Offensive guard Geoff Schwartz remembers the first time he saw Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith run in a game. Smith escaped from the pocket, and what Schwartz saw shocked him.
"Whoa, I didn't think he was that fast," Schwartz said to himself.
Schwartz is now with the Giants but played with Smith in Kansas City in 2013. Schwartz isn't the only guy to be unexpectedly amazed by Smith. When Smith was in San Francisco and was shockingly permanently benched for Colin Kaepernick after suffering a concussion—the team was 6-2, and Smith was having his best statistical season—one 49ers player remembered what the locker room was like after the controversial move.
There were two camps developing: one for Kaepernick and the other for Smith.
While the player explained it would be hyperbole to say a civil war was emerging, he said, "The locker room was headed to a potentially bad place. Then Alex changed things."
Smith told teammates opposed to his benching, in no uncertain terms, to back Kaepernick. The player remembers Smith's actions as the most selfless thing he's seen in his NFL career.
Kaepernick told reporters this week, speaking of Smith and his benching:
I think he definitely made things go a lot smoother. I mean, the way he handled things didn't turn it into a controversy in the locker room. It shows the character that he has, not only as a player but as a man.
(He's) one of the classiest people I've been around—just all-around great guy. I don't think anyone could've handled it as well as he did.
I'm told that Kaepernick at the time basically said to Smith that he would never forget how Smith handled the situation.
"Did he want to be on the field? Yes," Kaepernick said. "But he wasn't going to let that get in the way of what the team was trying to do."
Said Smith to the media this week: "I actively tried to be a good teammate and tried to do what was right. This is a team game, and I wasn't going to put myself or my situation ahead of any of that. I know I said this at the time, and I still feel the same way: No one is bigger than the team."
This is who Alex Smith is. Probably how he's always been. And there's so much more.
In many ways, it is Smith's unselfishness that makes him great. It is also that unselfishness that makes him vastly underappreciated.
Smith has been called a game-manager, which in the past was the NFL equivalent of a slur. A game-managing quarterback is basically told to just stay the hell out of the way while the real men do the job.
What many of us—including me—missed about Smith in the past was just how explosive his skill set can be. That potential was buried in conservative 49ers systems that didn't always trust him (but should have).
As Smith heads back to San Francisco on Sunday, versus the team that dumped him for Kaepernick, what we've learned is this: Game-manager is no longer an insult when it comes to Smith. In many ways, he has changed the definition of the term.
Smith isn't the guy he was with the 49ers. He has grown into more than just efficient. He's become dangerous, a quarterback who can make every throw on the field. Game-manager? Game-destroyer. He's gone from tepid to explosive, and the transformation of two franchises became complete.
"Every QB is a 'game-manager,'" Schwartz said. "Russell Wilson is a game-manager just like Alex Smith. He does what's asked of him."
Schwartz wasn't criticizing Wilson. He was stating a fact. Wilson and Smith have talent, but they also don't make a ton of mistakes. Smith can do anything. If the Chiefs need him to throw for 180 yards and run for 40, he can. If they need him to do what he did against the Patriots, throwing for 248 yards and three scores with a passer rating of 144.4, he can do that too.
|Alex Smith's Career Stats|
"Some QBs are asked to do more," Schwartz said.
"Just look at our playoff game," Schwartz added, referring to a 45-44 Wild Card loss to the Colts, in which Jamaal Charles left after the first play with a concussion. "Losing Jamaal, we needed more from Alex."
And what did Smith give them? He had 378 yards and four passing touchdowns. He was asked to change his game and carry the offense, and he was incredible.
The alleged game-manager morphed into Dan Fouts.
What we're seeing with Smith is maybe a guy who all along could do many things on the football field but was asked to do only a few. Maybe everyone except Chiefs head coach Andy Reid saw that.
When Smith came out of Utah in 2005, the Eagles—then coached by Reid—had a very high grade on him. Reid always loved Smith and wanted to coach him, I'm told. So when the opportunity arose, he jumped at it.
Reid gave Smith advice this week on the best way to approach returning to play an old team. He did this himself recently when the Chiefs played in Philadelphia. Reid explained to reporters:
You focus in on what you do. All the distractions, going home and all that—it doesn’t mean anything. You’re there to play the game and once you’ve said hi to your buddies it’s over. You’re playing the game, that’s what you’re doing. You’ve got to prepare and you’ve got to go through all the steps here on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday. That’s what it is, everything else is kind of fluff. Everybody talks about it but that’s not what’s real. The real is you get in the grind and get yourself ready to play a game.
Smith has always meant many things to many people. To the 49ers, he was a passer of a torch. To Kaepernick, he took a seldom-used high road. To the Chiefs, he is everything. He is malleable.
What Smith is, most of all, is good. In every way.
Just plain good.
Mike Freeman covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.