Chris Ballard saw the transformative power of a quarterback up close.
The Chiefs had traded for the 49ers’ Alex Smith months before Ballard left Halas Hall in 2013 to become Kansas City’s director of player personnel.
Recruited by Chiefs general manager John Dorsey and coach Andy Reid, Smith helped orchestrate one of the great about-faces in NFL history. The Chiefs went 2-14 in 2012 but 11-5 the next season, making the playoffs.
That turnaround and Ballard’s quarterback plan were undoubtedly discussed Wednesday, when the favorite to win the Bears’ GM job interviewed at Halas Hall.
The Bears will let their new administration decide Jay Cutler’s fate. Perhaps more than any of their four candidates, Ballard knows the value of a competent quarterback.
In 2012, no team threw for fewer yards than the Chiefs (169.6 per game). Matt Cassel and Brady Quinn combined to throw only eight touchdown passes and a whopping 20 interceptions, and neither had a passer rating above 66.7.
Smith, though, was just as advertised in 2013, throwing 23 touchdown passes and seven interceptions. He had an 89.1 passer rating.
He won’t ever be confused with Joe Montana, but Smith meets the Phil Emery definition of an elite quarterback: As a starter, he had won 19 of his last 25 games before being traded to Kansas City and has won 19 of 30 since.
It’s not known whether Ballard prefers a game manager to Cutler, but his success with Smith has to influence the discussion.
Consider: Cutler has thrown 93 interceptions since becoming a Bear in 2009. In that same span, Smith has 45. Cutler threw more picks in his first 13 weeks this season than Smith has thrown in his two Chiefs years combined.
The Bears’ issue, of course, is that there aren’t any Alex Smiths available.
If they decide to part ways with Cutler, they’d likely have to choose his replacement from a list of free-agent castoffs, from Mark Sanchez to Jake Locker to, if they’re lucky, Brian Hoyer.
Then again, surround Cutler with the right players, and he might be saved.
Ballard helped the Chiefs turn over more than half their roster in his first season. By the time the Chiefs took the field for a playoff loss against the Colts, they’d used 30 new players on their 53-man roster.
The help they received was from free agents, not draftees. First-round right tackle Eric Fisher started 13 games. Second-round pick Travis Kelce and fifth-rounder Sanders Commings combined to play three games as rookies because of injury.
But Ballard might have had more talent to work with then.
When he joined the Chiefs, he inherited six Pro Bowl players from the year before and the draft’s top selection. This year’s Bears claim Pro Bowl guard Kyle Long and the No. 7 pick.
Of course, Ballard would need his version of Reid. And those are hard to find.
If he lands the GM job — the Bears are expected to name one by the end of the week — Ballard will go to work finding a coach.
Greg Gabriel, the Bears’ former director of college scouting who hired Ballard in 2001, named three potential coaches who could interest his friend: Darrell Bevell, Dave Toub and Todd Bowles.
Bevell, the Seahawks’ offensive coordinator, was one of three finalists for the job that went to Marc Trestman in 2013. He and Ballard were college roommates at Wisconsin.
Toub, of course, coached the Bears’ special teams from 2004 to ’12 and continued to work with Ballard when both went to the Chiefs.
The Bears have an interview scheduled for Thursday with Bowles, the Cardinals’ defensive coordinator who Gabriel said could fit Ballard’s defense-first bent.