Alex Smith likes to do something special for his offensive line during the holidays, a small token of appreciation for the hard and often thankless work they do keeping him upright.
The Kansas City Chiefs quarterback gave them custom suits last year, and this year the big guys walked into the locker room to find pricey Yeti coolers amid the swag waiting for them at their stalls.
"They're always kind of the underappreciated group on offense," Smith said. "Those guys work really hard and take a lot of pride in what they do. They're a tight-knit group. Just a small token here this time of year, just try to let them know how much I appreciate him."
Good thing they've played well the past few weeks, though.
Smith was probably planning to give them a lump of coal for quite a while.
One of the most expensive position groups on the roster was dynamic early in the season, when the Chiefs rattled off five straight wins.
But injuries and inconsistency set in during a midseason slump and the Chiefs promptly lost four straight and six of seven to slip into a tie atop the AFC West.
Now, the Chiefs have won two straight and can clinch the division with a victory on Sunday, and a big reason for their revitalization has been the offense – and the offensive line.
"Those are proud guys and when they put their mind to something they make it happen," said Chiefs coach Andy Reid, himself a former offensive lineman and position coach. "They just kind of put their mind to it and said, 'Hey, enough's enough. We have to take charge here and get this thing rolling. Whoever's fault it is doesn't matter.' You played the position, you know."
The play of the offensive line is inherently difficult to quantify, though. It's not like a running back's yardage or a wide receiver's catch total.
And in truth, the few metrics that exist haven't been a whole lot better, including a four-sack afternoon against Oakland a couple of weeks ago.
But even then, those four sacks went for just 25 yards. The Chargers managed one sack last week, when the Chiefs rolled to a 30-13 victory that put them on the brink of back-to-back division titles, and Smith had plenty of time to dice up a secondary and pile up the points.
"The thing that has to happen there, more so than other positions, is that's a true team concept," Reid said. "So one guy has a breakdown out of the five and it ends up being a negative play. It's hard to point a finger at one, but they all started dancing the same dance together."
They started dancing downfield in the running game, too.
Pro Bowl running back Kareem Hunt began his career with four 100-yard rushing performances in his first five games, but like the rest of the team, went into a midseason swoon.
The offensive line failed to open holes, Hunt was often bottled up at the line of scrimmage and his numbers took a dive.
He only eclipsed 50 yards rushing once in a five-week stretch, and after scoring five touchdowns in his first three games, he went the next nine without reaching the end zone.
But with the offensive line prying open holes again, Hunt has been back on track. He ran for 116 yards and a touchdown against Oakland and 155 yards with two touchdowns against the Chargers.
"I have to thank those guys. If it wasn't for them I wouldn't be in (the Pro Bowl)," Hunt said. "It is a great feeling and I have to thank those guys, and look forward to doing something for them."
Perhaps top the high-priced gift package given to them by his quarterback?
"No," Hunt said with a shake of his head. "I'm still a rookie in my rookie contract."
NOTES: LB Justin Houston joined TE Travis Kelce in missing practice with an illness Thursday. Left tackle Eric Fisher returned from his illness. ... LB Kevin Pierre-Louis planned to try out his ailing shoulder in practice. He did not participate Wednesday.