Alex Smith: Game Manager or Top-Flight NFL Quarterback?

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Alex Smith: Game Manager or Top-Flight NFL Quarterback?

Most people have already formed an opinion of Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith and what he is and what he isn't. Either he's a game manager and they don't like him, or he's a top-flight NFL quarterback and they do like him.

Some may not care about Smith as long as the Chiefs keep winning. They are 9-0 after all, so clearly the Chiefs have found a repeatable formula for winning with Smith at quarterback.

While a 9-0 record is great, the season is not over. The Chiefs are in a fight for home-field advantage now and have a tougher second-half schedule. The Chiefs are hoping to win their first playoff games in the free-agency era, so seeding could be very important.

A top-flight quarterback gives any team a much larger margin for error in all the other facets of the game. Mistakes can be overcome with a top-flight quarterback that can't be with only a game manager under center.

Smith is an interesting case study because of how the teams he has been on have performed over the last few years. Top-flight quarterbacks tend to win a lot of games, and game managers tend to hold their team back at least a little bit, so Smith is certainly unique.

It's also important for fans to be realistic about Smith. When the Chiefs lose a game, chances are Smith will get way too much blame for the loss, just like he's getting way too much credit for the wins. Smith is performing at such a level that it would be easy to make him the scapegoat for losses.

Think about winning games like making cookies. A game manager can follow a recipe, but a top-flight quarterback can create greatness with the ingredients he has on hand.

The Chiefs offense is the flour, but it's just your basic flour. The defense is the sugar, and it's the best available.

So far, Smith has been making fantastic cookies, but take away some of the required sugar and the cookies might not turn out so well. Maybe running back Jamaal Charles is the butter, but one day Smith has to use a substitute because he churned the butter too many times.

Change any of the key ingredients, and the Chiefs might not be as good. A top-flight quarterback is more like an Iron Chef; give him any ingredients, and he'll make something tasty.

 

Defining Top Flight vs. Game Manager

It's probably fair to say that a top-flight quarterback is in the top 30 percent of all quarterbacks. With 32 teams in the league, that means a total of 10 meet the criteria. The top 15 percent would be the best five quarterbacks, or elite quarterbacks.

A game manager may not be statistically in the top 10 in every category, but he would avoid turnovers and let other players carry the team. A great receiver, great running back, great defense or some combination of all three can carry a team instead of the quarterback.

Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports
Alex Smith is no Peyton Manning.

In the case of the Chiefs, they certainly have a running back and a defense that have carried the team so far. Smith has turned the ball over just four times in nine games, so he already fits the description of a game manager.

The question is if Smith also fits the description of a top-flight quarterback. With few exceptions, every top-flight quarterback is a game manager, but not every game manager is a top-flight quarterback.

About the only way to do this on a large scale is to use statistics. Until the offseason, no one has enough time to do a thorough film evaluation of every quarterback. Smith probably wouldn't fare well when evaluating the film anyway.

Ron Jaworski of ESPN ranked Smith 20th among NFL quarterbacks based on film study in July. Matt Miller ranked him 18th among QBs in the B/R NFL 1000 this past February.

Statistics also rarely lie, especially when you present a myriad that cover a broad range of the different elements of quarterback play and not just one or two that support a single point.

For advanced NFL statistics, instead of selecting one, we'll look at multiple stats and come to a consensus, specifically ESPN's QBR, Football Outsiders' DVOA (subscription), Pro Football Focus' grades (subscription), WPA from advancednflstats.com and Pro Football Reference's ANY/A.

Smith's Advanced Passing Statistics
Statistic FO DVOA ESPN QBR ANY/A PFF Grade WPA
Value -3.8% 46.8 5.2 -6.6 .31
NFL Rank 17 22 23 24 22

FootballOutsiders.com, ESPN.com, Pro-Football-Reference.com, ProFootballFocus.com, advancednflstats.com

Smith tops out at 17th in the league in Football Outsiders' DVOA and bottoms out in Pro Football Focus' grades at 24th among quarterbacks who have played 50 percent of the time. Smith's QBR and ANY/A are 22nd and 23rd in the league, respectively.

There is very little variance between all the advanced statistics, and none of them put Smith near the top 10. The lack of variance could also suggest just how consistent Smith has been, which is one of the classic signs of a game manager.

The average rank for Smith was 22nd among the advanced statistics, which puts him nowhere close to a top-flight quarterback. There is no way to twist these statistics to fit a narrative that Smith is some type of top-flight quarterback that isn't getting the recognition for leading his team to a perfect record.

 

A Traditional Approach

Maybe you don't buy all the advanced statistics and prefer to default to the traditional passing statistics. You don't know what "DVOA" or "WPA" mean, and they don't matter to you. That's fine, because the traditional statistics can still give us a pretty good picture.

Just keep in mind that where applicable, rate stats have to be used to compensate for the fact that some players have played fewer games.

Smith's best attribute is his ability to be conservative and not turn the ball over. He is third in the league in interception percentage. The only starter to play in every game who has been better is Andrew Luck.

Smith's Traditional Passing Stats
Statistic INT % TD% TD:INT Ratio Sack % -
Value 1.3 2.9 2.3 7.6 -
NFL Rank 3 28 12 23 -
Statistic Completion % Yards/Game Yards/Att. Yards/Comp. QB Rating
Value 59.7 213.2 6.1 10.2 81.4
NFL Rank 24 24 31 33 21

pro-football-reference.com

Another traditional approach is to use touchdown-to-interception ratio. Smith ranks 12th in this statistic, but that is obviously dragged down by his lack of touchdown passes. If we stopped there, Smith looks great, but he is 21st or worst in every other statistic from quarterback rating to yards per completion.

You could argue that the high-volume passing offense Smith plays in skews these rate statistics, but that wouldn't be the case. Smith is 20th in the league in pass attempts per game.

The Chiefs also rank ninth in offensive drives per game with 12.4 as of Monday, according to Pro Football Reference, so we know Smith isn't a product of a pass-happy offense that just isn't getting many opportunities. The run-pass balance on offense doesn't appear to be a factor in Smith's statistical performance at all.

Peter Aiken/Getty Images
Dexter McCluster leads the team with four drops.

When considering Smith is 31st in yards per attempt and rarely throws anything deep, it's odd that his completion percentage is so low. The only excuse for this would be his receivers running the wrong routes and dropping the football, and we can rule out one of them.

According to Pro Football Focus (subscription), the Chiefs have dropped 24 of Smith's passes—the fourth-highest number in the league. Even with all of those drops, though, Smith is 17th in Pro Football Focus' accuracy percentage, which adjusts for drops, spikes, throwaways, batted passes and any time the quarterback is hit while throwing.

Just like the advanced metrics, Smith's average NFL ranking from all the traditional statistics is 22nd in the league. It's pretty apparent that Smith is actually on the low end of average among NFL quarterbacks.

 

A Top-Flight Team

What Smith has proven is that you don't need a top-flight quarterback to win in the NFL. It helps, but one isn't required. The better the team is, the better the quarterback will look.

This helps explain why so many teams are willing to draft quarterbacks like Christian Ponder and Andy Dalton in the first or second round. It also helps explain why the Chiefs were willing to trade two second-round picks for Smith.

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
Alex Smith isn't the only game manager in the NFL, as Andy Dalton has the Cincinnati Bengals playing well.

While fans would probably prefer to avoid quarterback purgatory—when the team gets stuck with an average quarterback and is never in position to get a top-flight quarterback—coaches and general managers are paid to win games.

We learned last season that a quarterback and a team can get hot in the playoffs and win the Super Bowl. It doesn't matter if the quarterback is a top-flight guy or a game manager if that happens; Joe Flacco was probably neither.

What kind of quarterback is Alex Smith?

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If the Chiefs fall short of their goals, consider that Smith's contract is up at the end of 2014. The Chiefs will have a decision to make if there isn't a top-flight option available or a game manager of equal or greater value.

Finding a top-flight quarterback is a priority for every team that doesn't have one. The Chiefs don't have one, so they will be like 20 or more other teams in the NFL looking for one in the next year.

Smith is probably the best game manager a team could ever hope to have. A quarterback like Smith buys the organization time to find the right quarterback and not end up with just more of the same; that's exactly what he did for the San Francisco 49ers.

Being 9-0 with a chance to make some noise in the playoffs is a major bonus and a credit to the coaching and to the entire team. Let's not pretend Smith has come in and put the organization on his back like Luck.

If the Chiefs lose a game, stumble down the stretch or fail to win a playoff game, fans should take it easy on Smith. It probably won't be due to Smith's play and more likely because the Chiefs' winning recipe has been disrupted in another way.

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