL's elite coaches, surrounded by exceptional talent the last couple of seasons?
There is certainly nothing unexpected or unusual about a quarterback struggling early in a career, particularly on a bad team that churned through six offensive coordinators in six seasons. Some guys take time to develop.
That's what the Chiefs, under new coach Andy Reid, are banking on. At this point, it's a reasonable gamble. You can't win in the NFL without a quarterback and even with the first overall pick in the draft, there weren't a lot of other options.
Kansas City has struggled because it hasn't had a quality quarterback in seemingly forever. No matter the coach or general manager, the Chiefs have taken the curious route of eschewing the draft and instead tried stopgap measures.
In two decades the Chiefs drafted just five quarterbacks, none higher than third-round selection Brodie Croyle in 2006. Needless to say, there isn't a Brodie Croyle statue outside Arrowhead Stadium.
Since Montana retired in 1995, the quarterback position has been filled by a collection of OK to terrible – Steve Bono, Elvis Grbac, Rich Gannon, Trent Green [the most productive of the lot], Damon Huard, Tyler Thigpen, Matt Cassel, Tyler Palko, Brady Quinn and probably a few others just for fun.
At one point, most of those guys were considered a solid choice, the way Smith looks right now. That they never fully panned out has no impact on Smith – except you can understand why Chiefs fans may be a bit gun-shy.
The truth is, Smith has always had strong potential. Now coached up by Harbaugh, he might be capable of carrying it over in a new city. For some draft picks, why not? Kansas City is now free to use the first overall pick on someone who can help out Smith, likely a burly offensive lineman.
The Chiefs can't know for sure what they are getting in Alex Smith, but it's clear they believe he's a lot more than a Jim Harbaugh creation.
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