49ers

How Alex Smith helped Chiefs' Patrick Mahomes develop in rookie season

49ers

MIAMI, Fla. -- Patrick Mahomes has it all. The Chiefs star can flick the ball 70 yards without issue. He's thrown passes left-handed, with his eyes closed and with both feet hovering off the ground. 

In only three seasons in the NFL, and two as the Chiefs' starting quarterback, Mahomes has shown the propensity to do the amazing. He transformed himself from risky NFL draft pick to superstar seemingly on the flight from Lubbock, Texas to Kansas City, and now he has the Chiefs on the precipice of a Super Bowl title if they can conquer the 49ers and the NFL's best defense Sunday in Super Bowl LIV. 

For all his otherworldly talent, Mahomes didn't become last year's league MVP and the new face of the NFL on his own. He rode the bench in his first season, holding the clipboard for someone who once was the future of the franchise he faces Sunday: Alex Smith. 

After playing seven seasons with the 49ers, Smith was traded to the Chiefs in 2013. He had four productive seasons in KC, including a career year in 2017 where he threw for 4,042 yards, 26 touchdowns and just five interceptions. He also spent that season mentoring the man who eventually would take his job and the league by storm. 

"He was extremely important," Mahomes said of Smith's impact on his development. "The way he went about his business and being a pro's pro, a great quarterback and also a great human being. He taught me a ton of just the process and how to blueprint your week and how to game plan. And then, how to read coverages by the little things. Maybe how the defensive line lines up and I think it helped me out a lot in the early part of my career, even still to this day of being able to get those invaluable lessons from him."

 

From the moment Mahomes started his first game in Week 17 of his rookie season, it was clear he was the Chiefs' future. 

Life as the up-and-coming quarterback isn't always easy in the NFL. Brett Favre famously wanted nothing to do with mentoring Aaron Rodgers. While Tom Brady and Jimmy Garoppolo are friends, there were whispers that Brady's fear of losing his job to Jimmy G was one of the reasons the New England Patriots traded the young quarterback to the 49ers. 

Mahomes was lucky to have a guy like Smith to see the writing on the wall and still take him under his wing, giving him crucial advice to weather any adversity that came his way. 

"Alex Smith was phenomenal," Chiefs head coach Andy Reid said Tuesday. "He wasn't asked to do this, but he let Patrick into his world. Patrick handled it the right way. He was humbled around Alex. He didn't try to overstep his bounds with Alex when he competed. With that, Alex let him kind of tag along on the field and off the field, showed him how to be a pro. How to study, your diet, your workout plan, family, how you work your family into the National Football League to be a great player in the National Football League.

"I joke about it, but it's true. Patrick couldn't pay Alex enough for what he gave him with the experience."

Mahomes took over last season as the Chiefs' starting quarterback and Smith was traded to Washington where he later suffered a gruesome leg injury that has kept him sidelined since. 

During his first year at the helm of the Chiefs' offense, Mahomes took the league by storm, throwing for 50 touchdowns and 5,097 yards. He joined Peyton Manning and Brady as the only three quarterbacks in NFL history to throw 50 touchdowns passes in a single season. His improvisation allowed him to paint with all the grace and beauty of Leonardo Da Vinci. 

Instead of the Mona Lisa, Mahomes was crafting masterpieces rarely seen before in the NFL. 

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His talent popped immediately. His bazooka for a right arm has made jaw-dropping throw after throw as he's ascended to the top of the NFL quarterback hierarchy. He excels under pressure whether that's a defensive end bearing down on him or the Chiefs falling into a deep hole as they did in their AFC divisional-round win over the Houston Texans. 

Down 24-0 in the blink of an eye, Mahomes, icy cool, could be seen rallying his teammates on the sideline. He spoke. They listened intently and believed in their leader's words. Then, the flood gates opened as the Chiefs outscored the Texans 51-7 for the rest of the game, putting an aura of invincibility around someone destined to be an all-time great.

It's rare for young quarterbacks, no matter how talented, to command the attention of their team. Normally that takes time, a learning process filled with bruises and failures. But Mahomes was given a gift not afforded to most about-to-blossom stars: A veteran to show them how to succeed in the NFL before graciously handing them the keys. 

Mahomes came to the NFL with all the tools to ascend to the pantheon of all-time greats. Alex Smith's lessons gave him the road map to accelerate his rise. 

Programming note: NBC Sports Bay Area feeds your hunger for 49ers Super Bowl coverage with special editions of “49ers Central” all week (8 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, 9 p.m. Tuesday and 3 p.m. Saturday).

Also tune in at 1 p.m. on Super Bowl Sunday for a two-hour special of "49ers Pregame Live" with Laura Britt, Donte Whitner, Jeff Garcia, Ian Williams, Kelli Johnson, Greg Papa and Grant Liffmann. That same crew will have all the postgame reaction on "49ers Postgame Live," starting immediately after the game.