In the long history of debates over Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith, the biggest question to come up again and again is: can he win a Super Bowl?
Football is a team sport, of course. The simple answer is that, if the team is good enough, any quarterback can win a Super Bowl. But that isn't a very fun answer for the purposes of debate. So what I wanted to do was quantify some things to see how The Phoenix compares to the rest of the NFL.
When we ask if Smith "can" win a Super Bowl, we are asking is he "capable", which really just makes me think of another "c" word, the one we're really after: "ceiling." What is Alex Smith's ceiling? And is it enough to bring the Lombardi Trophy to Kansas City?
Suddenly our one question has broken into two. Let's ask the second one first: what kind of performance does a quarterback need to win a Super Bowl?
Chart One - The Super Bowl QBs
The general theory on this allows for two paths to a ring. The quarterback either has to already be a member of the "elite" or "very good" group, or he has to be capable of putting up huge numbers in a random four-game stretch. In other words, he either has to always be hot (Aaron Rodgers, Peyton Manning), or have the capacity to get hot randomly in January (Eli Manning, Joe Flacco).
Smith doesn't really fit into either of these categories.
Or does he?
The following is a chart of the 10 quarterbacks who started in the last five Super Bowls and how they played throughout their respective postseason.
For clarity, the top row says Tom Brady played in the 2014 Super Bowl. During the entire 2014 playoffs, he attempted 135 passes and completed 93, for a completion rate of 68.89%. He threw for 921 yards, had 10 touchdowns, 4 interceptions, and managed an Adjusted Yards per Attempt (AY/A) of 6.97. This last stat, AY/A, will be the measuring stick we use for the rest of this post.
AY/A is a simple advanced stat which gives a bonus for touchdowns, a penalty for interceptions, and includes a yards per attempt element. It is basically a much improved version of the traditional NFL Passer Rating. Plus, it has the added benefit of being available all throughout pro-football-reference.com with very little hassle. It is a great go-to stat for measuring quarterbacks and, by extension, passing offenses.
You can see where the "hot hand" theory comes in by noticing Joe Flacco and Colin Kaepernick. Both entered the 2013 Super Bowl looking unstoppable.
Taken altogether, the average AY/A of a QB on a Super Bowl run is 8.21. Such a number would be top five for any single passer if sustained for a whole year -- meaning, on average, the quarterbacks here are playing better than they do normally (not true in each case, but true on average).
Now let's look back at the Alex Smith rows:
The top row is how Smith has performed in his three postseason games. Notice his AY/A in those games is higher than the 8.21 average needed to "make a run". Encouraging. But also misleading. Those three games took place over the course of several years, so they hardly constitute a single "run".
For the next three rows, I tried to use the games which were the closest to being "playoff-caliber" without actually being in the playoffs. So I tallied how Smith played each year against teams that made the playoffs. But none of these games were back-to-back-to-back, and therefore none of them were "hot streaks."
The final row is simply all the other rows added up. Smith has a respectable 7.28 AY/A against playoff teams, in or outside of the actual playoffs. But just as it was not fair to compare Smith's top row to the 8.21 AY/A standard, it is not fair to compare the bottom row. This is because the AY/A average of the Super Bowl quarterbacks benefits from a huge selection bias.
The only way to make it that far in the playoffs to begin with is to play well, so our research is excluding a lot of bad and average QB play and only displaying the best. Smith, on the other hand, is granted no such selection bias. We're just showing all his games against playoff teams, no matter how well he or his team played. Therefore, we are comparing Super Bowl teams -- teams which are, almost by definition, playing their best -- to Alex Smith during the ebbs and flows of a normal season. It would not surprise me if 100% of the NFL's passers rated below the 8.21 threshold in such a test.
So I thought of a better test. I think...
After all, we have still established something important. We have answered our second question: what kind of performance does a quarterback need to win a Super Bowl? The answer: an AY/A of 8.21 over the course of three or four games.
Now we can answer the questions we started the post with: what is Alex Smith's ceiling? And is it enough to bring the Lombardi Trophy to Kansas City?
The imperfect way of determining this is to see if Smith has ever had a "hot run" of, say, four games in a row, where he put up an AY/A of at least 8.21. Has Smith ever had a "hot streak" hot enough to do what needs to be done in the playoffs?
Chart Deux - Quality Runs
I looked at all QBs to manage at least 1,200 attempts over the past three seasons, to get the field of guys who have most consistently played since 2012. I then looked at their game logs on pro-football-reference (here is Smith's game log, for example) and determined how many times each quarterback had a four-game stretch where he averaged an AY/A of at least 8.21. I went searching for "hot streaks."
We shall call this new statistic "Quality Runs." If a quarterback puts up four good games in a row, that is called a "Quality Run". The more often a quarterback puts together "Quality Runs", the more confident we should feel in saying he can win a Super Bowl.
Here are the top 20 passers in "QR" since 2012:
To clarify, this chart has Aaron Rodgers as the best "QR"-producing passer in the league. In 2012, he did it three times. In 2013, two times. And so on. This includes regular and post-season. Altogether, Rodgers has produced nine "Quality Runs" in the last three seasons. He did this in 46 games, giving him an efficiency score of 19.57%.
Take note that the highest efficiency score possible is 25%. Since a single "Quality Run" takes up four games, you can only accomplish it once every four games. This means, yes, in 2014, Rodgers basically spent his entire season on one huge "Quality Run."
QBs Not Named Smith
What does this chart tell us about some other quarterbacks? Well, the biggest surprise might be Andy Dalton. But Dalton is a gun-slinger who is clearly capable of putting up big numbers every now and then. The problem is, he also puts up more than his fair share of stinkers. Dalton has nine games with an AY/A under 4.00 in the last two seasons. That includes three games under 3.00, one of those being a negative score.
Alex Smith, for comparison, only has one game with an AY/A under 3.00 since he started for the Chiefs, and that was in last year's season opener. He also only has one other game with an AY/A under 4.00. He has three more under 5.00. If we increase the limit to 6.00 AY/A, Smith has two more games under that.
That's seven games for Smith under 6.00 AY/A. Dalton has nine games under 4.00. Conversely, Dalton has six games over 11.00 AY/A. Smith only has three. It's the good ol' variance vs. consistency debate, though hopefully this year Smith increases his ceiling while still limiting the variance. At least, for now, the above chart suggests Smith's current ceiling is high enough to make a post-season push. And I still believe we've yet to see his best football.
Looking still at others on the list, the young guns are scattered in different spots, and appear to be going different directions. Matthew Stafford has been around since 2009, but, believe it or not, he's only 26-years-old. Stafford, like Alex Smith before him, started his NFL career the same year he could legally buy a drink. His career has got off to a much better start than Smith's, but that has not shown itself onto our "QR" list. Stafford has failed to put together four good games in a row over the last three seasons.
Andrew Luck has not started so hot in the "Quality Runs" department, but he also began his career for perhaps the worst team in the league. He deserves a lot of credit for turning it around, and 2014 was his best season yet. Isn't that great news?
Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson have started their careers really hot with the support of arguably the best two defenses in the league over the past few seasons, and great coaching staffs. But don't let team success negate individual success. Their high ranking on this and other lists proves they have played great football. But Kaepernick has yet to repeat the success of his debut, and is trending downward, with this upcoming season looking to be a disaster for San Francisco, while Wilson has played consistent as Seattle eyes another return to February football.
The Kool-Aid Approved News
Returning to the chart, any name highlighted yellow has at least one Super Bowl ring. If the Super Bowl was played within the last three years, the winning row is marked green and the losing row red. This stat correlates really well with Super Bowl appearances. The best quarterbacks in "QR" over the past three seasons have been the same quarterbacks getting to Super Bowls over the past decade. If I have time, or if it is so desired, I could research this stat back further to see how quarterbacks rank over a longer stretch of time.
For now, it is reassuring: the names of the last 12 Super Bowl winners are on this list. Other than Eli Manning and Joe Flacco (who make up three of the last 12 Super Bowl winners), the nine other winners (75%) are all represented in the top 10. Not just that, but of the 12 corollary Super Bowl losses, seven (58.3%) are represented in the top 10. This means 16 of the last 24 Super Bowl starting passers, win or lose, are in the top 10. And the top 10 becomes more indicative, of course, as we examine more recent seasons. Ten of the last 12 Super Bowl starters (83.3%) are in it. Six of the last eight (75%) are in it. For the three years we have looked at specifically, five of six (83.3%) are in it. Alex Smith is in it.
No doubt about it: our guy ranks good enough to get the job done. He can string together a "hot streak" if he needs to. He has managed the task more often than most through the last few seasons.
Smith has produced a "QR" three times in his last 39 games (7.69%). He has done it twice thus far for Kansas City. The Phoenix has produced a steady one "QR" each year. If he fulfills the potential some of us expect of him this coming season, he will be adding to his "Quality Runs" total while increasing his efficiency at it.
I was not sure what I would find when I began screwing around with pro-football-reference's search tool, but I think "Quality Runs" is as good a guess as we have in the football world so far at measuring a quarterback's potential for making a run into February. The same "QR" concept could even be applied to other stats as one pleases. I think my next post will be looking at this same stat for the Kansas City Chiefs defense.
I do not know if this answers our title question without controversy, but it certainly makes a solid argument for the "Yes" column.