Perhaps the secret to unleashing the best of Alex Smith isn’t trading a future first-rounder to draft his replacement.
Perhaps it’s just letting him be Alex Smith.
The Chiefs quarterback continued his quest to kill the tired old stereotype of being a game-manager (as if that’s a horrible slur) with another exciting performance in Kansas City’s 42-34 win over Houston to keep them undefeated (5-0).
Smith finished the game 29-of-37 for 324 yards and three touchdowns, which was normal for the season.
In his first four games, he was completing 76 percent of his passes, but he’s been accurate before. The biggest difference is his ability to go deep and stay so efficient.
He’s averaging 8.8 yards per pass attempt this year, which is a decent indicator of his ability to move it downfield. To put that into context, his career average was 6.8 yards per attempt, and he had only topped 7.5 yards per attempt once in his career (8.0 with San Francisco in 2012).
Perhaps there’s a certain psychological liberty in knowing Patrick Mahomes is going to take his job sooner rather than later, but Smith is taking more shots downfield and is more effective than ever. Coupled with the accuracy and mobility he already had, it’s helping him become one of the top quarterbacks in the game, with no qualifiers. Not the best at avoiding disaster, but one of the best at making plays.
The Chiefs have him under contract through 2018, so they might decide there’s no reason to hustle him out the door for the shiny new toy.
And if they do, there will be a quarterback at the height of his powers available to the highest bidder, which would make for a fascinating offseason.
Here are five more things we learned during Sunday Night Football:
1. With Texans defensive end J.J. Watt out for the year with a tibial plateau fracture (and perhaps other damage pending further tests), they’re going to have to adjust again.
They still played good defense without him last year, with Jadeveon Clowney emerging as more of a force.
But the loss of their cornerstone of the community and the team will still be difficult for the Texans to overcome a second time. They’re injured in the secondary and running short on replacements.
There’s also a legitimate concern about Watt long-term. After back problems cost him 13 games and now this rehab, he’s going to be 29 years old next season and coming off a pair of major injuries.
While it would be a mistake to count anyone out who works the way Watt works, it’s also going to be a different struggle.
2. With the loss of Watt, the Texans are going to need more than a defensive end. They’ll need an identity.
Rookie quarterback Deshaun Watson is showing he might be able to provide just that.
His fourth-quarter touchdown pass to Will Fuller might not have mattered in the micro, but it showed his capability to change games at a macro level.
Watson evaded a rush, slid to the side and fired a 48-yard touchdown pass. That’s the kind of big play the Texans have lacked, and as he grows and develops a rapport with a legitimate star wideout (DeAndre Hopkins) the Texans could become an offense to be reckoned with. Of course, they’ll want to protect him, and having left tackle Duane Brown around would help.
But the Texans are becoming Watson’s team in a hurry, and the memories of the Tom Savage era are slipping away quickly.
3. The Chiefs get plenty of attention for an offense that is rich in playmakers.
But they have plenty of guys on the other side of the ball as well.
Defensive end Chris Jones forced a fumble in the first half, continuing a strong first half of the season which has included a player of the week award. Along with linebackers Justin Houston and Derrick Johnson and cornerback Marcus Peters, they have players who can create turnovers at each level.
It’s impressive the way they’ve held things together, and almost easy to forget they lost their best defensive player — safety Eric Berry — out for the season with a torn Achilles and Tamba Hali on the physically unable to perform list.
4. They’re also solid on special teams, even if not by design.
Rookie kicker Harrison Butker is doing everything they need him to do, hitting all his field goals and showing plenty of leg on kickoffs. He boomed seven of his nine kickoffs into the end zone for touchbacks. When the Texans started bringing them out in the second half, it had sort of a “what the heck” vibe. (And when you score the way the Chiefs do, touchbacks are a valuable currency.)
The Chiefs plucked Butker off the Panthers practice squad when Cairo Santos was placed on injured reserve. The Panthers kept him through the first wave of cuts and into Week One, but ultimately elected to stick with veteran Graham Gano.
But Butker, a seventh-round pick from Georgia Tech, has been a good investment for the Chiefs, especially after last week’s game-winner against Washington.
5- The NFL has devoted considerable time and research into head injuries.
It remains an inexact science.
Kelce took a hard shot to the helmet from Texans safety Marcus Gilchrist before halftime.Gilchrist was flagged for a personal foul, and Kelce was taken to the sideline tent. He came back into the game before the end of the first half.
In the third quarter, he was taken out to be evaluated for a concussion. Obviously symptoms can crop up later, but it’s certainly unusual for Kelce to have gotten back into the game so quickly when there was clearly reason for concern.