Perhaps you’ve heard: Reigning MVP Patrick Mahomes, whom the Bears passed on in the 2017 draft in favor of trading up one spot and spending the second overall pick on Mitch Trubisky, brings his AFC West champion Kansas City Chiefs to town Sunday.
The week of breathless comparisons, fair or not, were “imminent,” as Bears OC Mark Helfrich admitted. Of course there are no do-overs, as Trubisky reminded everyone, and obviously there are valuable lessons to be learned from Ryan Pace’s potential legacy-defining mistake.
Yet not nearly as prevalent as all of the Mahomes-Mitch rants you’ve surely read or heard in recent days is where Alex Smith fit in that picture. And with a couple offseason moves looming in the Bears’ QB room — hopefully at least one that gives them a fighter’s chance in 2020 if/when Trubisky’s inconsistencies continue — we think it’s past time to spend a few minutes focusing on Smith.
First, let’s be clear: Only 10 games into his stint in Washington last season, Smith suffered a catastrophic leg injury from which he’s yet to return, that ultimately could end his career.
This is not a column about the Bears needing to pursue Smith this offseason.
But the reasons are twofold why Smith was traded two offseasons ago to Washington by the Chiefs in exchange for a second-round pick and CB Kendall Fuller: Clearly, Mahomes was ready to not only start but shine, as he obviously did in one of the greatest quarterbacking seasons in NFL history; and Smith was coming off the best season of his career, with the hot-shot first-rounder for whom the franchise fearlessly mortgaged its future suddenly alongside in the QB room.
Smith had taken a clear step backward in the 2016 season, compelling the Chiefs — despite being on the heels of their first division title in six years — to stun the NFL world by moving up 17 spots and selecting Mahomes at No. 10 overall.
With Smith’s yards per attempt, passer rating, TD-INT ratio and especially rushing production all having declined precipitously, and with only one year remaining at the time on his current deal and their defense also having taken a notable step back, he suddenly had the ultimate motivator: his likely heir breathing down his neck.
Sure, Smith was in a far more established career spot, on his second team and in Year 12 at the time, and Trubisky this offseason will only be entering Year 4, when Bears fans are likely resigned to a best-case scenario for their supposed QB savior becoming, well, coincidentally, Smith. And no, the Bears, with their limited draft ammunition, aren’t likely to shoot for one of this draft’s most likely future stars at the position, like a Joe Burrow or Tua Tagovoila.
The bigger point is that the Chiefs acted decisively with Smith's reckoning nigh, identifying a path toward a better QB future with Mahomes, and doing so undoubtedly brought out the very best in the incumbent starter.
All Smith did following Mahomes’ arrival was set career highs while leading the NFL in passer rating and TD-INT ratio, finishing second in yards per attempt and third in completion percentage as he guided the Chiefs to consecutive division titles for the first time in franchise history. His spectacular resurgence created powerful leverage for Smith and for the Chiefs — they found an aggressive trade partner willing to hand him a new contract including in excess of $70 million guaranteed, clearing the way for history to be made by Mahomes.
Again, these aren't exactly apples-to-apples comparisons. By most indications, however perplexing, the Bears are prepared to continue riding with Trubisky, which likely means picking up his fifth-year 2021 option this spring. Still, it'll be guaranteed for injury only, essentially making next year Trubisky's contract season. And with Trubisky currently their only quarterback under contract next season, the Bears have no choice but to make some difficult decisions on how to surround him. The potential scenario that we're outlining, obviously, would be best case, like the "Quarterback University" label Andy Reid gave this week to his 2017 QB room. Matt Nagy expounded, emphasizing the process between Smith and Mahomes of establishing trust from the beginning to the end of that season, and the unity and the united front it helped to create.
But if we can see some of these similarities, surely Bears coach Matt Nagy — at the time the Chiefs offensive coordinator who shared that QB room with the "heaven-sent" mentor Mahomes and ungodly talented Mahomes — can, too, right? And with the coach saying just this week that one of his main points of pride with Trubisky in his quarterback's clear step backward from last season is how he's been "mentally calloused," he should be able to take the heat that comes with a legitimate rookie and/or veteran challenger?
Because if he's not, wouldn't that be the most obvious sign thus far that his wiring isn't that of a franchise quarterback?