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Alex Smith is playing his best football as a Chief, and here's why

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Alex Smith has been playing his best football as a Chief over the last three weeks.

At this point, I'm just stating it as a fact. Normally, I'd mince words and try to sound a little less certain. But it's 11:49 at night, and I just finished spending two hours reviewing every throw over the last three games and comparing it to every throw Smith made during the five game winning streak last year. So I'm just too tired to sound uncertain.

Why did I do this? Because I have issues, partly. But besides that, the simple fact is we have some questions about our QB that haven't been answered.

Over the course of the last three games, people have talked a lot about Alex Smith appearing to be more willing to take chances, more willing to push the ball down the field. It's become a topic of discussion in the comments and has made the rounds with the national media and on Twitter. We've got BJ Kissel firing everyone up with tweets like this...

But the problem is no one has really presented me with the actual numbers. Narratives lie all the time. Is Smith REALLY throwing deep more (outside the Buffalo game, where it was insanely obvious) over the course of the last three games, or is it just something we're saying?

As always, I'm unable to simply accept assumptions as fact. And so to the film I go.

Basically, here's what I did (prepare yourself to judge me) .... I went back and re-watched each Smith throw from the last three games. I charted how many yards the ball traveled in the air on each throw to reach the intended receiver. Whether it was complete or not, I marked down where the RECEIVER was. Otherwise, Smith would get extra credit for poor overthrows. I did not included batted passes or obvious throwaways but DID include throws where a penalty changed the outcome.

What I ended up with is a stat I'm calling "ACTUAL air yards per attempt."

Why "ACTUAL?" Because there is a stat called "air yards per attempt." However, those sites simply track the air yards on COMPLETIONS and subtract yards after the catch. They do not track the air yards of incomplete passes. Thus, it's an air yards per completion stat, not air yards per attempt.

I wanted to know air yards per ATTEMPT, mainly because the issue with Alex has long been his willingness to even take shots down the field. It's a really common comment here or on Twitter to have someone say "yeah, then Smith will throw it a yard behind the line of scrimmage" or something similarly snide. The obvious implication is that Smith never throws it deep and is always checking down to within a yard of the line of scrimmage.

Of course, since we're going to track a stat we need some kind of baseline to compare it to. And that's why I went back to the 2014 winning streak. I wanted a series of games in which the Chiefs as a team performed well, so as to have at least an OK comparison to the three games I'm studying from this year.

Basically, I want to know how much is Smith pushing the ball down the field during the last three games vs. the last time the Chiefs were on a hot streak?

I also tracked a few other stats, just for the sake of gathering all the information possible. The number of throws under three yards in the air (let's find out how true the meme is that Smith is constantly throwing right to the line of scrimmage, shall we?) and the number of throws OVER 10 yards in the air.

You will now be able to be the "well, actually" guy in a conversation about Alex Smith. You know, the guy who hears someone say something regarding Smith and goes, "well, actually, Smith threw the ball past 10 yards X number of times the last three blah blah blah etc. etc." Nobody likes that guy, but who cares? You're spreading knowledge, people!

Here are the stats (remember, not all passing attempts are tracked, as I tossed out throwaways and batted passes. "AAYPA" is "ACTUAL Air Yards Per Attempt").

Alex Smith in the last three games

Attempts Yards thrown AAYPA 10+ Yard Throws 10+ Yard Throw Percentage Throws Under 3 Yards Under 3 Yards Percentage
78 588 7.538 24 30.77% 25 32.05%

Alex Smith in the 2014 win streak

Attempts Yards thrown AAYPA 10+ Yard Throws 10+ Yard Throw Percentage Throws Under 3 Yards Under 3 Yards Percentage
128 624 4.875 19 14.84% 40 31.25%

So there's a LOT we can take from that data. But there are just two main points I'll stress.

1) Alex Smith is indeed throwing the ball down the field way more often

You don't have to wonder anymore whether your eyes are deceiving you or if you're counting wrong or whatever. Smith is averaging nearly three full air yards more per completion than he was during the Chiefs win streak last year. That's an INCREDIBLE difference. It's actually even more than I thought it would be when I began this self-induced torture of a research project.

Obviously, the major change is the number of throws going more than 10 yards past the line of scrimmage. During the win streak of 2014, Smith was very rarely going 10-plus yards down the field. He was more than twice as likely to throw the ball two yards or less than he was to push the ball into the middle or deep third of the secondary. That's... well, it is what it is.

Now, on the other hand, Smith is throwing the ball 10-plus yards on nearly a third of his attempts. If you think that doesn't change the way teams have to play the Chiefs, you're wrong and crazy and probably a bad person.

Oh, and lest you believe that it's just the Bills game that's dragging Smith's ACTUAL Air Yards Per Attempt up, please know that he averaged well over six AAYPA in both the Chargers and the Raiders game, still way above what he was doing in 2014.

2) Alex Smith still throws the ball short a lot of the time, and that's OK

I was surprised to find that Smith is throwing the ball within two yards of the line of scrimmage slightly MORE over the last three weeks than he did during the 2014 win streak. He's been so much more effective individually I thought that number would be down by a sizable margin.

The thing is, Smith is still operating with Andy Reid's offense. There are still going to be a ton of WR and TE and RB screens (whether we like it or not) and quick routes.

The difference is that now Smith is just as likely to throw the ball down the field (or at least into the intermediate part of the field) as he is to dump it off at the line of scrimmage. Defenses can't key on those first 5-9 yards anymore, as Smith is looking to push the ball if given a chance.

Again, this forces defenses to play the Chiefs differently. After the Bills game I detailed how teams have generally hurt the Smith / Reid Chiefs offense and how Smith throwing the ball down the field to Maclin changes all of that. Well, it's been three games of the Chiefs messing with the system and forcing teams to deal with them differently than in the past. Is that enough to call a trend? Eh ... I hope so.

The short, quick passing game has a symbiotic relationship to passes 10 yards in the air and beyond. If you're doing one well, it makes the other easier. Teams have to respect Reid's complex methods of getting the ball out quickly with the hope of YAC (especially with the way Travis Kelce, Albert Wilson, Charcandrick West, and Jeremy Maclin can run with the ball in their hands), so they have to watch the line. However, with Smith pushing the ball down the field more, they can't cheat up nearly as much. They're now forced to cover the whole field.

This is a big, big deal if it continues.

On the whole, the Alex Smith we've seen over the course of the last three weeks is (by a sizable margin) the best version of Smith we've seen since he arrived in Kansas City. He's been DIFFERENT, and the numbers back it up.

It also helps that he's been different in ways you can't quantify with AAYPA. Over the last three weeks Smith has done a much better job dealing with pressure than any other time with the Chiefs. He hasn't been perfect, but he's had many plays in which he was forced to make something happen (the thing we'd all started to accept he couldn't really do) and he's ... well, he's come through.

The Raiders were bringing heat on Smith all day (Eric Fisher had his worst game of the year, and the rest of the line outside Zach Fulton was ... well, not terrific). In the past, that's been the formula to completely destroy the Chiefs offense and force a long series of three and outs. Instead, Smith (though the stats sheet didn't necessarily show it) still had a very solid day. He was able to make something from nothing more than once, either scrambling for much-needed yardage or buying time to get an open receiver.

Smith is even handling heavy pressure differently than he was last year (or earlier this season). Remember Kelce's stud two-point conversion catch? That was a heckuva play by Kelce, but it was made possible by a heckuva play by Smith.

Look at Smith as the ball is being released in this first screenshot, then look at where he puts the ball in the second.

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You can't see it, but Smith took a SHOT to get that pass off. What's more, when you observe the defender on Kelce, he's got decent position. The problem for him is Travis Kelce is a metahuman and pretty much impossible to cover in the red zone (or anywhere else. He's got ball security issues, but he's a ridiculously tough player to cover).

Alex Smith of last year and earlier this season doesn't make that throw 19 times out of 20. Smith 2.0? Ptssshhh, whatever, he's chucking it.

I don't know what's gotten into Smith. But whatever it is, they need to make sure he keeps it up. Because, to build on what I said following the Chargers game, the Chiefs with Smith playing at the level he's currently playing are a very, very, very dangerous team.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go find all the 4-leaf clovers and wish on a thousand stars to remove any possibility of jinxing the poor guy.