KANSAS CITY — Even before the Super Bowl, during Andy Reid’s first days in Kansas City, Trent Dilfer predicted the Chiefs’ new head coach would make a strong push to acquire quarterback Alex Smith from San Francisco.
Dilfer, a former NFL quarterback and now an ESPN analyst, had no inside information, though he was a teammate of Smith with the 49ers in 2006 and 2007 and is now a friend.
It just made sense. Dilfer knew what Reid was looking for and that it played to Smith’s strengths.
“Andy’s a pass-first guy and he’s all about mental toughness, decision-making, getting the ball out quickly, executing the plan,” Dilfer said. “He’s wanted to expand what he does at the line of scrimmage, and Alex gives you great versatility at the line of scrimmage. He’s as good as anyone in the league at seeing things before the snap and digesting the information and getting his offense into the right mode, whatever that might be.
“Alex is very efficient in the shorter and intermediate passing game, and that’s kind of what Andy’s offense lives by — but he also has the ability to push the ball down the field.”
The Chiefs eventually made the trade with the 49ers to acquire Smith. Their new era at quarterback starts in earnest on Monday, when their offseason program begins. The Chiefs won’t get on the field for full-team practice for another couple of weeks, but Smith can throw to receivers and begin to learn Reid’s offensive system.
The Chiefs have high expectations for Smith, who was the first overall pick in the draft in 2005. They’ve held similar hopes for other backup quarterbacks they’ve acquired to be starters — Elvis Grbac and Matt Cassel immediately spring to mind — and those usually didn’t work out as they planned.
The Chiefs always moved on to the next best thing. There’s no telling yet whether the same fate awaits Smith — whether he’s destined to eventually be piled onto the quarterback scrap heap, following Grbac, Cassel and many others.
But Dilfer isn’t the only NFL observer who believes this particular union of quarterback, head coach and system will work out better than most of the others.
“Andy’s really a coach that likes to throw the ball on first down to give the quarterback some easy throws and to move the chains,” former Chiefs head coach Herm Edwards said. “His offense isn’t the deep vertical pass. He’ll throw some of those, but he’s more about implementing the offensive personnel and getting guys involved.
“Alex Smith will do a good job with that. He’s smart. He can change the protections and change the routes or whatever he wants to do from the line of scrimmage. So I think he has a good chance of being the guy for the Chiefs for a long time.”
Reid has displayed a deft touch with quarterbacks during his NFL coaching career. He worked with Brett Favre as quarterbacks coach with Green Bay, though Favre by that time was well on his way to becoming an eventual Hall of Fame player.
With the Eagles, Reid worked with, among others, Donovan McNabb and Michael Vick. Those guys and others who played quarterback for Philadelphia were better players for the Eagles than they were before joining the team ... or after they left.
After coming to the Chiefs, Reid was rumored to be interested in trading for one of his Philadelphia quarterbacks, Nick Foles. But Reid said recently, after the trade with San Francisco was completed, that Smith was the only starting quarterback the Chiefs were serious about acquiring.
“That was really never part of the discussion,” Reid said of Foles. “I had my eyes on Alex really when I took the job there.”
The veteran quarterback market, whether through trade or free agency, was thin this season. The Chiefs also have the first pick in the April 25-27 NFL Draft but obviously felt more strongly about Smith than the top available college quarterback, Geno Smith of West Virginia.
Reid indicated that Alex Smith’s football IQ, among other things, helped him stand out.
“Everybody is given a different load according to how many gigabytes they can handle,” Reid said. “He seemed to handle everything. They’re all different. He does it very well.
“He’s won a lot of games and his QB rating has been off the charts. I would tell you that he has the intangibles, the leadership and the work ethic and the smarts that you need to do well.”
During the early years of his career, Smith looked as if he would be one of the NFL Draft’s notorious busts. The 49ers repeatedly changed offensive coaches and systems, which the Chiefs also did with Cassel.
Once Jim Harbaugh joined the 49ers as head coach in 2011 and provided some stability, Smith persevered and eventually flourished. But Reid saw something in Smith even during those ragged seasons with the 49ers. Reid more than once tried to interest the 49ers in trading Smith to the Eagles.
“He was the product of a lot of different information during those years,” Dilfer said. “When you don’t have coaching stability and system stability, you get a lot of input — and sometimes it’s hard to filter it all. I’ll say this about Alex: He needs structure and he needs routine and he needs clarity and he needs big answers. He’s smart, so smart, off-the-charts smart. Because of that, his mind works a certain way. He doesn’t do well with a lack of direction.
“When you’re switching coaches all the time and each coach has a different message, he wasn’t supplied all the things that he needs. It’s not like Jim came in and sprinkled pixie dust on Alex. But he gave Alex structure and (49ers offensive coordinator) Greg Roman gave him structure. There was a tight plan, and when Alex has that, he’s going to execute it as well as anybody.”
Dilfer played for five NFL teams during his career, but never the Eagles. While he never played for Reid, he did play in Seattle under Mike Holmgren, who gave Reid his first NFL coaching job as an assistant with the Green Bay Packers.
In Green Bay, Reid adopted much of Holmgren’s methods and offensive system. Having hired Doug Pederson as a first-time offensive coordinator, and Matt Nagy as a rookie quarterbacks coach, Reid will call the Chiefs’ offensive plays and retain considerable influence over the offense ... and, by extension, Smith.
“Alex will embrace Andy’s way of doing things,” Dilfer said. “He’ll do well there. Andy has a way of making simple what to other people can be very complex. His messages to the quarterback are very clean. You need to have a system that complements the skill sets of his players. Andy provides a system that complements anyone’s skill set. It’s hard not to be successful in Andy’s system. You have 10 completions before the game even starts.”
Asked to elaborate, Dilfer said, “Andy is really good with his offense at utilizing space on the football field. When you use the space wisely, especially horizontally, it’s hard (for opponents) to defend the short passing game. It’s very hard, especially with today’s rules, where you can’t really jam a receiver and you can’t hit anybody. So short, in-breaking routes are virtually unstoppable against certain defensive looks.
“Then Andy does as good a job in the screen game as anybody. He does a great job of finding matchups where his guy is better than the other guys. His teams do such a good job training the rhythm-and-timing part of it. There’s synergy between the quarterback’s drops and the receiver’s depth. That’s just a little nuance of a good passing team. You add all that up and throw in the way Andy calls a game — he calls passes on first down, when he gets more balanced looks from the defense, and he likes to throw it more than run it — there are 10 gimmes out there every game.”