Even now, nearly a year after a concussion changed the course of his career, Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith never hesitates.
If he sees an opportunity, and if there’s a first down to pick up, Smith wastes little time tucking the ball and turning into a dangerous running threat.
Smith, with 258 yards in 49 attempts, is the Chiefs’ second-leading rusher, trailing only AFC rushing leader Jamaal Charles. And Smith’s 41 runs (not counting eight kneel-downs) have produced 14 first downs, or 34 percent of his carries.
But there is some risk vs. reward when it comes to Smith’s penchant for running.
So far this season, 11 teams have lost starting quarterbacks for at least one game — including the Buffalo Bills, who could be starting their third different quarterback Sunday against the Chiefs if rookie Jeff Tuel plays in place of injured Thad Lewis.
Some of those quarterbacks were hit when sacked in the pocket. But others, like St. Louis’ Sam Bradford and Cleveland’s Brian Hoyer, were injured while running with the ball.
Smith, who suffered a concussion last November with San Francisco that cost him his starting job and led to his trade to the Chiefs, understands the risks.
“I’ve learned a lot of lessons over the years by not making good decisions,” said Smith, 29. “As you get older, you get smarter with it. I try not to take unnecessary hits, and there is a risk-reward there pulling the ball down and running as a quarterback, and knowing when to take the chances of ‘Do you go down head first?’ … ‘Do you not slide?’ … When to get out of bounds.”
The hit he took from St. Louis linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar that led to Smith’s concussion last season was an unnecessary gamble.
“I definitely learned from that,” Smith said. “I look back on it, and I knew it was kind of a stupid hit to take. It was a first down, it wasn’t a third down, it wasn’t close to the chains. You live to fight another day, looking back at it.”
Smith remained in the game after gaining 4 yards on that play and said the concussion symptoms became more pronounced a few plays later when he converted a quarterback sneak on fourth and 1. Smith completed the drive by throwing a touchdown pass before he was removed from the lineup.
He resumed his running ways with the Chiefs. Smith, who has rushed for 1,019 yards in his career, is ranked fifth among NFL quarterbacks in rushing this season and is on pace to break the Chiefs’ rushing record of 386 yards for a quarterback set by Tyler Thigpen in 2008.
“It’s football,” Smith said. “You still go out there and play. You don’t go out there and play scared. In fact, I enjoy it. I enjoy running, I enjoy getting hit occasionally, it’s part of the game. But no question, avoiding the big hits …”
Because of his running, Smith has taken two pretty good hits this season. In week two against Dallas, he sprinted toward the sideline, lunged for the chains and flipped over on his back after converting on third and 15 by gaining 17 yards.
Three weeks later, Smith was shoved out of bounds by Tennessee linebacker Moise Fokou a yard short of the first down, but Fokou was called for unnecessary roughness, sustaining a go-ahead touchdown drive.
“With Alex, it’s in him to run,” said Chiefs offensive coordinator Doug Pederson, a former NFL quarterback. “He did that in college, and in his NFL career, he’s done that and made good plays.
“He’s very instinctive that way. It’s something you can’t teach. He knows when to go, he knows when to get down and protect himself, and it’s good to see he’s been able to pick up that many first downs for us.”
So far this season, Smith has had eight carries of 10 yards or more, including a 23-yard dash on third down last week against Cleveland, setting up the Chiefs’ first touchdown.
“If teams are going to play man-to-man coverage or play certain ways that they’re not going to count the quarterback, then you’re going to try to make them pay,” Smith said. “On that (23-yard) run, and it will never show up on a stat sheet, but Dwayne Bowe had a great block, and I made a turn to the edge and it went from a 6-yard run to a 20-something-yard run.
“When things break down or lanes open up, and you have a chance to run, you’re a ball carrier as well … so if you can get out of the pocket, there are plays to be made.”
On another scramble against Cleveland, Smith was marked short of the marker on third and 3, but the Chiefs challenged the spot. The play was reversed, giving the Chiefs a first down at the Cleveland 41.
Chiefs coach Andy Reid has had plenty of experience with running quarterbacks, notably Donovan McNabb and Michael Vick at Philadelphia, who both made plenty of big plays with their feet but were susceptible to injuries.
“I just tell them to play the game,” Reid said of his quarterbacks. “If they’re thinking about (injuries), normally bad things happen. Either they don’t execute the play or they get hurt. Neither one of those are good.
“You don’t want to see any of them go down. It’s a tough position. That’s why the league spends so much time trying to work the rules for that position. Things happen in this game. It’s a contact sport.”
Reid also calls a read option or two each game for Smith, where he either hands off to Charles or carries himself, depending on what the defensive end does. Smith scored on a 5-yard touchdown run against Houston after Charles went the wrong way on the fake.
“I’ve done the read option my entire career, going back to college,” Smith said, “so it’s something I’m very comfortable with. (Running) is something I try to take pride in, those kind of hidden yardage that gets kind of lost. Every week, a little bit here and there, a couple of conversions, those change games.”