If the Kansas City Chiefs want to take the first important step in reviving their bottomed-out franchise, they need to trade for San Francisco 49ers quarterback Alex Smith. They can't afford to see him land with the Arizona Cardinals. They can't hope to find a better starter in a weak free-agent crop. They can only take the best available option left to them, one that is much better than people may believe.
Smith may not give the Chiefs a franchise quarterback for the next 10 years. But he is very capable of helping the Chiefs, who own the first pick in this year's NFL draft, get to where they ultimately hope to go. He's seasoned, battle-tested and itching for an opportunity after losing his job to Colin Kaepernick midway through last season. He's also smart enough to understand the situation he would be entering with the Chiefs.
There is little doubt that the Chiefs will use a high pick on a quarterback in this year's draft. The real question is who will be worthy of that pick and available when they pull the trigger. Fans of West Virginia's Geno Smith and USC's Matt Barkley like to say they'll be first-rounders, but there's no way either player should be the top overall selection in this class. They carry too much risk to be picked that high, even with the decreased cost associated with high draft picks these days.
That uncertainty also makes Alex Smith more valuable, so much so that Chiefs can't pass him up. Despite all the criticism he endured during his eight seasons in San Francisco, Smith proved plenty over the past two seasons. He helped the 49ers reach the NFC title game in 2011, and he was the top-rated passer in the league when a concussion created the opportunity that Kaepernick seized. The naysayers who write off Smith's success as just a byproduct of 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh's leadership aren't giving the quarterback enough credit. He ultimately has been responsible for his own good fortune.
That mental toughness is something the Chiefs sorely need. They also could use a few more players who understand what it feels like to go deep into the postseason. This team went 2-14 with a roster that had far more talent than a record such as that suggests. They need more veterans who understand that tough times eventually disappear if the right mix of players can come together.
Smith knows that he would be a bridge to the Chiefs' future at quarterback. He can play well enough to help Kansas City win games and he can offer guidance to his eventual successor. Kaepernick receives all the love now in San Francisco, but he surely could testify that Smith aided his development and that of the entire team. In 2011 alone, while the league was held up by a lockout, Smith gathered his teammates for informal workouts and helped them learn a new offense.
Smith's critics casually forget that he easily could've blown off those sessions and focused on finding a new team. He didn't owe the 49ers anything at that point, and his contract had expired. Smith ultimately helped his teammates because he thought they needed some leadership in a tough situation. He also saw something in Harbaugh that convinced him that it just might be worth sticking around San Francisco a little longer, despite all the acrimony he had faced since being the first pick in the 2005 draft.
If that wasn't enough proof of the character Smith could bring to Kansas City, his handling of his benching this season is the clincher. He didn't whine. He didn't become a locker room cancer. He simply stayed quiet and watched his teammates roll into Super Bowl XLVII. Even when a horde of reporters surrounded him daily during the week leading up to that meeting with the Baltimore Ravens, Smith never let people see whatever disappointment he was feeling.
Those moments will help Smith be a better player this season and in the long run. His brief time with Harbaugh also should give the Chiefs a blueprint for how to use him to the best of his abilities. Nobody is saying Smith is about to become a perennial Pro Bowler in the next stop of his career. But he can continue to expand on all the positives he displayed over the past two seasons.
Some critics see the second coming of Matt Cassel in Kansas City, but that's a bad read of this situation. Cassel was an inexperienced backup who turned one impressive season in New England into four years as a starter with the Chiefs. Smith, on the other hand, has experienced nearly everything an NFL quarterback can face. He has been blasted by fans, betrayed by coaches, battered by opponents and benched at the brightest moment of his career. Other quarterbacks tend to fade away after such setbacks, but he has found a way to create a future for himself beyond San Francisco.
The Chiefs must recognize that, because they've reportedly been interested in him for quite some time. New Chiefs coach Andy Reid won with a variety of quarterbacks in Philadelphia, and he surely thinks he can make things work with Smith. Now it's just a question of whether the Chiefs are willing to be aggressive enough to make a trade happen. If they are, they'll feel much better about the near future of this franchise.