This Sunday, the NFL playoffs return to Kansas City for the first time since 2011, and the Chiefs have a chance to go further than they’ve gone in a generation. But as commentator Victor Wishna explains in this month’s edition of 'A Fan’s Notes,' that’s not all that’s on the line.
The Kansas City Chiefs are two wins away from a Super Bowl, so perhaps you’ll forgive all the hype. But why do we care? What does it really mean … for players and fans alike … glory? Fame? Pride?
Or something more basic. Like ... a little respect.
It’s one of the ironies of playing games as a profession: the possibility to achieve mythical glory and net million-dollar paydays — to see your face on billboards, your every success splashed across high-definition flat-screens around the world — and still not get the respect you deserve.
That’s especially true in the NFL, where overabundant machismo masks locker rooms full of fragile egos. The smallest verbal slight goes right up on the proverbial bulletin board, lest anyone forget just what they’re fighting for: a little respect.
For fans, too, this is one more way in which the drama of sports can speak to the drama of our own lives — that same yearning for dignity easily gets tied up in our teams. That can be a good thing, such as when the Royals’ title run galvanized our city, and bolstered our collective reputation and identity.
But when we don’t quite reach that plateau, we easily lash out at those seen as most responsible.
Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith has been a favorite target for a long time. Google “Alex Smith critics” and the first hit to come up — of more than 700,000 — is from 2011. Smith had just led the San Francisco 49ers, to a 13-3 record and the NFC title game, where only a heartbreaking overtime loss kept them from the Super Bowl.
Smith is — though most people don’t realize it — one of the winningest quarterbacks in the league over the last half-dozen seasons. No, he’s not Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers. But he is third, right behind them in total victories as a starter. He’s even more effective in the postseason, against the best competition and under the most pressure, with the fourth-highest QB rating in NFL history — better than Joe Montana, Troy Aikman and Steve Young.
Sure, those others have 13 Super Bowl titles between them, and nine MVP awards. All in all, Smith’s individual stats are not the kind you’d find on a Hall of Fame resume. And because he’s played with top-10 defenses, and almost always with a strong running game, he can’t seem to shake the less-than-flattering label of “game manager.”
Is that any way to treat the guy who has the best passer rating and most rushing yards of any quarterback in Chiefs history? How ’bout a little respect?
Andy Reid, likewise, is one of the most successful NFL coaches, yet he too has been ridiculed, usually for his lack of game management. It’s largely why, despite nine playoff runs, five title games, and a Super Bowl, he “managed” to get himself fired by the Philadelphia Eagles. Of course, it’s hard to please folks in the City of Brotherly Love, who once threw ice-balls at Santa.
Reid knows that down the stretch, Smith has been playing some of the best football of his career, though his detractors may not admit it. They’ll credit the emergence of weapons like Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill for the improvement. But what if that’s backwards?
“Alex does what great quarterbacks do—he makes everyone around him better,” said Reid, who has the Kansas City Chiefs playing at Arrowhead in the divisional round for the first time in well over a decade.
The Chiefs haven’t won a home playoff game since 1994 which was also the last time they advanced to the AFC Championship. On Sunday, they could do both. And for Reid … for Smith … for Kansas City, that would mean something.
Victor Wishna is a writer, editor and sports fan. He lives in Leawood.