KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) – He was supposed to be the savior of a downtrodden franchise, a mobile quarterback with plenty of arm strength to keep defenses honest, and enough moxie to lead his team to respectability.
Perfect description for Alex Smith. Pretty good for Johnny Manziel, too.
When Smith leads the Kansas City Chiefs into Sunday’s game against the Browns, he may as well be showing his Cleveland counterpart what’s still possible. The start to Manziel’s career has been every bit as turbulent as Smith’s beginning in San Francisco, yet the former No. 1 overall pick has matured to the point he’s a Pro Bowl alternate for a Chiefs team barreling toward the playoffs.
“I obviously had a lot of expectations and a lot of hype coming in,” Manziel said. “He obviously did being a first-round pick, too, but he did get some patience with the organization that he was with, and I think it’s panned out for him because I think he’s a good quarterback.”
Those first few years were quite the struggle, though. Smith had difficulty living up to expectations, and it took a new 49ers regime before Smith finally started to flourish.
Even then, he was jettisoned in favor of Colin Kaepernick. Smith never lost faith in himself. And now in his third season in Kansas City, he is putting together arguably the finest season of his 10-year career, one that has the Chiefs (9-5) riding an eight-game winning streak.
Smith went more than 300 passes without a pick earlier this season, setting a Chiefs record. He is on pace to shatter his career high for yards passing, and his 16 touchdown passes and four interceptions represent the best touchdown-to-interception ratio of his career.
In short, he’s come a long way from completing 50 percent of his passes as a rookie.
“He knows he’s in charge out there,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “He’s got a little flexibility to get you in and out of plays, good or bad situations, and put you in good situations.”
That may be the mark of an established quarterback – the point Manziel is trying to reach.
The first-round pick of the Browns (3-11) last year, Manziel went 0-2 as a starter as a rookie. Things have been just as topsy-turvy in Year 2, which has included off-field issues, a benching after the bye, and a couple of decent performances that have earned him another start Sunday.
“I’ll tell you the same thing I told you when he was in college: He’s an explosive player,” Reid said. “From a defensive standpoint, you’ve got to make sure you play the whole play and then a little.”
The finish to the season could be crucial for Manziel, because the Browns will have another high draft pick. That means they must decide soon whether to continue to build around him.
“They see him ultra-prepared. They see him seamlessly calling plays in the huddle and getting guys lined up, and knowing where to go with the ball and doing his job. There is no substitute for hard work to get to that point,” Browns coach Mike Pettine said. “He has put it in and has done it.”
SACK CITY: Manziel won’t have a fresh Chiefs pass rush to worry about. Outstanding linebacker Justin Houston is sidelined by a hyperextended knee, and Pro Bowl counterpart Tamba Hali had surgery this week to repair a broken thumb. That means the Chiefs could be getting after the quarterback with second-year pro Dee Ford and Frank Zombo, a linebacker better suited to playing the middle.
HOBBLED LINE: It would also help Manziel’s cause if Pro Bowl offensive linemen Alex Mack and Joe Thomas are close to 100 percent. Mack had a calf injury and Thomas a problematic knee, and both of them missed time in practice this week.
TIGHT END TESTS: The Chiefs’ Travis Kelce will be going to his first Pro Bowl, while the Browns’ Gary Barnidge is an alternate and could join him in Hawaii. “Hopefully I don’t have to go. Our eyes are on the prize,” Kelce said of the Super Bowl. “We’re looking to going after the big dog. We’re not looking at the individual stuff right now. We’re trying to take this team here to the big show.”
BOWE SHOW BACK, MAYBE: Browns wide receiver Dwayne Bowe will return to Kansas City, where he spent the first eight years of his career, assuming he is active. He’s only played in six games after signing a two-year, $13 million deal with Cleveland.
HEADY STUFF: Marcus Peters had a memorable week. Not only did the Chiefs’ rookie cornerback earn a Pro Bowl spot, he was voted AFC defensive player of the week after his second pick-six. “Getting player of the week, that’s big-time,” Peters said, “but I’ll take the win over that.”
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