In the wake of the Alex Smith trade, there has been a lot of information that has been used for and against the deal.
These myths are perpetuated because few people have taken the time to dive deeper. Sometimes you don't always like what you find when you dig into the numbers.
These myths don't portray the trade for Smith in a positive light. Keep this in mind before proceeding.
There are very good things about Smith and his fit in Andy Reid's offense that I am saving for another post. This is therefore an incomplete view, but it should give defenders of the trade knowledge about what not to argue—and give people who are against the trade more ammunition.
The numbers, logic and history presented might not support the trade, but the game tape might. John Dorsey and Andy Reid are paid to make decisions based on the game tape, so that will give us a better idea of how this trade could work for the Chiefs.
Frank Gore has been a consistent presence in San Francisco with Alex Smith.
It’s certainly true that Smith didn’t enter the best of situations. The 49ers were a two-win team, and the talent was obviously a bit depleted. This is true for most quarterbacks taken early in the first round.
Of course, Andrew Luck didn’t use that excuse, and neither did Robert Griffin III. They didn’t need to use that excuse. Saying the talent was worse is obvious, but saying that’s why Smith didn’t perform is an entirely different statement.
It’s only logical that the 49ers would throw more passes if the talent was better around him. Except that’s not the case.
Smith averaged 30.3 attempts per start for his first five seasons and 26.3 attempts per start in his last two years. By comparison, Colin Kaepernick attempted 31.4 passes per start in 2012.
If Smith’s receivers got better, why wouldn’t he throw more passes? If Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree had to mature under Harbaugh, how come Smith wasn’t allowed to throw more passes once that happened?
The one explanation could be Frank Gore.
Gore has been pretty much the same guy since 2006. He missed 10 games in a five-year span. Just two games per year, if you don’t count his rookie year. Gore was actually more productive in those years than the last two years on a per-carry basis. Gore averaged 4.7 yards per carry from 2005-2010 and 4.5 yards per carry the last two years. The only significant difference is that Gore is getting more carries now.
Maybe Gore is getting more carries because the receivers are actually worse? Not likely. Gore’s running can be directly related to having more leads at the end of the game. The receivers weren’t worse, but they also weren’t a lot better.
In 2006, Smith’s top receiver was Antonio Bryant. He had over 1,000 yards the year prior to coming to the 49ers and over 1,200 the year after leaving. Bryant had only 733 yards in 14 games with the 49ers. Bryant’s quarterbacks before and after leaving Smith were Trent Dilfer, Brian Griese, Jeff Garcia and Charlie Frye.
Fast-forward to 2011. Smith’s top three receivers are Crabtree, Davis and Kyle Williams; they combine for 1,907 yards. Bryant, Arnaz Battle and Gore combined for 1,904 yards in 2006. It seems that the talent around him produced at a pretty similar rate in the passing game in 2006 and 2011—the only two years Smith has started all 16 games.
Talent around him or not, Smith lost a QB competition to Shaun Hill and J.T. O'Sullivan. Smith was also benched in favor of Shaun Hill and Troy Smith at various points. Smith was about to be benched in favor of Trent Dilfer in 2007 when he had a passer rating of 57.2 through seven games, but he got hurt.
Smith won 38 percent of his starts from 2005-2010. The other quarterbacks: Shaun Hill, Trent Dilfer, J.T. O’Sullivan, Tim Rattay, Ken Dorsey, Chris Weinke and Troy Smith combined to win 39 percent of their starts.
Smith might not be bad, but he’s not going to raise the level of play of the players around him, either.
The 49ers defense got very good, very fast. NoVorro Bowman was a big part of the rise.
What really changed from 2006 to 2012 was the defense.
In 2006, the 49ers allowed the most points in the league. In 2011 and 2012, they allowed the second-fewest in the entire league. The offense didn’t really get that much better with Smith; the defense got better and helped the offense.
The defense went from worst to second, which is a huge improvement. In 2010—the year before Harbaugh was hired—the defense was 16th in points allowed. In 2009, the defense was fourth in points allowed and Smith was 5-5 as a starter. He was 14-26 in his other five years as a starter before Harbaugh arrived.
At least from Smith’s history, it’s going to take a defense ranked in the top five to win about half the time. It’s pretty clear that Smith is a product of that great defense, once you actually take the time to go back and look at the talent around him, and how other quarterbacks fared in the same offense.
The Chiefs don’t have that kind of defense—at least not yet.
Matt Cassel seems like a fumble machine.
Matt Cassel turned the ball over—that was his issue.
As a passer, he wasn’t that bad. Cassel had 41 fumbles in 62 starts, or one every 1.5 games. Smith has 44 fumbles in 75 career games, which is one every 1.8 games.
Of course, that’s not adjusting for attempts. The more a quarterback hands the ball to a running back, the less they are going to fumble. If you adjust these rates for attempts, Cassel fumbles every 49.9 pass-attempts and Smith fumbles every 49.5 pass-attempts.
There isn’t much of a difference here. Since Smith takes more sacks than Cassel, he’s also at greater risk. Smith takes sacks on 8.3 percent of plays, whereas Cassel takes a sack on just 7.3 percent of players, according to pro-football-reference.com.
Andy Reid’s system is going to emphasis quick-pass players, which should eliminate the sacks and fumbles, but may result in more interceptions. Time will tell.
This is not something Smith can continue and be successful when throwing the ball 30 times per game.
The offensive coordinators changed, but it wasn't always a bad change.
In his second year, Smith’s offensive coordinator was Norv Turner. Say what you want about Turner as a head coach, but he’s widely believed to be one of the best play-callers and offensive minds in the NFL. Turner was smart enough not to change the offense too drastically, too.
Jim Hostler took over in Smith’s third year and kept the same offense as Turner. He was widely regarded as a terrible play-caller and is the exception here. If you wanted to blame a coordinator hire for screwing up Smith, it was Hostler.
When Mike Martz took over in 2008, Smith lost his starting job and got hurt. How Smith would have produced is entirely unknown. You can’t really say Martz hurt Smith for that reason.
Jimmy Raye took over for two years, and Smith had more yards per game under him than he had under Greg Roman. Smith’s completion percentage hovered around 60 percent, and he threw 22 interceptions and 32 touchdowns in 20 starts. It was two years of continuity in virtually the same scheme Turner used, but the success still wasn’t there.
Smith did have to change coordinators, but they weren’t horrible coordinators, and the scheme wasn’t always drastically different. 49ers fans will try to tell you they were all horrible, but the defense and the quarterback was clearly the issue.
You can only cycle through so many offensive coordinators before you realize the problem isn’t the coach.
Jim Harbaugh and Trent Baalke started searching for a franchise quarterback immediately.
Why would a team who thinks they have their franchise quarterback trade up in their first draft to land a quarterback?
That’s so rare that I couldn’t find another time in NFL history where it happened. The closest might be when the Broncos selected Brock Osweiler last year, but they didn’t trade up for him.
Manning was also coming off a serious injury and has only a couple of years left. Osweiler was also drafted 57th overall, not 36th overall like Kaepernick.
Considering how the 49ers opened up the offense once Kaepernick got into the game, it was clear that the 49ers were managing the game around Smith’s deficiencies. Maybe the 49ers weren’t certain what they had in Kaepernick when he got his shot, but they certainly thought they had something, or they wouldn’t have aggressively moved to get him in the draft.
For a second-round pick, you might be able to get a Kaepernick or Andy Dalton in the draft. That’s provided you don’t just take the one you think is the best with the first overall pick. We don’t know how these players are going to develop.
Dalton and Kaepernick were taken with the 35th and 36th picks in 2011. The three quarterbacks taken in front of Kaepernick and Dalton were NFL stalwarts Cam Newton, Blaine Gabbert and Christian Ponder. That was supposed to be a stronger class of quarterbacks than 2013, but it doesn’t look great now.
When the 49ers selected Smith, they did what the Chiefs feared doing, which is take a quarterback with the first pick who isn’t worth it. There’s nothing wrong with that thought process. In fact, it makes good sense for the Chiefs.
By all means, don’t draft a quarterback with the first pick if you don’t think he is worth it, but you better feel pretty strongly about it.
In 2008, the Miami Dolphins and St. Louis Rams passed on Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco. Two years later the Rams were drafting No. 1 overall, and they picked Sam Bradford. The Dolphins held off drafting a quarterback until 2012, when they drafted Ryan Tannehill and the Ravens won the Super Bowl with Flacco.
If Andy Reid can do wonders for Smith, he should be able to do those same wonders for a rookie quarterback.
Clearly the organization is going with what they feel is best, but the upside is considerably small for such a blockbuster deal. The unknown quality in a rookie means he could develop into an elite passer.
Drafting a quarterback like Ryan Nassib in the second round comes with reduced risk.
By trading for Smith, the Chiefs are going to have to commit to him for at least two years—probably three. According to spotrac.com, Smith will make $8.5 million (including roster bonus) in 2013 and $9.0 million in 2014 under his current contract terms.
If the Chiefs want to restructure the deal, they are going to have to add more guaranteed money and/or spread it out over more years. Smith’s base salary of $7.5 million becomes guaranteed April 1, 2013, so that would be a starting place.
The Chiefs will pay $18.5 million to Smith over the next two years at the very minimum. With a rookie quarterback, the contract is favorable for the team, thanks to the NFL’s new rookie wage scale. If you draft a QB later, there's even less risk.
By comparison, Andrew Luck will make $22.1 million over four years, according to spotrac.com and it’s fully guaranteed. If a rookie were to sign the same deal, you could release him after two years. The total investment for a rookie quarterback over two years is just $3.6 million more than Alex Smith.
That’s only if the Chiefs were to release the rookie quarterback after two years, which would mean he’s a total bust.
Trading for Smith also means the Chiefs are going to be paying two players like No. 1-overall picks. At most, the 34th pick will make about $5.5 million over four years, or about $1.4 million per year. Trading for Smith therefore costs $7.8 million more per year than keeping the pick.
From a fiscal perspective, Alex Smith increased total player costs for the Chiefs. If we assume all the players are busts, the Chiefs will pay more by making the trade. If we assume all the players hit, the Chiefs will pay less by keeping the 34th pick.
This is hardly a low-risk deal. The new regime is hitching their wagon to Smith, and they wouldn’t have to do that with a rookie quarterback. Theoretically, you could go after a quarterback again after just a couple years, and save your job if you get it right on the second try.
There are some interesting veteran quarterbacks like Matt Moore who could be signed for cheap.
The Chiefs obviously felt Smith was the best quarterback available, but you can’t ignore his cost. Some would say you pay what it costs to acquire the best guy, but that’s a surefire way to get yourself into trouble. Overpaying players is a bad thing that teams should avoid.
Would you rather pay a guy $10 million for 15 touchdowns or $4 million for 13 touchdowns? With $6 million, you can figure out another way to get those two touchdowns.
It also took two draft picks to land Smith: a second-round pick and what we’ll call a third-round pick. Those picks are worth at least $2 million per year combined. At least that’s what you would end up paying those players, but premium picks like that can provide an excellent value for their cost.
Considering you can probably sign Matt Moore or Jason Campbell for a pack of baseball cards, some chewing gum and a box of wet kindling, justifying Smith as the best quarterback available is tough. Both Moore and Campbell have better career quarterback ratings. Moore’s touchdown percentage is higher than Smith’s, and Campbell’s interception percentage is lower.
Smith is clearly better than those two options, but is it enough to justify the extra cost?
There are several veteran quarterbacks that have yet to become available as well. Those quarterbacks usually come cheap.