Long before the Kansas City Chiefs were the NFL's only remaining undefeated team after four weeks, and long before a thrilling 29-20 Monday night win over the Washington Redskins, there was a question floating around: When will Patrick Mahomes become the Chiefs' starting quarterback?
Initially, it was assumed Mahomes would sit, watch and learn behind Alex Smith for one season, even though Kansas City was deeply invested in him after trading away three high picks to acquire the 22-year-old. Then Mahomes lit up the preseason, showing off his combination of athleticism and a lethal arm.
The plan didn't change, but the leash on Smith may have tightened a little. Mahomes was clearly ready if Smith stumbled, and a franchise that's desperate to vault over a playoff hump was perhaps preparing to have its patience tested.
But now there's a different problem developing for the Chiefs. It's the best problem any team could face at the most important position in football.
Suddenly on their quarterback depth chart, the Chiefs have a rookie top-10 pick. And ahead of him, they have a veteran who has planted the early seeds for an MVP season.
We need to start having that conversation now with the regular season officially at the quarter pole. For a long time, Smith embodied a football cliche that exists only because talent evaluators can crave what's safe and predictable over taking a risk: He was a game manager.
That version of Smith may not have won many games on his own, but he didn't lose many either. In 2016, Smith threw only 15 touchdown passes (tied for 27th), and averaged a mediocre 233.9 passing yards per game. However, he also threw just eight interceptions (his sixth straight season with single-digit picks), and completed 67.1 percent of his throws.
He was the regular-flavored potato chip quarterbacks—the baseline you're fine with until you see other more appealing options while browsing the QB aisle.
The 2017 version of Smith is nearly unrecognizable. He's always been sneaky mobile, and that hasn't changed. But now, the quarterback roaming the field for Kansas City is leaving his comfort zone and throwing deep lasers with pinpoint precision.
When that refined deep throwing is combined with his natural athleticism, we get this:
That's the 37-yard dart Smith sailed perfectly into wide receiver Albert Wilson's waiting hands. He had to lob the throw over two defenders and still got it there before safety Montae Nicholson arrived.
It landed softly and was corralled by Wilson to put the Chiefs in fringe field-goal range during a tie game with 33 seconds left. Then four plays later, rookie kicker Harrison Butker nailed a 43-yarder to maintain the Chiefs' flawless record one month into the 2017 season.
Smith's deep connection with Wilson on the game-winning drive was his fifth 20-plus-yard completion of the night. That came from a quarterback who averaged 2.6 completions for 20-plus yards over his 15 starts in 2016.
He finished with 293 passing yards and a touchdown. But what's most impressive is how consistent Smith was with his deadly accuracy on the run and facing pressure.
He was sacked four times, making pass protection the only sore spot for the Chiefs offense. Smith has now gone down four-plus times in three straight games, and has taken 16 sacks overall.
But as Reuben Frank from NBC Sports noted, that pressure didn't effect Smith prior to Week 4, and he wasn't disturbed against Washington either:
The league's best quarterbacks separate themselves with how well they handle pressure. Smith put a bright red check mark beside that box Monday with 130 passing yards and a rating of 133.5 when pressured, according to Pro Football Focus.
Accuracy of any kind isn't new for Smith, but it has usually come because he stays conservative while concentrating on short throws. Now he's stretching the field. Smith came into Week 4 averaging 9.2 yards per attempt, and finished Monday with a 7.9 per-attempt average.
He's still been careful with the ball, even as the difficulty level and danger associated with his throws are increasing. We're still waiting on his first interception of 2017 after 121 pass attempts.
His speed isn't new, but he's able to capitalize on it more often now with defenses having to respect the pass. He ran for 56 yards Monday, including a 32-yard scamper that on its own nearly doubled his total from the first three weeks (32).
He's becoming the answer to Kansas City's question at quarterback, instead of being the question itself. Of course, it helps to have the support of tight end Travis Kelce (111 yards on seven receptions), and rising rookie running back Kareem Hunt (121 yards from scrimmage).
But it's Smith fitting those deep passes through tight windows. And it's Smith combining that newfound precision with the deceptive scrambling.
It's also Smith who's now the glowing offensive centerpiece leading the NFL's top team.