Since I mentioned the name Alex Smith, I assume at least a quarter of you have already skipped to the comments. Once more into the fray, my friends. Have at 'er.
For the rest of you, to be perfectly frank this column isn't the one I set out to write. My initial intention was to look at the Chiefs' non-packaged and non-screen plays to try and figure out why Andy Reid is keeping such a tight rein on the offense. Is it an offensive line issue? An Alex Smith issue? An Andy Reid being a control freak issue? I wanted answers.
Unfortunately, I couldn't make it through the research (big hat tip to the NFL for getting All-22 film up ASAP) without getting sidetracked by another issue. One that's even more pressing than packaged plays vs. non-packaged plays and Andy Reid's play calling; Alex Smith's eye level.
It's no secret that Smith had a really, really bad game against the Packers. In fact, after re-watching that first quarter on All-22, I believe the first quarter especially was as bad as Smith has played since becoming a Chief.
Smith was committing two cardinal sins against the Packers that doomed him on multiple plays; he was hesitating, and his eye level was consistently dropping.
For those of you unfamiliar with the term "eye level," (I'm guessing most of you are, but let's play it safe today) it's referring to whether the quarterback is keeping his eyes on his receivers down the field (eye level "up") or watching the pass rush (eye level "down"). It's a pretty basic part of being a quarterback that you want to keep your eye level up. Because, you know, you can't throw to receivers when you're staring at rushing defensive linemen.
Eye level is something that allows quarterbacks to make plays even when a rusher is closing in. We had an opportunity to witness the absolute best in the business (Aaron Rodgers, in case you didn't realize it) at keeping eye level up Monday night. One reason Rodgers is so horrifically frustrating to play is that pressure doesn't affect him the way it does many quarterbacks. His eyes always stay up no matter how many times he's been hit. I hate that guy.
Smith was pretty much the opposite the majority of Monday night. I don't know if he was still feeling skittish from the Broncos game, jumpy from too much caffeine, or hopped up on crystal meth (probably not those last two), but Smith was CONSTANTLY dropping his eyes and looking at the rush. This resulted in him panicking and scrambling more than once (or twice, or three times) and missing guys coming open. It also resulted in some panicked checkdowns (Lawrence Tynes agrees!) when the offense needed more.
An example of this was early in the game. First, a screenshot view...
Now, while it might not look like Smith is under any pressure at the moment, a DT is currently beating Mitch Morse and is about to come screaming into Smith's face.
HOWEVER ... as of this moment Smith has room to step up and throw. You see that guy with the red lines and arrow? That's Jeremy Maclin. He's pretty good at getting open. I know he doesn't look open right this second, but as the arrow indicates, he's about to break back toward Smith and leave his corner stumbling briefly (a lil' veteran shove helps create separation). There's a window where he's absolutely open if Smith releases the ball AS HE BREAKS.
For those asking about last Maclin pic, here's the route. Separates well w/ stop. If throw gets made, easy 1st down. pic.twitter.com/QN1Xxnv5Dk— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) September 29, 2015
Is that window particularly big? No. Is it one that a QB should see and hit? Well ... yeah, probably. The corner had been turned around several times and wasn't in a position to drive on any throw Smith could make.
Maclin stops short after turning around because he sees, rather than the ball coming toward him, Alex Smith scrambling around (ended up with a one yard gain). Instead of keeping his eyes up and seeing his star WR winning his route, Smith looked at the rush and panicked, taking off.
This happened time after time Monday night. I could show you a dozen or so GIFs. I'm not going to do that, mostly because even watching it ONCE was bad enough for you fine people (and even you not-so-fine people. I wouldn't wish that on my worst enemy).
I call the types of plays where a QB drops his eye level and starts dancing around aimlessly to avoid pressure (real or imagined) "happy feet" snaps. Smith had them last year more than I'd like, but nothing even close to what we saw Monday. It was horrible.
The Chiefs offensive line is not playing very well. Of that we can be certain. However, you don't need to have superstar or even GOOD offensive line play if your quarterback is able to keep his eyes up and watch down the field. An easy example of that can be found in this same game (yes, even this dumpster fire of a game had some good plays).
Needed this earlier in the game. Gets happy feet, but EYES UPFIELD so finds Maclin for a big gain. pic.twitter.com/BMtcfi4qgb— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) September 30, 2015
First of all, I'd like to thank that blitzing Packer for running right into Eric Fisher, allowing him to transition seamlessly from blocking one guy to blocking another.
Second of all, see what happens there? Smith sees the blitzer coming and drops his eye level for a moment, but rather than freaking out and trying to run for a three yard gain or so he forces his eyes back down the field as he steps up into the pocket. Oh hey, look, there's Jeremy Maclin getting open again! We should throw to that guy, eh? Smith does, and it's a big gain.
Had Smith kept his eye level down that would have been just another wasted play in which we could bemoan the offensive line and be kinda / sorta correct. But it's on the QB to protect his line almost as much as it's on the line to protect its QB. Not everyone can be Rodgers. But you can be better than "terrible" when it comes to keeping your eyes up and on your receivers.
Bad eye level wasn't the only thing Smith did wrong this game, but it was far and away the worst of his sins. Since I'm talking about him here I might as well pile on; Smith has got to stop hesitating when receivers are about to come open. Throw your receivers open. On more than one play Monday Smith had a receiver either open or about to become open and he hesitated and clutched the ball (almost a miniature pump fake toward the receiver he's actually looking to throw to, a cardinal sin as a QB). It was costly. In some cases it was very costly early.
Second failed 3rd down. Maclin open, Smith hesitates/clutches, gives pressure time to get there and affect throw. pic.twitter.com/WJUZAiO512— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) September 29, 2015
Smith was extremely lucky that throw wasn't picked off and returned for six points. The throw hung up in the air and it would be easy to point and say, "Oh, it's because of Smith's noodle arm!" But that would be the wrong issue to kill Smith on for this play.
The throw was a duck because Smith got hit as he threw and couldn't follow through on his motion. He got hit as he threw because he didn't get the ball out sooner. He didn't get the ball out sooner because he hesitated, even though Maclin was clearly about to break left and gain solid separation from his corner.
Maclin is a superb route runner. Smith needs to trust that he'll be where he's supposed to be if they want to be a combo that teams actually fear facing. Smith knows where the route is supposed to go and he should see where the defense is relative to that route. Through that, he OUGHT to know he can make the throw even though Maclin isn't already "open" just yet. It's called anticipatory throwing, or throwing your receiver open. Good quarterbacks do it. A lot. That's why their receivers look open all the time, frankly.
Smith's contract (and Reid's apparent confidence) mean he's going to be the Chiefs quarterback this season and next season barring some massive change. The way he played against the Packers was utterly unacceptable. Smith is seeing ghosts out there (this was the first game in which a lot of his snaps resembled Cassel's to me regarding consistently poor eye level. That's scary).
Reid seems to have been trying to protect Smith (and the offense as a whole) by being very controlling of the play calls and reads. Tons of packaged plays, screens, misdirections, quick outs, and the like have been the norm. Unfortunately, other teams are wise to this now. Misdirection doesn't work if they know what you're doing, just like a magician can't fool you if you don't look where he wants you to look.
Reid said he needs to be better and the issues are on him. While he's not blameless, that's just a flat-out lie. Smith has to change his eye level to compensate for how poorly the line is playing. It's either that, or fail. Smith has shown much better eye level in the past (particularly 2013, his first year with the Chiefs). Regardless of what happens with the line, Smith is the X-factor here. That eye level needs to be at least average for this offense to succeed.
I hate leaving ya'll on a thought so potentially dreary. Let's end on a positive note ... hey, have you noticed Smith's accuracy in the intermediate and deep zones was improved Monday? Just watch this throw and try to tune out everything else that's worrying you.
And then there's this. This is a fantastic throw down the field (Maclin's bobble) pic.twitter.com/cVFrvY2YEj— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) September 29, 2015
Freaking STUCK that throw. Onto Cincinnati (gulp).