Travis Kelce felt his phone buzz on Tuesday evening. He answered, and his girlfriend gave him the news he secretly feared might be coming.
His quarterback, Alex Smith, had just been traded to Washington.
“I still can’t really describe it,” said Kelce, the Chiefs’ star tight end who was making the Super Bowl media rounds Wednesday at the Mall of America. “It’s a (bad) feeling.”
Kelce’s desire to see Smith remain a Chief had far more to do with Smith — a man he calls a brother — than his replacement, rookie Patrick Mahomes. Smith has been Kelce’s quarterback since the tight end’s rookie year in 2013, and in many ways Kelce sees Smith as a major reason he’s not only become a Pro Bowler, but also signed a life-changing extension.
The two men had legitimate on-field chemistry. Smith regularly put his trust in Kelce to do a job and make a play for him, and Kelce — who is as loyal as they come — took the news of his friend’s trade hard.
“One of my brothers on the team, and he means everything to this franchise, I thought,” Kelce said, referencing Smith’s 50-26 regular-season record as a Chief. “Your quarterback … and he just came off his best season yet. It’s just tough, man.”
Kelce, like many Chiefs, had come to admire Smith for his intelligence and resilience. Few know how hard is to be taken No. 1 overall, be declared a bust and become a Pro Bowl player through sheer force of will, as Smith did.
And while several Chiefs have sang the praises of Mahomes, for the last several months many veterans had nice things to say about the 33-year-old Smith, who is coming off a stellar season in which he set career-highs in passing yards (4,042), touchdowns (26) and passer rating (104.7) while throwing just five interceptions.
“I’ve always been an Alex Smith fan, even during the tough stretches throughout the year in KC when he’d have some tough games,” inside linebacker Derrick Johnson said Wednesday. “I’ve always stayed true to my word and gave Alex big props, man.
“He’s a guy that’s been through a lot, keeps coming back and proving people wrong like ‘No, I can do this, I can throw the deep ball, I can win the game in the fourth quarter,’ ” Johnson added.
Veteran linebacker Tamba Hali came to admire Smith’s — in his words — silent leadership.
“He knew how to go about each day at work and guided his team to victory after victory,” Hali said. “Most of my wins with the Chiefs came with him at the quarterback position. What he’s left behind is just how you should handle yourself at that position, regardless of adversity.”
Both Hali and Johnson have been with the Chiefs for 10-plus years, and experienced plenty of losing before Smith’s arrival. During Johnson’s tenure, the team’s winning percentage before Smith (37.5 percent) is far worse than the winning percentage since (66 percent).
“He gave us stability, confidence, a sense of leadership,” Johnson explained.
That, of course, didn’t keep some from nitpicking certain aspects of Smith’s game — some of which were deserved. Earlier in his tenure, Smith was criticized for zealously protecting the football in an effort to avoid turnovers, and early in his career, the inability to consistently push the ball downfield and lead a fourth-quarter game-winning drive was, too.
“Look, is Alex a guy who is probably gonna like, lead you down the field if you’re down 14 points? No,” said former NFL lineman Geoff Schwartz, who blocked for Smith in 2013. “But he can win you games in a situation that’s controlled.”
Early in his Chiefs tenure, Smith did just that. But as his career in Kansas City went on, he improved yearly, eventually coalescing into a career year in 2017 in which he led the NFL in passer rating. He will be the first quarterback to lead the league in that category and play for a new team the following season.
Smith also led the league this season with 17 completions on passes thrown at least 30 yards downfield, one more than he completed from 2013 to 2016 combined.
It is the newest version of Smith — the 2017 model — that Washington, which is expected to hand him a four-year extension worth $71 million in guaranteed money, is hoping to get. The hardened, borderline MVP candidate who did such a good job mixing his cautious nature with a newfound risk-taking flair in 2018 that the Chiefs saw multiple suitors line up for Smith’s services this offseason.
“I think people recognize, subjectively, when you watch him play, you know he’s a good quarterback,” said ESPN analyst Louis Riddick. “Objectively, when you look at his stats, you can’t deny that this was a damn good season on any level and by anyone’s standards and it was a career year for him, and I think people respect that.”
Yet, that didn’t prevent the cash-strapped Chiefs — who were $8 million over the projected salary cap prior to the deal — from swapping him for a promising young corner in Kendall Fuller, a 2018 third-round pick and essentially $15.6 million in cap space.
In fact, the benefits of trading Smith and handing the job to Mahomes — who starred in his first career start, the Chiefs’ 27-24 win over Denver in the season finale — were so great that several veteran Chiefs, all of whom supported Smith’s starting candidacy in their Super Bowl bid this year, that weren’t that surprised when the move actually went down Tuesday.
“You knew (a trade) was coming at some point — it’s never a surprise in this business,” Johnson said. “But Alex is gonna do a great job (for Washington).”
Kelce, Smith’s most ardent supporter, feels the same way, though he can’t help but wonder what could have been, thanks to the litany of weird, unusual losses that have dotted the Chiefs’ 1-4 postseason record under Smith and coach Andy Reid.
“Yeah, I wanted to get at least one more chance to chase this ring with Alex,” Kelce said. “I just feel like he’s had so much scrutiny, he hasn’t really been able to just go out there and get the praise.”
Would Smith have been traded, for instance, if the Chiefs didn’t suffer a myriad of momentum-sapping concussions while blowing a 28-point second-half lead to Indianapolis in the wild-card round in 2013?
Would Smith still be a Chief if a dubious Eric Fisher holding penalty didn’t negate a potentially game-tying score in their 18-16 divisional-round loss to Pittsburgh in 2016?
And what would have happened if Kelce hadn’t been knocked out of the game just before halftime because of a concussion — which played a role in a blown 18-point second-half lead — in the Chiefs’ 22-21 wild-card home loss to Tennessee a month ago?
“I just wish I would have been out there in the second half of the playoffs this year so that it would have just ended better,” Kelce said. “It was just kind of a sickening taste in my mouth the way it ended for us in Kansas City.”
That’s why Kelce, even though he likes Mahomes’ potential — “He’s got all the confidence in the world,” Kelce noted — couldn’t help but fire off a text to Smith on Tuesday night to see if he was still in Minneapolis. Smith wasn’t, though he spent most of the day doing his own Super Bowl media junket, but Kelce wanted his quarterback to know he still had his back.
“I shot him a text to see if he was here,” Kelce said. “I wanted to see him face-to-face and just appreciate him and say thank you for being how good he was.”