A lot of things have happened during the Kansas City Chiefs 2013 season that I never would have predicted. All of these may be summarized with a single sentence:
Eight and Oh-My-God!
But there is one thing that has happened that any of us could have predicted: that before the season was over, the Alex Smith debate would once again be front and center. Personally, I thought it would start after the Chiefs lost a game or two. Color me surprised that it started when the Chiefs were undefeated through six weeks. Color me astonished that it is now reaching a fever pitch after Smith played his best game of the season.
Let's start with some facts. Statistically speaking, Alex Smith has been an average quarterback for the Chiefs to this point - arguably less than average. There's just no way around this. As of this morning, he is ranked 18th in the NFL's passer rating statistic. He is 17th in ESPN's more all-encompassing (albeit mysterious) QBR stat. 16th in yards. 17th in touchdown passes. 19th in adjusted yards per attempt. 25th in completion percentage. 26th in touchdown percentage. 29th in yards per attempt. 31st in yards per catch. I could go on.
But Alex Smith is ranked first in the most important statistic. He is 8-0.
We know that perhaps the biggest reason for this is Kansas City's historically good defense, and Smith's ability to avoid costly mistakes. Smith is "elite" in only one statistical category: interception percentage. There he is ranked 3rd, behind only Andrew Luck and Jake Locker.
And whether Chiefs fans want to admit it or not, Kansas City's weak schedule to this point has played a significant role in this historic turnaround. Pro Football Reference maintains a SoS metric that makes an effort to measure the strength of a team's schedule in a single negative or positive number; a negative number means a weak schedule, and a positive number means a strong one. Today, Kansas City's number is -5.1. The next worst numbers belong to the Broncos (-3.4) the Patriots (-3.3) and the Saints (-3.0).
And there is the crux of the argument about Alex Smith. It's not that he's bad. He's average. And in the "pass happy" NFL, you cannot win consistently against good teams (read: in the playoffs) with an average quarterback. You need the ability to come from behind with deep passes late in the game, and put up a lot of points. You've got to be able to win a shootout. Average quarterbacks can't do that.
So let's talk about the playoffs, shall we?
In the last 10 years, there have been 110 postseason games in the NFL. The average score of these games has been 28.6 to 17.5. In the 119 games played so far in the 2013 season, the average score has been 28.9 to 17.5. So here's the first thing to remember: in the last ten years, the scores of playoff games haven't been significantly different than those of the current season; there is no statistical reason to believe that playoff games are necessarily going to be shootouts.
Now let's look at quarterback statistics from those 110 postseason games. We're going to break these into two groups: those of the teams that won each postseason game, and those that lost each one. To this we will add the same stats from Alex Smith in 2013, Alex Smith in the 2011 regular season (the one season in which he appeared in the playoffs) and finally, his stats from those two playoff games.
|Cmp Pct||Yds/Gm||TD Pct||Int Pct||Yd/Att||Rating|
|Playoff Winners 2003-2012||63.4||228.4||6.0||1.9||7.5||98.3|
|Playoff Losers 2003-2012||58.6||229.2||3.3||3.9||6.2||71.4|
|Alex Smith 2013||59.1||224.4||3.1||1.4||6.3||82.1|
|Alex Smith 2011||61.3||196.5||3.8||1.1||7.1||90.7|
|Alex Smith 2011 Playoffs||52.9||247.5||7.4||0.0||7.3||101.0|
As you can see from this comparison, Alex Smith's numbers from the 2013 season - while generally below the standard we should expect to see in the playoffs - aren't that dramatically different. His completion percentage and yards per attempt are higher than the losing QBs, but lower than the winners. His average yards per game are within a single 5 yard checkdown pass from both the winners and losers - which I myself found as a surprise; after all the talk I've been hearing about QBs in the playoffs, I expected passing yards per game from playoff QBs to be much higher. Smith's touchdown percentage is below both the winners and the losers, but his interception percentage is better than both.
But what really caught my eye in these numbers was Smith's performance in the 2011 playoffs. In all but completion percentage, Smith's 2011 playoff numbers compare very favorably to those teams winning their playoff games in the last ten seasons, and also represent a substantial improvement over Smith's play in the 2011 regular season. This matches my own "eye test" with Smith as a Chief in 2013: he can come through when it matters most.
No… as a Chief, Smith hasn't come up with two fast fourth quarter drives to engineer a come-from-behind win - but then again, he hasn't needed to do so. He has, however, led drives to get or regain the lead on the rare occasions the Chiefs have been on the short end of the score, and on Sunday, he led a 75 yard, six play touchdown drive that consumed just 1:33 at the end of the first half.
True… Smith's playoff numbers are from only two games, and were with an entirely different team. And yes, much of Smith's success is derived from the success of the Chiefs defense. But those who have been drawing comparisons between the defense of the 2011 Forty-Niners and the 2013 Chiefs have been making a very good point. On defense, the Niners were second in points given up (as are the Chiefs today) tied for first in takeaways (the Chiefs are alone at the top) and fourth in yards given up (where the Chiefs are 12th). And both teams - due in no small part to Smith's ability to avoid interceptions - led the NFL in turnover differential.
Which brings me to my last statistical point about the postseason: in the last ten years, the team that won the turnover battle in postseason games won 67.3% of the time. The team that lost this battle won only 15.5% of the time. Anyone can see that this bodes well for the Chiefs.
None of this means that Smith will suddenly play like Peyton Manning, Aaron Rodgers or Drew Brees in the playoffs - or even that the Chiefs will reach the postseason. The road ahead is difficult. The combined record of the teams remaining on the Chiefs schedule is 35-24, and that giant 8-0 on our backs will guarantee that each team we face - regardless of their record - will give a superhuman effort in their game against us. To put it another way, I will echo the sentiments of AP member Sudden: "I've always said I'd die happy the day the Chiefs win the Super Bowl - but man, they're trying to kill me before they get there!"
But if we look carefully and dispassionately at the facts, we are able to see that while Alex Smith is indeed an average quarterback, he does not have to be presumed to be a substantial liability in the postseason - not, at least, with the Chiefs defense backing him up. (After all... the best way to avoid losing in a shootout is to avoid getting into a shootout in the first place!) And it is even possible that in the postseason, Smith will show us he's capable of much more than we have already seen.
Nor does any of this mean that Alex Smith is the end of the road. I fully expect that John Dorsey and Andy Reid will continue Kansas City's long search for the QBOTF at the conclusion of this season - regardless of what happens after week 16. I don't base this on blind optimism; I base this on facts. John Dorsey and Andy Reid are different than any of the men who have held their positions in the past three decades. They have shown by their actions that they are willing to draft - and play - a young quarterback. And in contrast to all the other GMs and HCs that have preceded them, they have not given the veteran QB they acquired upon their arrival a long term contract that will prevent that from happening. To me, their actions suggest that they simply didn't see the QB they wanted in the 2013 draft, so they got the one they thought would best serve the Chiefs until they could find that guy.
I don't expect that another article about Alex Smith will end this debate. But I do hope that this will help us rise above the "hater" and "apologist" dialogue long enough to enjoy this season for what it really is:
Eight and Oh-My-God!