Even Pre-Harbaugh Alex Smith Isn't a Bad Option for the Kansas City Chiefs

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Even Pre-Harbaugh Alex Smith Isn't a Bad Option for the Kansas City Chiefs
Brian Bahr/Getty Images

The perception of Alex Smith is that he was terrible until Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman arrived in San Francisco. The perception is that Smith is an average quarterback who is going to turn into Matt Cassel in Kansas City.

Statistically, Cassel and Smith share some similarities and that scares Chiefs fans.

Some fans don’t like Smith and others don’t like the draft class. The Chiefs have to find a quarterback, and barring a trade, the Chiefs options are limited. Smith is a good quarterback and the Chiefs would be lucky to get him if they don’t believe there is a franchise quarterback in the draft.

Each player needs to be evaluated on his own merits, and for some reason people are afraid to even consider Smith without taking a closer look at what he can do for the team. Smith is capable of stepping in and becoming the starter for a few years while the organization looks for their future.

That’s what he did for the 49ers, and that’s what he can do for the Chiefs.

The 49ers were a Kyle Williams fumble away from making it to the Super Bowl in 2011 under Smith. The 49ers were 6-2 when Smith got hurt and 7-2 since Colin Kaepernick took over as the starter in 2012. The 49ers have a great team and are coached by a great coach, so wins shouldn’t be considered.

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If Kyle Williams doesn't fumble the 49ers would have gone to the Super Bowl last season.

Wins are a terrible way to evaluate the play of a quarterback, so Smith’s record as a quarterback prior to Harbaugh’s arrival shouldn’t count either. People are going to look at Smith’s play over the past two years and say it’s all Harbaugh even with evidence that supports Smith as a pretty good quarterback.

The only way to get a fair assessment of Smith for Chiefs fans is to evaluate him prior to Harbaugh’s arrival. Despite popular opinion Smith wasn’t that bad in 2009 and 2010. He only started 10 games each year and he had more touchdowns than interceptions. The 49ers also had a bad offensive line until 2010 when they drafted two linemen in the first round.

What changed when Harbaugh arrived is pretty simple to diagnose when you go back and watch games from both years. Smith stopped trying to do too much and he took what the defense gave him. Smith relied a little less on his arm and he started to use his feet.

Brian Bahr/Getty Images
Jim Harbaugh gets all the credit for turning Smith around.

Smith has above-average mobility that helps him buy extra time in the pocket. The problem with Smith prior to Harbaugh was that he would force throws after buying extra time to throw, and the result was more interceptions. Harbaugh and Roman encouraged Smith to run when he had a lane and to take the sack if he couldn’t set his feet.

Smith doesn’t get any credit for making Harbaugh and Roman look good—it’s always the other way around. Smith had to take what Roman was teaching him and apply it, and he did that very well.

He’s coachable, and you like that in your quarterback.

I went into the evaluation of Smith expecting to confirm the perception. Harbaugh made him look good; he’s not good on his own, and the Chiefs shouldn’t consider him. I came out of the evaluation thinking Smith should be an option for the Chiefs or any other team looking for a quarterback that uses a West Coast Offense.

For the purposes of my evaluation, I went back to 2010 when Mike Singletary was the head coach. Harbaugh can’t get any of the credit for the following, and in a lot of cases you might point to coaching as the problem. 

 

Misleading Statistics

Smith’s season-opening loss to the Seahawks was one of his worse performances of 2010. He threw two interceptions in Seattle and completed just 57.8 percent of his passes.

Statistics don’t always tell the whole story about a player’s struggles because a pass might sail right through a receiver’s hands and get intercepted. That play goes against the quarterback while the receiver isn’t penalized. The quarterback might have lousy protection, but he gets blamed if he can’t complete the pass or gets hit as he throws.

Smith had nine interceptions in the first five games. That sounds horrible without context, but not all of them were Smith’s fault.

On his first interception of 2010, Smith was forced to step up in the pocket. It was 3rd-and-5 and he was trying to get a first down. Smith has Michael Crabtree open at the first-down marker and all he needs to do is flip it to him.

Smith is throwing while moving forward and he gets a little too much zip on the ball. Since Smith doesn’t think he has time to set his feet, the pass is also on Crabtree’s back shoulder instead of out in front of him.

It's not the best throw, but he still put it in a place where Crabtree needs to make the play.

Instead of making the catch and getting a first down, Crabtree lets the pass go through his hands and bounce off his chest. The pass is intercepted. Smith could have made a more accurate throw with more touch, but the interception is still Crabtree’s fault.

On Smith’s second interception, he was targeting Crabtree again. This time it was 3rd-and-8 and Crabtree ran an out route. Smith made a quick drop and threw behind and over the head of Crabtree. The pass was picked off and returned for a touchdown that put the Seahawks ahead for good.

It looked like a horrible throw by Smith, but it probably wasn’t that bad. Smith was throwing to a spot and Crabtree ran his route at five yards instead of seven yards. There’s no way for sure to tell if Crabtree ran the wrong route, but it didn’t make a whole lot of sense for him to be running his route only a yard deeper than the tight end into the same area.

Against zone coverage you often see these types of routes at different levels with another receiver stretching the zones vertically. The play may have not been successful, but to place all the blame on Smith would be unfair without knowing if other mistakes were made.

 

Try to Do Too Much

After seeing Smith at his worst and determining that his supporting cast had something to do with his problems, I decided to take a look at his play against the Eagles. It wasn’t his best game, but it also wasn’t his worst. Smith had a season-high in passing yards and touchdowns against the Eagles, but he also threw two interceptions and lost a fumble.

The 49ers fell behind two scores to the Eagles because Smith fumbled. This is not something he is prone to doing like Cassel, but it did happen.

The Eagles blitzed and Smith’s blitz read is to Vernon Davis to his right, but he sees Davis slip and that keeps him from throwing the ball. Smith decides to roll out to his left to try and find his second option.

His second option is wide open, but Smith drops the ball trying to twist his body into a throwing position. The fumble is returned for a touchdown and it puts the 49ers down two scores.

Smith was in a no-win situation. The defender was right on top of him and Davis slipped coming out of his break. All Smith could have done was take the sack. He’s made this adjustment since Harbaugh and Roman arrived, and he’s no longer trying to make off-balance throws and attempting to make something out of nothing.

 

Arm Strength

Smith hasn’t showed off his arm strength much under Harbaugh, and that has people worried that he’s not capable of throwing the deep ball. A cannon for an arm is not a prerequisite to be a successful NFL quarterback, but people still want to see if you can make all the throws.

Smith’s deep accuracy might leave something to be desired at times, but he has plenty of arm strength. When Smith can step into a throw, the ball usually comes out with good velocity and accuracy.

Down by two scores, Smith had to bring the 49ers back into the game against the Eagles. Vernon Davis caught a perfectly-placed pass from Smith that traveled over 30 yards in the air. Davis caught the pass between defenders because it was perfectly placed right in front of him.

Smith is also willing to zip passes into traffic when the conditions are right. Davis caught another pass a little later from Smith that went right by the ear of the linebacker. Davis positioned himself well and got the touchdown, but the pass had to be perfect.

Smith battled back after his fumble using his arm to bring the 49ers back into the game.

 

Offensive Line

Smith didn’t always get great protection in 2012 despite having two rookie first-round picks at left guard and right tackle. If anything, some of his problems were due to growing pains by the rookies.

Mike Iupati lets the defender get a free run at Smith and forces him to roll to his right to escape.

Smith sees a wide open Crabtree and flips it out to him in the flat. Smith takes the hit, but manages to place the ball right in front of Crabtree with room to run. Crabtree gets pushed out, but Smith would still get the touchdown a couple plays later to pull the 49ers within a field goal.

After getting the ball back, Smith has another opportunity. The 49ers need a field goal to tie, but they have enough time to try for the end zone. Smith ends up throwing a game-sealing interception that ended the 49ers comeback attempt.

Smith might have been to blame here more than others, but it didn’t help that his five offensive linemen couldn't block a four-man rush. Joe Staley was flagged for holding (it was declined) and rookie right tackle Anthony Davis gets shredded by the stunt by the defensive front.

Smith made a quick read and found a receiver who was wide open down the field. If the offensive line doesn’t commit a penalty or let Trevor Laws come through basically unblocked, then the 49ers kick the field goal to tie or get the touchdown to win.

Instead, Laws hits Smith as he throws and pass becomes a wounded duck that gets intercepted. As you can see from this interception and his fumble earlier, Smith struggled in 2010 with gauging how quickly a defender would close on him.

That hasn’t been an issue for him in 2011 or 2012.

 

Conclusion

Smith isn’t a perfect quarterback, but he’s better than people think. Many of Smith’s issues prior to Harbaugh’s arrival have been corrected.

Smith learned to take more sacks, as evidenced by an increased sack percentage the last two years under Harbaugh. The result of taking more sacks was fewer interceptions, but also fewer opportunities. The 49ers could afford to play conservatively with a great defense and good running game, but that doesn’t mean Smith has a bad arm.

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Smith had 18 touchdowns in 10 starts in 2009 and just 17 in 16 games in 2011. It’s worth noting that the 49ers were trusting Smith more in 2012 and he was on pace to eclipse his career-high in touchdowns before being injured.

You might say Smith has been rehabilitated under Harbaugh, but he’s actually capable of throwing downfield more than the 49ers have let him over the past two seasons. Smith is good at diagnosing the blitz and he’s mobile enough to get out of the pocket, which make him a good fit for Andy Reid’s West Coast offense.

Smith is a solid starter and he’s a known commodity.

If the Chiefs aren’t sold on the rookie quarterbacks at the top of the draft, getting Smith and drafting a developmental quarterback would be the way to go. Reid has shown that he can develop young quarterbacks and getting Smith will give him time to do that.

Smith is good enough to take a team to the playoffs with a good supporting cast. The Chiefs could do worse and getting Smith will be a lot better than whiffing on a quarterback with the No. 1 overall pick. There’s a lot to like about Smith if a rookie isn’t an option.

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