By George Bremer
The Herald Bulletin
---- — INDIANAPOLIS — A year ago, Alex Smith was buried on the San Francisco 49ers' sideline wondering where his next NFL start would come.
Now the former No. 1 overall pick has a starring role in the league's most surprising success story.
One year after finishing 2-14 and selecting first in the draft, the Kansas City Chiefs (11-3) are still alive for home-field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs with two regular-season games remaining. Much of the credit goes to an opportunistic defense and explosive special teams, but Smith's own contribution is far from insignificant.
Benched for the Niners' playoff run last year as a casualty to Colin Kaepernick's stunning ascension, Smith already has posted career highs with 3,160 yards and 23 touchdown passes this fall. He's thrown just six interceptions and owns a 30-8-1 record over the past three seasons as a starter.
He wasn't the most popular choice to take over as the Chiefs' quarterback during the offseason. But he's proven to be the right one.
"This is almost sacrilegious, but I'm a BYU guy, he's a Utah guy," Kansas City head coach Andy Reid said. "They don't mesh normally. But it works here."
Smith was the consummate good soldier during the end of his run in San Francisco, but he had to be torn up inside.
Labeled a bust for much of his first five seasons in the league, something clicked in 2011 — Smith's first season under Jim Harbaugh. He completed 61.3 percent of his passes for 3,144 yards with 17 touchdowns and just five interceptions. And the 49ers finished 13-3, winning the NFC West and advancing to the NFC Championship Game before losing in overtime to the eventual Super Bowl champion New York Giants.
Through nine games last year, Smith was even better — leading the league with a 104.1 quarterback rating while completing 70.2 percent of his throws. Then Smith suffered a concussion during the second quarter of a tie against the St. Louis Rams.
Kaepernick started the following week and led San Francisco to a 32-7 win against the Chicago Bears. That started an incredible 10-game run that ended with a 34-31 loss to the Baltimore Ravens in Super Bowl XLVII.
Smith supported Kaepernick to the best of his abilities and never spoke out of turn, and the Niners repaid that loyalty by allowing him some say in where he'd wind up during the offseason. A trade eventually was brokered with Kansas City, and it might have been the best thing that could have happened to the quarterback.
"I was going to go full steam ahead with this opportunity," Smith said. "I'm very appreciative of the opportunity. I know how quick it can be taken from you and be gone. So, for me, not looking back and just running with this. I'm not going to leave anything to doubt. I'm all in, so to speak, and just trying to do everything I can with it."
So far, that's been quite a lot. Especially of late.
Smith was 17-of-20 last week for 287 yards and five touchdowns in a 56-31 dismantling of the Oakland Raiders. That followed up a 45-10 win at Washington and continued a four-game stretch in which the Chiefs' once-maligned offense has scored at least four touchdowns in every contest.
That's the kind of momentum Indianapolis head coach Chuck Pagano is talking about when he says he wants the Colts (9-5) to "catch fire" ahead of a postseason run. And it's what Pagano's defense will have to deal with Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium, one of the loudest venues in the league.
"It's been a good thing these last few weeks, how the offense has been playing, how consistent we've been playing," Smith said. "I certainly think we've grown from it. The first half of the season we had spurts here and there but never been able to put full-game consecutive games together. The last four or five weeks have been good for us. I think we've kind of laid a foundation and are building off of it."
There are still some awfully lofty goals within reach. With wins in its final two games, and at least one loss by Denver, Kansas City can win not only the AFC West title but claim the No. 1 overall seed in the conference.
A second-place finish to the Broncos, however, will relegate the Chiefs to the fifth seed and put them on the road for the playoffs. That could mean a trip to Indianapolis on Jan. 4 or 5 for the wild card round.
But Smith said that possibility won't play a part in preparation for Sunday's game. He's seen too many surprise endings to look too far into the future.
"The AFC playoff picture is so confusing right now, depending on there's so many different outcomes, that I think it's almost too difficult to get caught up in it," he said. "So for us, at least my mindset, is let's keep going. Let's play together and have a good week of practice and go out there Sunday and keep this momentum going that we have. Not looking at anything like that. I think it's too tricky at this time. Too many different outcomes."