Is Alex Smith Getting Too Much Credit for Chiefs Fast Start?
The Kansas City Chiefs are 5-0. The Chiefs are 5-0. The Chiefs have five wins and no losses. It would be nearly unbelievable if we didn't know it to be true.
It's a remarkable turnaround, and it has the Chiefs on the path to the playoffs. Many have pointed to the quarterback as the reason, but Alex Smith has only been average in 2013. On other teams, average is not good enough, but the Chiefs are winning, and in the NFL, that's the bottom line.
The quarterback, the leader and the most important position on the football field gets the credit when a team is performing well and the blame when it isn't. Unfortunately, that means quarterbacks get too much blame and too much credit.
In the case of Smith, he's getting way too much credit.
That doesn't mean Smith is a bad quarterback. In fact, there are a lot of things about Smith that make him better than any statistic or film breakdown would otherwise indicate. If you were stuck with a non-elite quarterback, Smith is the guy you would want because he is both intelligent and a great leader.
Who deserves the majority of the credit of the Chiefs 5-0 record?
However, the reality here is that the Chiefs went from a terrible offensive scheme and poor quarterback to a good offensive scheme and an average quarterback. More importantly, the Chiefs tossed an outdated defensive scheme for a modern one.
The credit for the turnaround is shared. Smith deserves some credit, but probably a lot less than the coaching or defense. Without the coaching and defense, the Chiefs aren’t anywhere near 5-0.
Giving too much credit to Smith for the turnaround minimizes the contributions of everyone else. This is not bashing the Chiefs or minimizing their 5-0 record; it's about recognizing what got them to this point.
Smith is, undoubtedly, a big part of the Chiefs 5-0 start, but it would be tough for him not to be because the Chiefs had one of the worst quarterback situations in the league last year. Smith has been exactly what we already knew he was—a game manager.
Calling a quarterback a game manager is a nice way of saying they are an average quarterback. A game manager doesn't hurt the team with costly turnovers or make many big plays. It's a description that fits Smith, but many people think of the term as a negative when it's not.
Most teams would rather have a game manager at quarterback than a player capable of making big plays who is also so inconsistent he can't move the chains. Notable is why the Oakland Raiders—the Chiefs' Week 6 opponent—traded for Matt Flynn this offseason.
It's a notable example because Chiefs general manager John Dorsey and Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie worked closely together when the two were with the Green Bay Packers. The two men grew up together in Green Bay's front office and likely have similar opinions on how to build a football team.
The Raiders knew that Flynn was a game manager at his best, but their alternative was Terrelle Pryor. At the time, Pryor was so raw he couldn't be trusted with the offense. Now we know that Flynn isn't even a game manager, and Pryor has developed, but that is all in hindsight.
Teams would rather have a game manager if they don't have an elite quarterback. You can win games with a game manager if he has weapons and a great defense. The last several Super Bowl champions have proven this to be true, and that’s great news for the Chiefs.
The Impact of Average
Smith currently sits 16th in ESPN's QBR with a 51.2, an advanced statistic that attempts to quantify the contribution of the quarterback. On a list of 34 quarterbacks, that puts Smith just one place above the median and 1.0 QBR above the average.
Pretty much, every advanced or traditional statistic is going to point to Smith being a very average quarterback. Smith has been in the league long enough for us to know what kind of quarterback he is. If Smith was anywhere near elite, the Chiefs wouldn't have been able to get him for less than a first-round pick.
Just because Smith is average doesn't mean he isn't a big reason why the Chiefs are 5-0, but in the NFL, we can usually estimate that good quarterbacks will win games. That's probably why it's so tempting for some people to use wins as a metric for quarterbacks.
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Advanced NFL Stats has another advanced metric called EPA, which stands for expected points. This is how many points Smith has contributed based on the results of plays. Smith is 17th in the NFL with an EPA of 10.4 through five games. It's worth noting that Matt Cassel and Brady Quinn combined for an EPA of minus-85.9 last season.
If we break EPA down into a per-game statistic, Quinn and Cassel were worth minus-5.4 points per game to the team, and Smith is worth 2.1 points per game. That means going from last year's mess at quarterback to Smith is worth more than a touchdown per game to the Chiefs.
Smith deserves credit for being a good leader, for being himself and for not being Quinn or Cassel. That's what the Chiefs needed, but that doesn't make him a great quarterback.
The Chiefs are scoring 12.4 more points per game this season than last, which means the quarterback upgrade has been worth about 60.5 percent of the team's offensive improvement this season. Of course, that ignores the defensive improvement and the change in offensive scheme.
Take the 12.4 points per game improvement from the offense and add the 15.0 points per game improvement from the defense and Smith's total contribution is just 27.4 percent of the team's turnaround. That’s being quite generous.
If you wanted to try to break that down into wins, Smith has been worth roughly 1.4 of the five wins.
When you study Smith, his strengths and weaknesses are apparent. Smith will take what the defense gives to him in zone coverage, and he's very intelligent pre-snap, but when teams use press coverage and dare Smith to beat them deep, he struggles.
Here's a good example of how Smith takes what the defense gives him. The left cornerback is going to play off his man on first down, which gives Smith just enough of a window to hit his man on the curl route.
Smith's initial read is to his left, but nothing is there, and he comes back to his right to make the completion. When the defense gives Smith room underneath and he can move quickly from his first read to his second read without having to move in the pocket, Smith is accurate and can pick apart a defense.
The game plan against Smith is, therefore, pretty simple. Play tight coverage, take away his quick reads and get enough pressure on him to force a throw. In most cases, Smith will hold the ball and take a sack, but he also will force the ball and make mistakes.
Here's an example of how the Tennessee Titans took away his two short reads. Smith ends up taking the sack because he also received some pressure in his face. The linebackers cut off his short passing lanes on the first read to his left and clamped down on the second read without fear that he would go over the top of them.
Smith has been given a lot of credit for avoiding mistakes, but the Titans nearly intercepted at least three of his throws. The key was tight man coverage with good communication on the crossing routes the Chiefs used to try to create throwing lanes for Smith.
Here, you will see Smith believes he has man coverage because the linebacker follows the receiver across the field, but the linebackers do a good job of recognizing the route combination and switching their coverage.
Smith makes a quick read, but doesn't see the linebacker coming underneath and nearly throws an interception that would have almost certainly been returned for a touchdown.
The Chiefs use a combination of crossing routes to try to get receivers space to make a catch, but a defense that uses a lot of press coverage and communicates like the Titans did will give Smith a lot of trouble. Defenses are going to dare Smith to throw deep and take their chances—that's exactly what the Titans did last Sunday.
Dwayne Bowe is used here to pull the single deep safety away from Donnie Avery, and it's up to Avery to beat his man deep. As you can see, Avery burns his man, and Smith completes the long pass. The Titans took the risk and go burned on this play, but Smith tested them deep so infrequently it still paid off overall.
While it was an explosive play and exactly how the Chiefs have to attack the man coverage, Smith's throw was short. A better throw and Avery might score a touchdown. Since the Chiefs settled for a field goal, the short throw actually cost the Chiefs four points.
#Raiders receivers and defensive backs found boxing gloves in locker and note saying, “Will you fight on the line of scrimmage this week?”— Vic Tafur (@VicTafur) October 11, 2013
If Smith can't stretch the field a little more against press-man coverage, Kansas City's offense will continue to struggle. This has been a familiar refrain for Smith, but it only comes into play when opposing defenses successfully take away the quick reads and short throws.
Smith's limitations have been hidden by a great defense and a competent offensive scheme through five games. It's the coaching and the defense in Kansas City that really deserve the credit for the 5-0 start.
As the schedule gets tougher, the defense is going to need Smith to play better. Smith needs to be more efficient, and he needs to make the plays on deep balls when challenged. Smith did just enough to win the game against the Titans and Dallas Cowboys, but also got a little lucky he didn’t have more turnovers.
Smith is getting most of the credit now, but the defense is earning all the interest. When the time comes to pay the bill, it will be Smith stuck with the debt.
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