KANSAS CITY, Mo. — He is the quarterback of the NFL’s last unbeaten team and by a large measure the league’s leading passer.
“I think you have to enjoy the wins,” Smith said. “If you’re not enjoying the process, there’s a problem. You’re not doing it for all the right reasons. You invest so much with your teammates and your guys and everybody here that when you do have success, you do need to enjoy it and certainly this team does that.
“I think they also understand the bigger culture and the bigger goals, and to obtain any of those, you enjoy and then you’re on to the next. That’s just the nature of the business, how this works.”
Smith is playing so well that he’s a strong MVP candidate through the Chiefs’ 5-0 start. If he has a passer rating of 100 or more in Sunday’s game against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Arrowhead Stadium, he would be the fourth quarterback in NFL history to hit that mark in each of his team’s first six games.
That’s heady stuff for a player never before viewed as an MVP candidate but as a game manager who won a large share of games because he rarely made a game-altering mistake.
Still, Smith is well aware the lasting impression he leaves will be formed by what happens against the Steelers and beyond, continuing into the postseason. He is 1-3 in the playoffs since joining the Chiefs in 2013.
Dwelling on where he and the Chiefs stand would only take away from the task at hand. That’s why Smith might allow himself a look at the NFL standings but not the passing statistics that have him with a passer rating of 125.8. He’s far ahead of the next quarterback on the list, Brady (112.0).
“We’re in the middle of the season,” Smith said. “We’ve got a lot of games left. There’s a lot of ball to be played. If you’re stopping and reflecting on that and feeling good, it’s probably not a good sign for what’s to come. For us it’s more about the path we’re on, the direction we’re headed and the bigger goal and keeping your eye on that and knowing the only way to get there is to have a sense of urgency as you go about your business.”
Since he joined the Chiefs, Smith has taken a similar approach, even when things haven’t been going so well. He kept his head down, for instance, in 2015 when the Chiefs opened the season 1-5 and they might have considered making a change at quarterback had a viable alternative been available.
Smith and the Chiefs reversed course that season quickly. They won their final 10 regular-season games and then earned the franchise’s first playoff win in 22 years.
Indeed, some of his teammates have marveled at Smith’s consistency in his approach. They’ve said it’s hard to tell from his demeanor during a game week whether the Chiefs are playing well or whether they aren’t.
“I’m around him a lot,” coach Andy Reid said. “I’m in the meeting room with him, in all the meeting rooms with him, so I spend a lot of time with him and I haven’t really seen a different person that way. He seems to go about his business that way.”
This approach helped Smith survive his pre-Chiefs career in San Francisco, where first he was tossed about in the years of the 49ers’ instability. Later, after he established himself and the 49ers were suddenly winners, he was benched in favor of Colin Kaepernick, precipitating his trade to Kansas City.
“It was tough early,” Smith acknowledged. “I carried a lot of weight when I played. It took a while to kind of shrug that off. I’m not sure I’d be where I am today if I didn’t go through it, as frustrating as it was.”
This offseason the Chiefs drafted another quarterback, Patrick Mahomes II, in the first round. In Mahomes, who played well in training camp and the preseason, the Chiefs have never had such a viable option to Smith.
It’s easy to say Smith is playing better and changing the perception about him because Mahomes is behind him, but the reason for his improved play isn’t so simple. He’s been a self-starter since he’s been in Kansas City, at least.
The Chiefs have surrounded Smith with his strongest supporting cast yet, and he’s taking advantage.
“Now it’s a different mindset and just going and playing ball and not having the anxiety of that,” Smith said, comparing his current state to his time with the 49ers. “It’s [having] the confidence in your teammates and yourself to just go out and play your game and to know that’s good enough.”