Former Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith announced his retirement on April 19, completing a rollercoaster of a 16-year NFL career. Smith spent five seasons with Kansas City and made all three of his Pro Bowl appearances as a member of the Chiefs.
The Kansas City Chiefs reign as the apex predators in the AFC of today’s NFL, but it wasn’t always like this. In 2012, the Chiefs posted a franchise-worst 2-14 record. Typically, teams immediately enter a realm of panic and identity crisis following a miserable season. For Kansas City, the rebuilding period lasted just one offseason, and Smith was a pivotal piece of the puzzle that brought the team its new identity.
The Chiefs hired head coach Andy Reid before the 2013 season, but the team needed a leader on the field. Smith lost his starting job with the San Francisco 49ers to the young and talented Colin Kaepernick at the end of the 2012 season, and Kansas City scooped him up.
Smith went on to win nine straight games as the Chiefs’ starter, and he solidified his place as the new leader of the team. In his five seasons, Smith threw for over 17,000 yards, good enough for the third-most passing yards in Chiefs’ franchise history.
Smith may not have the longevity of Len Dawson or the success of Patrick Mahomes, but his chapter in Kansas City Chiefs’ history is equally important. No player wants to leave a Super Bowl contending team only to sign with the worst team in the league, and no quarterback should ever be tasked with changing the culture of a losing franchise in one year. However, Smith did exactly that.
Smith saved the Chiefs from plummeting down into an abyss of perpetual failure. There are teams in the NFL still trying to recover from abysmal seasons from a decade ago, but the Chiefs stepped over the worst season in franchise history like a mere anthill.
Chiefs fans may not have realized at the time, but Smith took on his most important role for the team in 2017 when Patrick Mahomes arrived as the next face of the franchise. The relationship between Smith and the Chiefs easily could have turned sour, but Smith posted the best stats of his career. Smith’s careful approach to the game that limits turnovers clearly shows up when Mahomes takes the field, proving Smith’s success as a mentor to a young player.
When Smith left Kansas City to play in Washington, he suffered one of the worst injuries in NFL history. Smith fractured his tibia and fibula in a game in November of 2018 and faced life-threatening conditions, nearly losing his leg in a recovery journey that featured 17 surgeries.
“I was stuck in a wheelchair, staring down at my mangled leg, wondering if I’d ever be able to go on a walk with my wife again or play games with my kids in the yard,” Smith said in the video announcing his retirement. “Putting my helmet back on was the furthest thing from my mind.”
He had every excuse to walk away from the game that almost ruined his life, but courage and an unbreakable determination led him back to the football field. When the Washington Football Team turned to Smith to start at quarterback, he won five of his six starts including a four-game winning streak. Washington then went on to win the NFC East.
Smith also won the 2020 Comeback Player of the Year award as his final act in the NFL. His 16-year career featured a brief but impactful stint with the Kansas City Chiefs, and he completed his journey with one of the most improbable comebacks of all time.