Alex Smith: A Career Breakdown by the Numbers

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Alex Smith: A Career Breakdown by the Numbers
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Despite being quiet, mild-mannered and liked by his teammates, quarterback Alex Smith became a controversial figure in 2012 due to the unusual circumstances of his benching.

After leading the San Francisco 49ers to the 2012 NFC Championship Game and after being a shoe-in for the Pro Bowl halfway through last season, Smith suffered a concussion and lost his starting job. Though he was a legitimate MVP contender before the injury, Smith spent the rest of the season and playoffs on the bench in favor of second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

Smith has had one of the most up-and-down careers of any quarterback in NFL history. He went from starter to bench-warmer and back again more than once, and now he is set to become the new starting quarterback of the Kansas City Chiefs.

So what is Alex Smith really: An average starter? One of the best in the game? A bench-warmer?

Here are what the numbers tell us about the trends in Alex Smith's career and what the forecast for his future looks like as he gets set to revive his career in Kansas City.

 

The Early Years

Smith was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2005 NFL draft after putting up out-of-this-world numbers in his final collegiate season at Utah. With 32 touchdowns and only four interceptions to go along with a 67.5 completion percentage, it was no surprise when he was the first pick, although it is noteworthy that he was picked ahead of Aaron Rodgers.

Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

Out of the gate, Smith looked like a bust and his rookie year was as bad as they come, as his 14 turnovers overwhelmed his one touchdown pass in the nine games that he played in. Add in the 40.8 quarterback rating and less than 100 total passing yards per game and there is no more need to emphasize how terrible that year was. While he was dealing with an injury throughout that season and was playing for a very poor team, it is still hard to excuse such abysmal play.

In his second season, however, Smith was one of the most improved players in the NFL. Under new offensive coordinator Norv Turner, he suddenly looked like a serviceable quarterback. He started all 16 games, completed a respectable 58.1 percent of his passes and managed a 1:1 touchdown to interception ratio. His 74.8 quarterback rating was also pretty reasonable for a mediocre starter.

 

The Bust Years

Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

In 2007 and 2008, though, it appeared that Smith really was a bust. In 2007, Turner left the team, Smith injured his shoulder, and suddenly he looked bad again. He played in only seven games, and his completion percentage dropped below 50 percent, which is unacceptable for any NFL quarterback.

Then, in 2008, Smith broke a bone in his shoulder, keeping him out for the entire season and knocking him into total obscurity. Over the course of these two years, Smith played in only seven games and scored only two touchdowns, averaging 4.7 yards per pass.

 

Learning the NFL Game

The biggest trick that has been played on some NFL fans regarding Alex Smith has been the myth that coach Jim Harbaugh made him who he was when he arrived to coach the team in 2011. In reality, the most stunning turn-around years in Smith's career were 2009 and 2010.

His dramatic improvement in 2009 was a shock to most. Smith did not see actual game action until Week 7 that season, but he immediately found his stride when given the chance.

For the rest of that year, he posted a fantastic 60.5 completion percentage and a solid 3:2 touchdown to interception ratio. As a result, he was rated for the first time in his career as an above average starter by Pro Football Focus for an entire season. For a comparison point, he was placed on par with three-time Pro Bowler Tony Romo of the Dallas Cowboys.

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He then came back in 2010 and improved further in the face of competition for the starting job. Despite being injured for a few games and battling Troy Smith for playing time, he finished the year with 14 touchdowns along with an 82.1 QB rating. 

From 2008 to 2010, Smith went from being an apparent bust to a serviceable starting quarterback. Still, he had yet to cement his status as the above-average starter that everyone had always expected him to be.

 

 

2011: Becoming Elite?

Alex Smith finally silenced some of his biggest critics and the talks of being a bust in 2011.

That year, he continued to improve his individual play and he also benefited from a vastly improved 49ers roster, the likes of which he never had. Yet the most novel aspect of Smith's 2011 season (besides the team's 13-3 record) was his sudden string of clutch performances. Smith put together six game-winning drives and six fourth-quarter comebacks in 2011. In his career prior to 2011, Smith had only four fourth-quarter comebacks.

Christian Petersen/Getty Images

In the 2011 regular season, Smith put up a 90.7 quarterback rating while also racking up 17 touchdowns against five interceptions to the tune of 61.3 completion percentage. He fell shy of the Pro Bowl in the fan voting but his numbers were certainly Pro Bowl-worthy.

With those individual stats, the fourth-quarter comebacks and the NFL's second best record, there is no doubt that the 2011 season was the best of Smith's career.

 

2012: MVP Contention and Concussion

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Aaron Rodgers has been a staunch supporter of Alex Smith since 2005.

Last season may have actually been Smith's most dominant season but it was also arguably his most disappointing. That is because nine games into the season, after posting incredible numbers that helped the Niners to the NFC West's best record at the time, he was concussed and then relegated to the bench for the rest of the season in favor of Colin Kaepernick.

Prior to the injury, Smith was having an MVP-caliber season. He had thrown 13 touchdowns against five interceptions, and he had also broken the 70 percent completion rate barrier, which put him in elite company. He also had a QB rating above 100 and a shocking 8.0 yards per pass average, putting to rest the notion that he could only throw short passes.

For a comparison point, all-time great Peyton Manning has never surpassed the 70 percent completion rate barrier and has not exceeded eight yards per pass since 2005. By most measures, Smith's nine-game stretch to begin the 2012 season was as good as—if not better than—much of Manning's illustrious career.

 

Consistency: Learning the Game

One hypothesis for explaining Alex Smith's abnormal learning curve is that he lacked some of the natural instinct for the game but always had the intelligence to eventually make up for it.

Smith was one of the more academically accomplished NFL players in recent history. He completed his undergraduate degree in economics with a 3.74 GPA in less than four years and began graduate school before completing his collegiate football career.

Alex Smith's 2011 Season (data from Pro Football Focus).

This intelligence and attention to detail has helped Smith stay incredibly consistent from game to game, and he is one of those rare quarterbacks that can go tremendously long stretches without making a major mistake or a bad decision. Looking at his 2011 campaign (his best full season), we see that he had only one game in the regular season where he hurt his team with poor play. In nearly every other game from that season, he contributed greatly to his team's chance of victory.

To compare, let's consider Eli Manning. Manning is considered by many to be a more talented or more elite quarterback than Smith, but Manning lacks Smith's consistency. While we see some extremely effective and impressive offensive performances from Manning, we also see several negative or turnover-laden performances as well.

Eli Manning's 2010 Season (data from Pro Football Focus).

One way to interpret these results is that Manning (circa 2010) had more highlight-reel performances, but Smith (circa 2011) provided more consistent play and contributed to more regular season wins.

 

Reading the Trends

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When looking at the trends for Alex Smith's career path, there is one striking feature that is hard to ignore: in each of the six years in which he has played a substantial number of healthy games, he has dramatically improved.

What other starting quarterback has demonstrated such major improvement in six different seasons?

This trend has to make one wonder just how far Smith can go in his development. We already know that he has the physical tools when healthy. After all, those were the tools that got him drafted No. 1 overall to begin with. We also know that given an offensive scheme in which he feels comfortable, he can make decisions with Peyton Manning-esque confidence and consistency. 

What we do not know is how well the Kansas City system under new head coach Andy Reid will suit his skill-set.

 

The Upcoming Season

There is no doubt that Smith will remain a lightning rod for controversy heading into his first season outside of San Francisco. If this trends continues, he will likely receive most of the blame for losses and not much credit for wins.

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Nevertheless, if the wins pile up high enough, Smith might have the opportunity to find himself back in the MVP discussion next season. If he can turn the 2-14 Chiefs into a playoff team, that would be hard to ignore.

The numbers call for optimism, but do they capture the whole story? We will have to wait and see.


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