FanPost

Alex Smith career path, sack rate, and 3-and-outs!

John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

From the FanPosts -Joel

"Oh, no!", you exclaim, "Some new Alex Smith fanboi has come to AP to run his mouth and provide empirical data!"

But, you need not worry. For it is only I, liberty_JAC, without the guise.

My 23rd birthday is coming up in about a week today (!!) and I am going to soon buy myself an Alex Smith Chiefs jersey to compliment my 49ers one. Then all will be right in the world.

Today, to celebrate, I bring you even more hopeful stats as we near the 2013 season.

First, some definitions...

If you are familiar with ANY/A and ANY/A+, then feel free to skip this first section!

Over the past three seasons, Smith has shown steady improvement, year after year. This as evidenced by my favorite quarterback/passing offense metric, ANY/A.

ANY/A stands for Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt, which pro-football-reference (PFR) defines as so:

(pass yards + 20*(pass TD) - 45*(interceptions thrown) - sack yards)/(passing attempts + sacks).

Why is this stat better than the traditional passer rating?

Well, passer rating gives a huge 100 yard penalty for interceptions. This is why Smith, who has maintained a low INT rate over the past two years, is over-valued by it. Smith ranked third in passer rating last year, and was first in the league at the time of his concussion.

But research has shown that interceptions are not that costly. In fact, an interception is worth about -45 yards. That alone would make Smith's value go down a bit, and give us the PFR stat AY/A, or adjusted yards per attempt.

AY/A has Smith ranked 5th. Still great; but AY/A does not tell the whole story. For that, we need to include sacks.

Enter ANY/A. The formula above, as you can see, includes sacks and yards lost via sacks. Thus we get a true efficiency measure of the quarterback as a passer (notice that running/scrambling is not included here).

In ANY/A, Smith ranked 10th. Yes, that is still good.

As you know, passing stats have increased over the years. Rules have changed, as has the game, meaning we get more passing yards per attempt and more accurate passers.

Given this, how do we compare ANY/A across eras? Alex Smith's ANY/A was 6.76 last year, but 30 years ago a number like that would have led the league with room to spare.

Well, PFR introduced ANY/A+, which normalizes every ANY/A and compares it to league average, set at 100. An ANY/A+ of 115 is one deviation above average, and good for top seven or so in the league.

Smith's ANY/A+ last year was 111, meaning he was almost one deviation above average, and, of course, this ranked him 10th in the league.

Group 1

From ages 26 to 28, I used PFR's search tools to find quarterbacks with a similar ANY/A+ at the same age as Alex.

Smith's ANY/A+ has increased from 98 at age 26, to 104 at age 27, to 111 at age 28 (and was 93 at age 25, meaning he has shown steady improvement every year for four seasons).

By searching for quarterbacks a couple points below or above those numbers at each age, and waiting to see what quarterbacks showed up at least twice, we can find passers who, like Smith, showed improvement over the same age-span.

That gives us this first list of passers, listed below:

  1. Eli Manning
  2. Ron Jaworski
  3. Neil Lomax
  4. Marc Bulger
  5. Joe Flacco

Over the last three seasons, Smith has a career path similar to Joe Flacco, Eli Manning, and Ron Jaworski -- four Super Bowl appearances between them, and three rings.

Group 2

I conducted another search to get us Group 2. The criteria was for players who, from ages 26 to 28 combined, performed just above league average.

From there, I looked up each player's ANY/A+ from 26 to 28 to see who improved improved between those ages.

For example, Kansas City's own Bill Kenney produced a similar career path to Smith that managed to miss my search criteria for Group 1 just barely.

From ages 26 to 28, Kenney improved his ANY/A+ yearly: from 92 to 96 to 111.

Another one is Matt Hasselbeck, who went from 87 to 115 to 110. Because 110 is higher than 87 -- meaning he improved from age 26 to 28 -- he made the cut.

A stranger example is Bernie Kosar, who went from 106 to 84 to 111. Despite the age 27 decline, since he still showed improvement from age 26 to 28, he made the cut.

The others missed the cut, as their age 28 score was worse than their age 26 score. Kyle Orton was also neglected because, at age 29, he played for two different teams, making the reliability of his stats questionable.

That gives us a second group of players, but most the paths are not similar to Smith's, because he has shown constant improvement whereas these are much more rocky.

Regardless, the age averages for Group 2 show an incline, followed by a steep improvement at age 28, and then a small regression at age 29 to an ANY/A+ of 104.

As with all stats, huge improvements are a giant red flag. Jumping up 15 or 20 points in ANY/A+ from one year to the next means we can expect a decline the next year. Group 2 embodies this as their unstable career paths meant a giant leap of +14 from ages 27 to 28. Regression responded by knocking them back the following year at age 29.

Smith will be saved from this because he has never shown vast, unsustainable improvement from one year to the next -- despite the common misconception of him as a bust until the arrival of Jim Harbaugh (a myth that has been ridiculed elsewhere, so I will not delve into it again).

Out of all of Group 2, Bill Kenney is the most relevant to us, given his yearly improvement. We will add him to the players from Group 1 and move forward.

Final list of players

This gets us a final list of five guys who have similar career paths as Alex Smith. Joe Flacco is not included because he is younger than Smith and, therefore, irrelevant for the purpose of projecting future stats.

Out of the five, only Eli Manning regressed at age 29, dropping to an ANY/A+ of 104.

Three of the others improved two points while Ron Jaworski had an incredible year, improving 17 points for an ANY/A+ of 130.

On whole, the group averaged an ANY/A+ of 114. We even have a precedent of a player switching teams, as Bill Kenney ended up in Phoenix at age 29 and still improved his stats.

This does suggest that, based on Smith's career path and trend of improvement, he could take another step forward in 2013 for the Chiefs.

As noted, two of them improved, to 113 and 130, respectively. Manning, who regressed, also showed the biggest incline from the relevant ages. He was the lowest ranked quarterback of the group

What it will come down to for Smith is taking less sacks by being more aggressive with the ball before the pressure can even get to him. This means he will throw a couple more interceptions, but do so at a good enough rate to improve his ANY/A+.

Usatsi_7367905_medium
John Rieger-USA Today Sports

Hypothetical Sack Rate

In other words, Smith will have to open things up, but not become reckless. Given his intelligence, this should not be a hard adjustment to make. He just needs to pull the trigger on throws he has already been seeing, but not making due to the risk aversion of Jim Harbaugh's passing philosophy.

KC_Suns_Fan had a fantastic post Wednesday detailing the All-22 of Smith's past hesitancy, along with some proof that he can wing it when he needs to.

If you want to join me for some hypothetical number-play, let's take a look at what The Phoenix would have to do to improve his ANY/A, taking a look at sacks and interceptions. The point of this is to illustrate the balance between sacks, interceptions, completion percentage, and ANY/A -- it is not to predict the future.

In case you were wondering, Smith lost about 5.7 yards per sack last year. Since an interception is worth -45 yards, that is about 8 sacks.

Let's say, just for fun, that Smith takes 5 sacks this year for every 8 he took last year. So his 24 total sacks for 137 yards lost goes down to 15 sacks for 85 yards lost, or about 30 sacks for 170 yards lost over a full season. Instead of taking 48 sacks in a season, he takes 30, and also saves himself about 102 yards.

With those "extra" 18 attempts, however, he is less accurate on some of them (due to the pressure), but others he gets rid of the ball to his first or second read in a tight window, ignoring the risk inherent in the throw.

Pro Football Focus has Smith at 44% completion and 5.5 yards per attempt rate under pressure. So let's say 1/2 of the 18 attempts he is making a risky throw with someone in his face; while the other 1/2 are him getting rid of it earlier into a tight window.

Under pressure, he goes 4-for-9 for for 22 yards with an interception.

Smith last year had a yards per attempt of 8. In his other 9 throws, then, he is 5-for-9 (less accurate due to being more risky), for 72 yards, and also throws another two picks. I'm being hard on him here.

The three interceptions lose him 135 total yards of value. But he makes up 94 yards in completions. Plus, remember that he saved 102 yards already by taking less sacks.

In total, Smith gains 61 yards of value over the same number of attempts. This would slightly improve his ANY/A to 6.88.

Notice I'm not even giving Smith any numerical benefit for being more risky. He doesn't throw any more touchdowns than the 26 he was projected to reach last season. All he does is take a couple less sacks, his completion percentage goes down, and he throws a few picks instead.

That alone would improve his ANY/A. He could exchange 18 sacks for three interceptions and come away with better stats.

This is because Smith's sack rate is so absurdly high, that almost any amount of risk-taking would be preferable to it. There is a balance here to be had. In San Francisco, Smith leaned on the side of caution; but that might change with Andy Reid.

3-and-outs and a balanced offense

A question that many have brought up is the difference between Alex Smith and Colin Kaepernick and 3-and-outs. I knew that they were more prevalent under Kaepernick, but that this was part of the more explosive, "boom-or-bust" offense that San Francisco began pursuing with Colin.

Parallel to the growth of the San Francisco offense in terms of big play potential, and the growth of 3-and-outs, however, was a rapid decline in defensive performance.

This prompted me to see if there was any correlation between 3-and-outs and point differential. If an offense is suffering more 3-and-outs, they are giving their defense less rest. If their defense is not producing 3-and-outs to match, then defensive performance could suffer.

Meanwhile, an offense that avoids 3-and-outs gives their defense more rest, so defensive performance should improve.

Turns out, that feeling may have merit.

Through the two links below I gathered data on the 3-and-outs of every offense last year:

3-and-outs while losing or while winning by two scores or less.

3-and-outs with a lead of 15 to 21 points in the first half.

I made sure the 3-and-outs matched certain criteria so as to be relevant. For example, let's say New England, who had the highest game script last year by quite a margin (Chiefs had the worst), have a big lead late in the 4th. They run three plays into the line, make their opponent use its timeouts, and then punt the ball. Drives like this are not indicative of much, except that New England's primary function as an offense here is not to gain yards, but to eat up clock. So I did my best with the two search functions above to eliminate such 3-and-outs.

I then gathered the points for and points against of every offense, including separating the 49ers offense and defense under Smith from Kaepernick.

To turn everything into an efficiency stat, I broke the 3-and-outs down on a "per game" basis, as well as the points for and against.

That gives us this chart of every NFL offense last year, organized by least 3-and-outs per game to most. In the very top right corner is the correlation between 3-and-out differential and point differential.

A 0.81 correlation is very high, meaning, at the least, there is a strong relationship between a team's ability to create 3-and-outs on defense, avoid them on offense, and put more points on the board than their opponent.

The better your "3-and-out differential", the better your point differential. And, of course, the better your point differential, the better your record.

What does this mean for the Chiefs? Well, let's take a look at an extreme example to illustrate a point: the Arizona Cardinals.

The Best Defense is a Good Offense (or something like that...)

The Cardinals had 58 defensive 3-and-outs last year. That is good for the 4th best in the league. As I am sure you know, the Arizona defense is pretty darn good. Football Outsiders had them ranked 6th in 2012.

The Arizona offense, however, was one of the worst units in the league. They suffered more 3-and-outs per game than any other team, at five.

Thus, despite the Arizona defense being a talented unit, they were forever-placed in bad positions by their offense. They surrendered 22 points a game to opposing offenses, good for 16th in the league -- not-at-all indicative of their real quality as a unit.

The Kansas City offense, too, put its defense in bad positions by having a 7th worst 3.37 3-and-outs a game; including 8 total 3-and-outs that came as a result of an interception.

They compounded their problems by adding another 12 interceptions in different contexts. The 20 combined give-aways by Chiefs passers last year led the league.

Unnecessary turnovers -- ones that are not acceptable as part of a proper risk-reward ratio -- along with momentum-killing 3-and-outs are a sure way to screw your defense over.

Alex Smith will not make a habit of putting the Kansas City defense in bad positions.

Pass First, Run Later

A big part of Alex Smith's success in avoiding 3-and-outs comes from his accuracy and the 49ers' heavy use of play-action. Play-action is something the Chiefs will be able to utilize very well with Jamaal Charles out of the backfield.

Thus, I leave you with two final links today, containing hopeful information:

First is a PFR search I conducted on 1st down passing. For players with at least 20 attempts last year, Smith had the highest completion percentage at an astounding 76.7%, and he had the 2nd highest yards per attempt, at 9.1.

That's yards per attempt, not yards per completion. Smith was almost gaining his team another 1st down every time he dropped back to throw.

Jamaal Charles, of course, has the highest yards per rush attempt in NFL history for players with at least 300 rushes, at 5.79. It's a shame he's never had a good quarterback to work with until now. When Matt Cassel gave him a good year in 2010 (albeit a lucky one for Cassel), Charles had career highs in yards per attempt and yards per reception.

Last year, the run game in San Francisco took a dip when Alex was no longer under center. He knows how to run a balanced offense, when to audible into a run, when and how to put the guys around him in positions to succeed. Just imagine what he can do with keys to the JMC machine...

Plus, the Chiefs will be in the lead more, or at least not operating with huge deficits to overcome. That alone will lead to more carries for Charles.

I conducted a search on all running backs over the past five seasons who were rushing with 3 yards or less to go for a first down. So this includes rushes on a 2nd and 1, or a 3rd and 2, or a 2nd and 3, etc.

For backs with at least 25 attempts, Charles leads the league with a 5.75 yards per attempt average. Right behind him? Former Andy Reid workhorse, LeSean McCoy.

If the Chiefs can do well on 1st down -- with Smith among the best passers in the league there -- then you open things up for whatever you want on 2nd down, knowing you can rely on Charles to do the mop-up job on 3rd down, should it arrive.

It is all about play-action. The running threat has to be believable: Charles is a more-than-believable threat. The quarterback has to complete passes for good yardage: Smith is the most accurate one in the league, and one of the most efficient.

Last year, Alex led the league in yards per attempt on play-action throws at the time of his concussion. He capitalized on play-action better than anyone.

That play-action threat will be bigger than ever for the Chiefs, as the Andy Reid brain-trust of an offense continues to evolve.

Good things are on the way, Kansas City. ;)

This is a FanPost and does not necessarily reflect the views of Arrowhead Pride's writers or editors. It does reflect the views of this particular fan though, which is as important as the views of Arrowhead Pride writers or editors.

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