From the FanPosts. Merry Chiefmas, everybody. -Joel
Alex Smith is used to being questioned. When you are the #1 overall pick, and you not only fail to reach expectations, but put up some truly head-shaking performances, you have to re-earn your reputation all over again. And again. And again. And again.
That is why Smith, despite all he has come through and all the talent he has shown, still has to deal with the murmurs, or shouts, of "average", "game manager", "regression." "Bust" is not so common, anymore. Smith has outgrown that. In 2014, he will take the next step, and officially "outgrow" average. After 2014, it will no longer be okay for any NFL pundit to get away with publicly stating the myth that Alex Smith is average.
Chase Stuart recently did quarterback projections over at his website (which is awesome and you should bookmark it), Football Perspective. Guess where Smith is projected to finish?
The reasons are a few: a revamped o-line, questionable receivers, regression in interceptions and efficiency, and so on. Stuart's methodology is based on ANY/A (adjusted net yards per attempt), a stat him and I both adore. It takes touchdowns, interceptions, and sacks into account. It is a well-rounded stat that is useful for explanation and for assessment (not just of QB play, but also of offensive efficiency).
One at a time, I will go through these points, and more, and finish with some good ol' homer-laden ranting. Hope you enjoy.
Smith's INT rate will NOT go up to league average
First, interceptions. Stuart states:
"The former number one overall pick has been great at avoiding interceptions, but if that trend flips, he'll be one of the three worst quarterbacks in the league. Smith has been fortunate to play on very good teams the past few seasons, but I'm not expecting a return to the playoffs for Kansas City in 2014. As a result, I see him being forced to make more plays, leading to more interceptions and an ugly ANY/A average this season."
From the middle of 2010, until now, including the playoffs, Smith has attempted about 1500 attempts and has only thrown 18 interceptions, for a rate of 1.19. That is the lowest in the NFL over that time span. Since 2011, and into 2012, and 2013, and now again in 2014, people have continued to say that Smith will "regress" towards league average in interceptions, citing the randomness of picks, Smith's higher career average in the category, and how difficult it is to maintain an interception rate below league average for so long.
This is all true, but it does not take into account the fact that Smith has been playing this way for, as I said, 1,500 attempts, or about 3 full seasons. It is not a fluke. It is not luck. It is not "random." It is not "variance." It is a matter of substance. It is not a product of Jim Harbaugh, either, it is a matter of Smith being an accurate quarterback with the ball and (for a time, under Harbaugh) a little too safe with it as well.
This is not a trend that has shown any signs of slowing. Don't expect it to in 2014. Especially as Smith grows more familiar with Reid's system.
More on interceptions in a bit. For now, a slight digression:
The Phoenix Grounded
So if Smith has been good at avoiding interceptions for 1,500 attempts, and if this streak extends before the arrival of Jim Harbaugh, then what was it exactly that Harbaugh taught Smith to do?
In Harbaugh's two years as head coach, Smith had sack rates of 9.0 and 9.9. The year prior to Harbaugh, Smith's sack rate was 6.8. Last year, it was 7.1. Harbaugh taught Alex Smith to take sacks.
This isn't too strange, because Harbaugh himself employed this style of quarterbacking during his time in the NFL. Harbaugh taught Smith to play football the way he played it: conservative, safe. Reid won't have any of that.
From 2007 to 2012 with the 49ers, Smith had 511 rush yards on 138 attempts for a 3.7 average. Last year alone, under Reid, Smith had 488 rush yards on 84 attempts, for a 5.8 average. The first few minutes of this video feature Smith evading pressure, throwing on the run, scrambling, executing the read option, and so on. In all my years watching #11, I've never seen him look this mobile and athletic. Nor have I seen him much better in the pocket (cue Smith ducking the shoulder on Mathis and touchdown to Avery gif). It's like the Smith that was drafted out of college is back, the Smith that was a dual threat, except he's not 21 playing for the NFL's worst team. He's 30 and playing for the Kansas City Chiefs.
On 3rd and 4th down, Smith had the 5th most rushing yards of any player last year, QB, RB, or otherwise For any player with at least 10 such attempts, he was also the 2nd most efficient on a Y/A basis (behind Andrew Luck). For QBs with at least 400 passing attempts, Smith had the 4th best Y/A. Up there with the likes of Kaepernick, Luck, Wilson, Griffin, Newton. What the heck is Smith doing with all the "new-age", "college", "dual threat" QBs? Well, that's what Smith was always supposed to be. That's who Alex Smith is. But the league wasn't ready for it in 2005.
This 2014 NFL landscape, however -- with the sudden popularization of the read option and pistol -- is the kind of league that Smith should have been playing in when he was drafted. Now that the NFL has officially, whole-heartedly adopted this "college" offense, Smith has a chance to shine the way he did in college.
Harabugh's offense wasn't "protecting" Smith, therefore. It was holding him back. The trend of Smith avoiding interceptions started before Harbaugh arrived. All Harbaugh did was take that tendency and expand it to a ridiculous amount at the cost of, as you know, sacks.
This is a revitalized Alex Smith coached by a revitalized Andy Reid. Under Reid, Smith has been more effective at (a) avoiding sacks, (b) scrambling, and (c), throwing on the run. Expect all three to take another step forward (because Smith might not have much of a choice) in 2014.
Now, to ANY/A...
Is Smith's ANY/A about to take a dive of such epic proportions that any soccer play watching would simply stand back, give himself a red card, and applaud?
Short answer: no. Long answer:
By my calculations, Smith's ANY/A after the Bye Week, and through the post-season, was 7.5. Such a number would have plotted him 6th in the NFL last year. But we don't have to be so generous to our signal-caller. His ANY/A for the entire season (even excluding the playoff game) was 5.94 -- good enough for 12th among passers with at least 400 attempts.
How bout for guys with at least 1,000 attempts over the last 3 seasons? Smith is 13th. 600 attempts over the last two years? 12th. This despite Smith, as we all know, playing for two teams with different coaches and systems. Every quarterback ahead of Smith has played for one during the same span.
How about if we are really "unfair", and include all of 2010 through 2013, a period of time where Smith played for 2 teams, 3 head coaches, and 4 offensive coordinators. Smith is 14th over that period.
So how does Smith become the 30th ranked passer in ANY/A production this season? I don't know. Remember that Stuart's rankings are an output of ANY/A (efficiency metric) and dropbacks (a "production" metric). So Smith has to not only fall well below his 4 year average of ANY/A (efficiency), but has to produce less than 29 other guys in the league despite playing in a pass-heavy (production), Andy Reid offense. Counting the playoff game, Smith had 554 attempts last year, for 12th most in the NFL. If most of Smith's production is negative, then producing more will mean more negative results. Stuart is ready for Smith to fall off the cliff this year.
In Stuart's defense, he graded the Chiefs' defensive schedule as one of the easiest in the league (i.e., the Chiefs offense had it easy). If you think Smith's end to the season was good strictly because of the defenses he faced, then you are likely to be lower on him. If you think, as I do, that it is mainly a factor of Smith (and everyone, including Reid) becoming comfortable in the scheme, you are likely to not be so low on the guy. Luckily, this question of perception will be resolved very soon.
And in Smith's defense, these advanced stat projections have been wrong in the past. They habitually underestimate him and the offensive schemes he's a part of. For example:
After the 2011 season, where Smith surprised people by being an above average quarterback in terms of efficiency, sites such as Football Outsiders (FO) predicted he would regress in 2012. The 49ers offense as a whole was projected to finish the 26th worst unit in the league, and would only win about 7.5 games. After a surprise 2011, Smith and the offense would take a step back, with question marks at wide receiver and a completely revamped o-line. Sound familiar? The Niners ended up 7th in FO's offense rankings (though not all of that, of course, was Smith-led) with 11 wins.
Last year, when Reid and Smith first joined Charles and Bowe in leading this new offense, FO projected the unit to finish 21st (they finished 10th). Here's what they said prior to the season about the acquisition of Smith:
"That's too steep a price for a quarterback who must always be protected with safer play-calling."
It's not paranoia when they're really out to get you.
This year's Football Outsider projections have Andy Reid's offense as the 24th worst unit, with the team winning about 6.5 games. For all the same reasons, plus a tough schedule, this offense is expected to be even worse than they were to start the season last year -- meaning they aren't just going to regress from their ridiculous output after the Bye Week, no, they are going to produce like they are the same offense from Week 1 against Jacksonville, but playing the NFC West week-in and week-out. Tough crowd.
Yet, as stated, our offense was ranked 10th through all of last year by FO, and you can bet they did not start out that high. They were likely average through 9 weeks and a top 5 unit through the last 8. So why the sudden regression instead of continued improvement? And it's not all because of the schedule (though FO does have the Kansas City schedule ranked #2 in difficulty).
Regardless, Smith has revived his career by outpacing projections and surpassing expectations. Last year, FO released their Worst Quarterbacks list in celebration of the site's 10th anniversary. Who do you think had the worst year of any quarterback they have ever studied? Alex Smith in 2005. And who is the 16th worst quarterback in total DYAR since 1991? Alex Smith.
A huge part of statistical work in sports is regression towards the mean, and when you have a "mean" like Smith's people will rightly raise an eyebrow or two when it's exceeded. Thus, you frequently get the following comments: "Smith will regress towards the mean in interceptions", "Smith will regress towards career averages", "Smith will regress towards the bottom half of the league", and so on, even though all recent evidence (for 3 1/2 years now) suggests otherwise and even though Smith's entire career path is on an upward trend (did you think "trending up!" was going to die a quiet death?). The last half of 2013 only further confirms the premise that Smith improves considerably the more time he gets in a system. Urban Meyer's thoughts on Smith out of college confirms this. 2012 confirms this.
Perhaps from the failure to notice this trend, and in relying on a poor perception of Smith as a player, advanced sites continue to caution against Smith even while he consistently outperforms their projections. Expect no less in 2014.
Touchdowns and Total Yards
We keep seeing this "23" number floating around: "Alex Smith threw 23 touchdowns last season." But that number does not include a 16th game, which is typically what NFL seasons are made of. At least since 1978 and until Goodell can scratch that itch he has for a couple extra bazillion dollars (an itch likely caused by him bathing in money).
Smith threw 23 touchdowns in his 15 (not 16) regular season games, and threw 4 more in the playoffs, for a total of 27. That doesn't seem like a lot, but it is. It's good enough for top 10 in total TDs. Likewise, yards: Smith threw for 3,691 yards in 16 games if you count the playoffs.
I do not personally care how many yards Smith throws for. Passing yards are not correlated with winning. Touchdowns and turnovers are. Smith, historically, makes his money by having a good TD-to-INT ratio. Since "The Revelation" in 2010, Smith has 75 TDs and 18 INTs. That's a 4:1 ratio spanning 1500 attempts. And only Aaron Rodgers can match it over a similar number of throws.
First Smith solidifies that end of his play and then he looks to improve his Y/A and reduce his sacks where he can. Given that Reid has freed Smith up to avoid sacks where Harbaugh handicapped Smith in that regard (as outlined in the first section), and given that Smith's low INT% is not a matter of luck but a matter of substance (outlined above), all we want, and expect, are a few more TDs and a better Y/A.
The good news on that front is two-fold. First, for Y/A, Smith's was 6.52 last year -- below average. His Y/A in 2012, however, when he had a second year in the same system, was 7.98; and his Y/A over his last 1500 attempts is 7.1. So where does the 6.52 come from? Clearly, it's the result of a new scheme. As last year progressed, Smith's Y/A improved. He averaged 7.4 yards per attempt through his final 7 games.
Second, for touchdowns, Smith was not just top 10 in the category, but was also top 10 in TD% (touchdowns divided by attempts). By my count, Smith's TD% for the whole season was 4.87%. That will go up this season. Smith's TD% after last year's Bye Week was 7.5%, which would have been good for 2nd in the league, behind Peyton Manning.
Don't expect something that high, because some of that is a result of an easy defensive schedule and Jamaal Charles single-handedly embarrassing the Oakland Raiders, but do expect something higher than 4.87%. His TD% in 2012 was 5.9, but his TD% over his last 1500 attempts is 4.9. I expect something closer to 6 than 5, meaning Smith will throw at least 30 touchdowns in 16 regular season games this year. Put it in the bank.
About that playoff loss...
We've had all off-season to mull it over and (attempt to) digest it. I've watched it a few times and sought some sort of reason or logic in it, or something rational and not repulsive. The best I can come up with is to try to view it as one game and not a do-or-die playoff bout. In that light, it is obvious the Chiefs were on pace to wipe the mat with the Colts' bloody carcass before injuries piled up. That loss was a product of the kind of unsustainable unluckiness that only rarely rears its head in the NFL. I quote Mr. Joel Thorman himself from an article back in early January:
"Injuries aren't an excuse. We know that. But it's hard not to wonder what could have been if the Chiefs on Saturday against the Colts didn't lose their leading RB, second leading RB, leading WR, third-leading WR, No. 1 CB and No. 1 pass rusher."
How many times has something like that ever happened in an NFL playoff game? It won't happen again.
The Chiefs were unlucky. That's it. Unlucky to the point of statistical anomaly. After that first touchdown in the 3rd quarter, the Colts had a 0.1% chance of winning. Or 1/1000. Which, yes, means Kansas City had a 99.9% chance of winning. For the sake of clarity, pretend the playoff game was just another game, if you can, and assign it the same value as the Week 17 loss against the Chargers with our backups on the field. The point of this isn't to provide some kind of closure, but to help you realize that our team is good. Really good. A tough loss when all the chips are in can mentally blot our perception of what is otherwise a very bright Chiefs team. A team which should have high, not "reasonable", expectations this season (in other words, GTFO with your 8 - 8 "aspirations").
This is a competitive, well-coached squad that showed improvement as the year went on, even though the record suffered. But records don't always indicate what they should. Just like the Chiefs 9 - 0 start to the season did not in any way indicate they were the best team in the NFL, their 2 - 6 end to the season does not indicate they are doomed. And the playoff loss does not indicate, or mean, anything at all except bad luck (no pun intended).
The good thing is that the Chiefs will be hungry this year to prove everyone wrong. So while we can, intellectually, dismiss the defeat as just one game where things went ridiculously south, the team likely views it as an unforgivable sin. Therefore, our boys know they have unfinished business. With who, exactly? With San Diego, with Denver, and with the post-season. It's not a big check list for the Chiefs. It's a small one. 6 losses to the same 3 teams. 5 of them close contests that could have gone either way (or should have gone the other way), 2 of them games that didn't technically matter. It's not a big step the Chiefs need to make. It's a small one. Those predicting regression think the Chiefs stumble backwards. I think they move forward that one extra inch -- and that's all that's needed for Bowe to be in bounds and business to be settled. Now is the time.
A Brief History of Complaints
2011 Complaints: 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh courts Smith and brings him on board as the 49ers' quarterback. Smith takes a low salary to stay with the team, to prove he can win there, and organizes practices under no contract. Everyone throws a fit. They are sick of having Smith around. They want him gone. He is a bust and will never develop into anything more than that.
2011 Results: Smith goes on to tie the franchise record for 4th quarter comebacks on the road, including a comeback drive to beat the Seahawks in Seattle, and sets an NFL record for consecutive road comebacks. He ties an NFL record for fewest interceptions in a season (including playoffs). He sets an NFL record for most passes attempted while maintaining an INT% below 1.0. He becomes the first quarterback in NFL history to record two 4th quarter comebacks in the final minutes of a playoff game.
2012 Complaints: Smith returns but, as outlined above, everyone predicts the 49ers to regress and finish around or below .500 (sound familiar?). Smith and the offense will not take the next step forward because Smith is just an average quarterback (sound familiar?); and look what a mess that offensive line is (sound familiar?). They are making too many changes -- can we be sure it will work out? And who are the receivers? San Francisco started Joe Hastings and Brett Swain in the NFC Championship Game in 2011. Who are they? Exactly. 2012 will be a rebuilding year. Smith cannot deliver.
2012 Results: Smith was on pace to set an NFL record in completion percentage and was one attempt shy of setting the single-game completion percentage record (he was 18 of 19 for 232 yards, 3 TDs, 0 INTs on the road against Arizona -- read that again). He set the 49ers franchise record for consecutive passes without an interception. For a guy that everyone has a book on, and everyone knows how to defend, and who played in the NFC West, Smith was 39 of 50 for 444 yards, with 5 touchdowns and 1 pick against those defenses, but didn't get a chance to add more because of the concussion early in the Rams game. That's a completion percentage of 78%. His last pass before being ousted as quarterback was a touchdown, even though he had a concussion and could not see clearly. If this sounds like the stuff of legends, that's because it is. But the story is missing its happy ending. The 49ers were on track to win the West and clinch a first-round bye.
2013 Complaints: Reid courts Smith and brings him in. Reid has always wanted Smith and Dorsey spent a lot to get him. There are question marks everywhere. Okay, sure, Smith has shown he can win a big game and, yah, he took the next step forward in 2012, but Harbaugh was the reason for his success. Without Harbaugh protecting Smith, teaching him to take sacks and avoid interceptions and play "safe", Smith would be a nobody. He's just an average quarterback who needs to be protected. He's not the guy you build a team around. Reid is bringing him in for maybe a year as a stop-gap while the Chiefs find their QBOTF. The Chiefs are the worst team in the NFL. They'll do better than 2 - 14, but don't expect much. Smith will be exposed without Harbaugh.
2013 Results: Kansas City started 9 - 0 behind a stout defense and Smith, while certainly under-performing by my expectations of him in the first half of the season, did enough. But Smith showed clear improvement as the year went on. Clear improvement. He maneuvered the offense into one of the highest-scoring units in the league by the end of the season (32.4 points a game!). As we outlined in a previous FanPost, the Reid offense, under Charles and Smith, created the greatest turnaround in NFL history in terms of points scored. They finished the season with a tough playoff loss, but Smith exhibited play-making ability no one thought he had because no one's been paying attention. Still, we are left looking for that story-book ending...
2014 Complaints: Smith did better than expected and, yah, he finished the season well, but... he's just an average quarterback. Reid and Dorsey want to move on from him as soon as possible. Smith is a stop-gap and the Chiefs won't commit long-term to him. He's not the guy you build a franchise around, and if Dorsey does try to sign him, he'll break the bank and cost them $20mill a year. Under Smith, the Chiefs offense will stall and not take the next step forward. Expect huge regression and, oh boy, is that offensive line a mess. And who are the receivers? Smith will get killed and be exposed for the average quarterback he is. His interceptions will skyrocket and his efficiency will plummet. Then Kansas City will have to rebuild around a different quarterback.
2014 Results: ???
Do you see the pattern? What do you think is going to happen this year? And are you really such a fool to think the result will be anything other than, "Wow. Smith proved everyone wrong. Again." ;)
So don't be that guy. Don't be in the position where Smith has to prove you wrong. Because he will. This is how Smith works. This is why some of us, for a few years now, have called him The Phoenix. When you think he's dead, he rises from the ashes. But, finally, finally, he will have a year two in the same system -- a system organized by a great offensive mind in Andy Reid -- and The Phoenix will not simply rise, but take flight (literally: Reid will be throwing the ball. A lot).
I think it was Mark Twain who said, "If you give a man a reputation as an early riser, he can sleep 'till noon." Smith used to have a reputation as a bust. Now he has a reputation as an average quarterback. Therefore, even when Smith wakes up at 4 in the morning, and shows up to work 3 hours early every day, the boss calls him into his office for a "chat" and asks him why he's always late. Alex, because he's like this, apologizes and says he'll keep doing better.
Every year, every single year, the critics say the same thing. Over and over again. And every year, every single year, some of us say the opposite. We say Smith will exceed expectations. We say, "Just wait." We say, "Give Smith a year two and watch out." We say, "Give Smith a stable contract, a stable situation, and let him show you that he is that franchise quarterback."
Well, this is it. This is that stable situation. The contract has been dotted and signed. Year two is upon us. Am I asking you to believe in magic? No. Fairy tales? Not quite.
I'm just asking you to drink the Kool Aid. Because it's delicious.