KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Alex Smith had just led the Kansas City Chiefs to another win in what has become a season full of them when offensive coordinator Doug Pederson was asked to assess his quarterback.
Rarely one to speak in superlatives, Pederson replied quite candidly: “I think he’s probably having the best season of his career, honestly.”
Pick your metric and it probably backs up that appraisal.
Smith threw for 3,486 yards this season, by far the most of his 10-year career. He completed more than 65 percent of his throws, matching his best mark for a full season. He tossed 20 touchdown passes, second only to his first season in Kansas City. He ran for nearly 500 yards, also a career best.
Then there’s the most important measure: wins. After losing five of their first six, Smith led the Chiefs to 10 consecutive victories to finish the regular season.
He made it 11 with a 30-0 rout of the Houston Texans last Saturday, and will try to make it 12 when Smith leads Kansas City into New England for a divisional matchup this Saturday.
“Numbers may not be up there with some of the top guys in the league, but his wins and losses are,” Pederson said. “He’s understanding what we’re asking him to do. We’ve given him more opportunities in games to get us out of certain things or put us into certain things. He’s leading this football team like we knew he was capable of doing, and given us opportunities to win games.”
Smith bristles at the notion that he’s a “game manager,” as if that’s a derogatory term reserved for quarterbacks one step down from elite. But in his case, it may be a flattering description.
Not many signal callers in the league make fewer mistakes than Smith, who threw just seven picks all season. Few have the same wherewithal to scramble for first downs when a pocket collapses, or check out of a failing play, or chuck the ball out of bounds to avoid a sack.
“He’s very smart in reading coverages,” Patriots cornerback Devin McCourty said. “He’s not always just dropping back and trying to run. He kind of knows what coverage when he can run, when he should stay in the pocket and get the ball to the open guy, so he’s definitely going to be a tough challenge to go along with all the other quarterbacks we’ve faced this season.”
Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who has worked side by side with Tom Brady for so many years, also praised Smith’s cerebral nature. Belichick got a full dose of it last year, when Smith was 20 of 26 for 248 yards and three touchdowns without a pick in a 41-14 blowout of Belichick’s team.
“Consistent. Lot of production. Great ball security. Makes a lot of throws,” Belichick said. “He extends plays with his legs, sometimes to throw, sometimes to run. He’s very good at improvising.”
He’s been especially good in the playoffs, too.
In his lone trip with the San Francisco 49ers to cap the 2011 season, Smith threw for 299 yards and three TDs without a pick in a victory over the New Orleans Saints.
Then in the NFC title game, Smith tossed two more touchdown passes without an interception and had the 49ers on the brink of the Super Bowl, only for his special teams to let him down in a 20-17 overtime defeat to the Giants.
Two years ago, in his first postseason with Kansas City, the veteran threw for 378 yards and four touchdowns without an interception against Indianapolis. But in one of the biggest playoff letdowns in NFL history, the Chiefs’ defense squandered all that offense in a 45-44 defeat.
“If you really look at this guy in the critical situations of the game, he really shows up as far as taking over,” Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia said, “whether it’s a run-game situation where he’s got the option to keep the ball, or it’s a pass-game situation where he can make plays with his feet — extend, get out, keep the drives going, got-to-have-it type of situations.
“He’s very, very dangerous,” Patricia added. “Got to keep him in the pocket, make sure he doesn’t scramble around on us and get out and control the game that way.”