When the Chiefs selected Texas Tech quarterback Patrick Mahomes in the first round of last year’s NFL draft, many assumed that the 2017 season would be Alex Smith’s final one as the starter in Kansas City. After all, the Chiefs had traded up to trade Mahomes, sending their own 2017 first-rounder, a third-round pick, and their 2018 first-round selection to Buffalo. Given the steep price they paid, it seemed inevitable that Mahomes would soon take over the reins as the starting quarterback in 2018, if not sooner.
Then Alex Smith had a career year. The Chiefs opened the season by beating the defending Super Bowl Champion Patriots in Foxborough and raced to a league-best 5-0 start. Smith’s name dominated the early-season MVP discussions. Though Kansas City cooled off, losing five of their next six, they ultimately secured a playoff berth and another AFC West title. Smith, for his part, threw for over 4,000 yards, had a terrific 26-5 touchdown-to-interception ratio and sat atop the league with a 104.7 passer rating. The hype around Mahomes quieted significantly. Yet in the wake of the Chiefs’ disappointing Wild Card loss to the Tennessee Titans, many pundits have surmised that the Smith era in Kansas City is over.
I find that hard to believe. Sure, I’m confident that Mahomes is in Kansas City’s long-term plans and that they view him as a potential franchise quarterback. Smith will be 34 when the 2018 season kicks off in September, and he isn’t getting any younger. In addition to age-related issues, it’s highly likely that he will revert to the mean: he’s an athletic game-manager who won’t turn the ball over but also won’t win many games on his own. His best days are probably behind him.
Still, is turning over control to a raw Patrick Mahomes really a better option for the Chiefs than maintaining the status quo for at least another year? Mahomes showed potential as the starter in Week 17, and we know he’s got one of the strongest arms in the league (there’s a video of him throwing a ball 65 yards on his knees). But he could benefit from another year as the backup, learning how to read NFL defenses and hone his decision-making abilities. The Chiefs have a great running game, explosive special teams and a competent defense. Alex Smith is a safe pair of hands who will manage the offense competently and let those other aspects shine through: there’s too much risk involved with letting him walk and hoping that Mahomes is ready to step up.
It’s especially risky if you take into account the fact that Smith could very well end up playing for an AFC rival if they trade or release him. The Broncos desperately need a quarterback and would be more than happy to take Smith off the Chiefs’ hands. After finishing 5-11, a lot of fans have forgotten about them. But Denver’s defense is still superb, and with a signal caller like Smith at the helm, they could very well overtake the Chiefs in the West. In addition to the Broncos, the Jets, Browns and Jaguars could be in the market for a new quarterback. Any of these teams would certainly take a good look at Smith if the Chiefs were to let him walk.
The best thing for the Chiefs to do, then, is nothing. Stay the course. Keep Smith, even if it means restructuring his contract. The Mahomes hype will have to wait another year. If the Chiefs value stability and making the playoffs, Alex Smith isn’t going anywhere.
Contact Andrew Ziperski at ajzip ‘at’ stanford.edu.