Let’s Talk About Alex Smith
February 5, 2018
by Steve Thomas
Welcome to Washington, D.C., Alex. Or rather, welcome to the Ashburn, Virginia area during the week and then suburban Maryland on Sundays. I’m not sure how the District of Columbia really fits into things anymore. I hope you’re aware that you’re about to step into the lion’s den of fan apathy, resentment, and anger. It isn’t you; it’s just frustration born watching 25 years of mostly losing. Regardless, enjoy your time here – winning is the best medicine, so the more wins you get, the more the city will love you. Simple.
I don’t particularly want to talk about the way this (pending) trade went down, at least not right now. The intent of this column is to take a hard look at what the Redskins are getting in their new starting quarterback. What has Alex Smith produced in his career thusfar, and what does it say about what he could potentially accomplish during his time in Washington?
Alex Smith, who is 6’4” and is listed at 217 pounds, was a 2 star recruit out of Helix Charter High School in La Mesa, California. He attended the University of Utah from 2002 – 2004, which was his only division I scholarship offer. While at Utah, he played in 25 games, leading the Utes to a 21 – 1 record in games that he started. Smith posted 389 completions in 587 attempts, for a 66.3 completion percentage, 47 touchdowns and just 8 interceptions for his career. He steadily improved over the course of three seasons, with his final year, 2004, being his best: 214 completions on 317 attempts, 67.5 completion percentage, 9.3 yards per attempt, and 32 touchdowns to just 4 interceptions. For those of you who are college football fans, this was the Utah team that won, and won, and won, but was continually snubbed by the BCS because of the conference in which they played.
Smith was drafted by the San Francisco 49ers as the #1 overall pick in the 2005 draft. He only played 7 games in his first NFL season on a talent-free 49ers team that won just 4 games all year. He did not post good numbers as a rookie, completing just 50.3% of his passes, with 1 touchdown and 11 interceptions, 5.3 yards per attempt and a quarterback rating of 40.8. In fairness, the 2005 49ers’ leading receiver was Redskins fan favorite Brandon Lloyd, who caught just 48 passes in 109 targets for 733 yards. They did have Frank Gore, but he was also a rookie that year and had clearly not become Frank Gore, borderline hall of famer, that he is today. Smith was one of three bad quarterbacks on a bad team that season.
Smith steadily improved during his time with the 49ers, and by 2012, which was his last year in San Francisco, he was putting up numbers that were Pro Bowl-worthy if extrapolated over a full 16 games: 70.2 completion percentage, 8.0 yards per attempt, 13 touchdowns, 5 interceptions, and a 104.1 quarterback rating. That 2012 49ers team, of course, had Collin Kaepernick as their quarterback of the future who started 7 games. They also had much better talent by that time, including a Frank Gore who was running on all cylinders and a 1,000 receiver in Michael Crabtree. All in all, Smith progressed in his efficiency and production, but did not do enough to force the 49ers to keep him. These are his San Francisco-era combined statistics from 2005 – 2012:
- 80 games played, 75 games started
- 2177 pass attempts, 1290 completions, 14,280 yards, 59.3 completion percentage
- 81 touchdowns, 63 interceptions
- 6.6 yards per attempt
- 79.1 quarterback rating
Smith’s trade to Kansas City for the 2013 season and pairing with head coach Andy Reid proved to be a godsend for his career. In the past four seasons, he averaged over 65% completions, had a quarterback rating of at least 93, averaged at least 7.0 yards per attempt. Reid, of course, runs a west coast offense that requires quick, accurate releases, Smith has excelled in that environment. In five years under Smith’s leadership, the team’s worst record was 9 – 7 (2014). He was selected for 3 Pro Bowls and played in 5 playoff games over five years, losing 4. His Chiefs-era combined stats were as follows:
- 76 games played, 75 games started
- 2436 passes attempted, 1587 completions, 17,608 yards 65.1 completion percentage
- 102 touchdowns, 33 interceptions
- 7.2 yards per attempt
- 94.8 quarterback rating
In fact, over that time period – 2013 through 2017 – Smith put up many top 10 or better numbers in comparison to his peers. He was extremely efficient. He was 8th in the NFL in passer rating for quarterbacks with 50 or more starts (1.3 points ahead of former Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins), behind only, in order, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Russell Wilson, Ben Roethlisberger, Matt Ryan, and Philip Rivers. Completion percentage under those same limitations? 5th, just .16 behind Cousins. Smith was second only to Captain America himself, Brady, in interception percentage. By most measures, he was a roughly top 10 quarterback between 2013 – 2017.
However, in that same period, Smith was just 13th in the NFL in passing yards per attempt, at 7.23 Y/A, behind, among others, Andy Dalton (10th, 7.35), Rodgers (8th, 7.55), Cousins (5th, 7.69), and Wilson (1st, 7.81), and 18th in average passing yards per game. One corresponding criticism about him is that he plays a checkdown game, similar to what Cousins did at times while he was here. This is a valid criticism – according to https://nextgenstats.nfl.com (which is owned by the NFL), in 2017 Smith threw into “tight windows”, defined as a pass thrown when a defender was within 1 yard or less of a receiver at the time the pass was completed or incomplete, on just 12.7% of his attempts, which was ranked 40th in the NFL. According to www.sportingcharts.com, in 2016 Smith’s passes went an average of 3.23 yards in the air, which was ranked 50th. Furthermore, the always fun but frequently inaccurate eye test showed me that the 2017 version of Alex Smith was actually throwing into tighter spaces a bit more than he had in years past. It does not mean that Smith won’t go deep; he has a strong, accurate arm. It just means that more often than not if the deep or mid-range receiver isn’t open, he’s going to most likely dump the ball off a bit more than some other quarterbacks.
This isn’t necessarily a terrible thing; Aaron Rodgers was ranked 36th and the Redskins’ Cousins was tied for 24th in this statistic. In fact, in some ways, it’s a staple of the west coast offense, which may be one of the reasons why Smith was so successful under Andy Reid. It means that Smith is a careful, efficient, cerebral passer who most likely won’t take too many chances, similar to Cousins. Jay Gruden will have to either scheme receivers open or rely on the natural ability of the receivers to separate in order for Smith to be successful. All Pro tight end Jordan Reed, when he’s healthy and playing, is a master at this, and Smith had a tremendously successful connection with Chiefs’ tight end Travis Kelce, who is one of one two tight ends in the NFL (Rob Gronkowksi being the other) who is in Reed’s league from a talent perspective. Vernon Davis is still deceptively fast despite his age and can get open given the right circumstances. While Jamison Crowder is a talented receiver who can create some separation, 2016 first round pick Josh Doctson has a long way to go before this can be considered one of his better skills. In fact, the Redskins receivers in general, at least those who are still on the roster right now (Docston, Crowder, Maurice Harris, Robert Davis), all have talent and some speed, but still need development in this area. Translation: the Redskins need to acquire a wide receiver, probably a veteran, who knows how to create separation and get open in order to help Smith out.
One underrated and often overlooked aspects of Smith’s game is his ability to scramble. He’s an athletic, mobile guy considering that he stands 6’4”. In fact, during the period he was with the Chiefs, 2013 to 2017, Smith was in 4th place for total rushing yards for quarterbacks with 50 or more starts, behind only Cam Newton, Russell Wilson, and Collin Kaepernick (Cousins was 15th). He had 317 carries for 1672 yards during that time, and his 5.3 yards per attempt was 6th in the NFL under those same criteria. His 317 carries was 3rd-most behind only Cam Newton and Russell Wilson. He averaged 5.9 yards per carry on 60 attempts in 2017. In other words, this is one of the best rushing quarterbacks in the NFL, and he can still do it despite his age.
So what does all of this mean for the 2018 – 2022 Redskins? They are getting a smart quarterback with a big arm who won’t make many mistakes, but will need to rely on Jay Gruden’s west coast scheme to maximize his effectiveness. He’s shown absolutely no signs of slowing down, at least from a production standpoint, despite the fact that he’s about to be 34 years old. Washington is also gaining a weapon on the ground, the likes of which they haven’t seen since Robert Griffin III’s 2012 season. It’s certainly true that his Chiefs teams ultimately failed to get it done in the playoffs, but blaming all of that on the quarterback is for the foolish. Over Smith’s 7 total playoff appearances over his career, he posted ratings of over 100 three times, over 97 twice, 77 once, and 69.7 once, for an average rating of 97.4. He’s thrown 14 touchdowns to just 2 interceptions in those 7 games. So, while he didn’t take the Chiefs to the Super Bowl, he also played fairly well in those games, with the 2016 division round game against Pittsburgh being the sole exception.
I’m excited about the possibilities that Alex Smith brings to the Redskins, and I think he’ll do as well or better than Kirk Cousins did here, for less money. It really can work as long as Washington’s front office gets him some weapons.
What do you think? Leave me a comment below.
 NextGen calls this number “Agg %”, short for Aggressiveness percentage.
 This site did not have 2017 air yards stats available.