COSTA MESA — Asked about the quarterback he will face this weekend, Casey Hayward didn’t give Chargers fans much reason for optimism.
“Just hope he makes a mistake,” the cornerback said.
Just to be clear, Hayward — who is coming off his first Pro Bowl appearance — is talking about Alex Smith, who less than a decade ago was being lumped in with some of the NFL’s biggest draft busts. Smith, who only once has thrown more than 20 touchdown passes in a season. Smith, who once lost quarterback competitions to both J.T. O’Sullivan and Shaun Hill.
The thing is, Hayward isn’t crazy. Kansas City enters StubHub Center this Sunday (1:25 p.m., CBS) undefeated, and Smith may be the biggest reason.
Through his first four seasons in the “Show-Me State,” the former No. 1 overall pick proved himself to be an above-average quarterback, one who — paired with a top-10 scoring defense — is good for regular playoff appearances.
The fifth season has not followed the same formula. Kansas City has given up 47 points, more than all but seven other teams in the NFL. Meanwhile, Smith has gone from cog to catalyst in the first two games, setting career highs in passing yards per game (309.5), passer rating (134.1) and completion percentage (77.8).
That season-opening win in New England wasn’t a dragged-out slugfest; it was blowout fueled by Smith’s four touchdown passes, the second-highest single-game total of his career. At this rate, even MVP discussions aren’t totally farfetched.
Granted, two games is a small sample size, and Smith is unlikely to maintain his pace for another three months. But according to ESPN, the 33-year-old has already thrown three completions that traveled at least 25 yards through the air — one more than he did in all of 2014.
“I don’t know if he’s taking more risks or not, but he’s an accurate quarterback,” Chargers coach Anthony Lynn said. “Where he kills you is with his mobility, making plays off schedule. That’s where he really hurts you.”
For the Chargers (0-2) to have a good chance of winning Sunday, Hayward said they need to hold Smith’s completion percentage to the “50 range.” Recent history does not bode well. In his eight career appearances against the Chargers, Smith completed fewer than 65 percent of his passes only once — and that was in 2006, his second season with the 49ers.
Gus Bradley has a better track record. The Chargers’ first-year defensive coordinator faced Smith six times…