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Six things to know about Alex Smith vs. Nick Foles and the QB non-controversy

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Alex Smith is the starting quarterback for the Kansas City Chiefs.

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There is no quarterback controversy in Kansas City. Except in that way that you and I, as fans, can create our own controversy in our own heads collectively, and then perpetuate it among ourselves via debate. That's what the internet is for, right? And that's why we are fans. Because we love the stuff and can't get enough.

So, yes, maybe on Arrowhead Pride there is a quarterback controversy. Though, to be fair, on Arrowhead Pride there is a head coach controversy, and a "Fire Bob Sutton" controversy, and a controversy about which postgame victory GIFs are best.

Outside of AP, Bob Sutton's job is safe. Andy Reid's job is safe. Kwon Yuri's job is safe.

And so is Alex Smith's.

The deep attack started a few weeks ago

The idea that we suddenly started stretching the field when Nick Foles came in, is wrong. Foles threw 22 percent of his passes deep (which pro-football-reference defines as anything beyond 15 yards) and was wonderfully efficient at it, to-boot. He was 3-of-5 for 120 yards and a touchdown.

Here are the past three games for Smith:

  • Against the Colts, Smith was 0-for-4 on deep throws, for 0 yards. He threw deep on 21 percent of his attempts.
  • Against the Saints, Smith was 2-of-6 on deep throws, for 56 yards and a touchdown. He threw deep on 25 percent of his attempts.
  • Against the Raiders, Smith was 2-of-3 on deep throws, for 64 yards. He threw deep on 14 percent of his attempts.

Since the bye week, Smith is throwing deep on 20 percent of his attempts. He is 4-for-13 for 120 yards, with one touchdown. A 30 percent completion rate might not sound like much, but that's what you expect from all quarterbacks in the league on deep balls. If anyone is consistently completing more than 40 percent, you get suspicious.

Keep in mind, too, that even the gun-slingiest teams in the league only throw deep around 15 percent of the time (and here's a second source for that from further back). Both hyperlinks come from Pro Football Focus, which defines deep throws as anything over 20 yards.

There is a slight discrepancy in the PFR and PFF deep ball definition. But for our purposes, this is negligible. Because the point is that the Chiefs did not start dialing it up more, or throwing it more, just because Foles was in the game. The game-plan was: let's challenge deep and focus on Kelce. Both Smith and Foles did just that. And both did it at a rate-per-attempt that would be among the most aggressive units in the league, if PFF's numbers are any indication.

Travis Kelce

Here is what I have been saying in various threads this week about Travis Kelce, leading up to the Colts game:

Kelce’s day will come. That’s what I’ll just keep posting in all these threads. It’s on its way. The o-line is improving and Reid will feel more comfortable dialing up some deeper routes. Smith never had a problem hitting Vernon Davis on any route. Even wheel routes down the sideline. Kelce will get his. No worries there.

I’d like to see [Kelce] used more in the pass game, like everyone else. But that day will come. So I’m not too worried about [it]. He’ll go off for 150 yards and 2 touchdowns one of these days when that’s how the game-plan and the scheme unfolds.

Yah, that will come. It pays off to make defenses think about everyone. There will be a day when Kelce is the guy Reid game-plans for. That will come.

Since it was a developing meme this past week that Smith was somehow holding Kelce back, it's important that it be known that, much like the deep game, Smith is not holding anything back. He was targeting Kelce just as often as Foles because that was the game-plan and Smith executes the game-plan.

  • Against the Colts, Smith was 4-of-5 for 66 yards to Travis Kelce. He targeted Kelce on 26 percent of attempts.
  • Foles was 3-of-5 for 35 yards to Travis Kelce. He targeted Kelce on 23 percent of attempts.

Now Foles' throw that Kelce recovered with a beautiful neck-turning, over-the-shoulder grab should have been a catch. But my point here, as with the deep game, is that it is irrelevant which quarterback played better in one random game. The point is that there is no sense in saying Foles opened up the deep game, because he's attempting just as many deep passes per attempt as Smith is over the last three weeks. And there is no sense in saying Foles brought Kelce back to life, because Smith was targeting Kelce just as frequently per dropback and was doing so efficiently. That was the game-plan. Reid drew it up. The quarterbacks executed. Foles executed better this game. Can't deny that. He looked great.

There is another point there, which is very encouraging. Nick Foles came in and executed the game-plan very, very well. Yes, he missed some throws. All quarterbacks miss throws. And he had to suffer through some questionable red zone play calling. But he drove the team down the field and put them in a spot to get points on the board and win the game. A game like this from Foles should make us all more comfortable, not less, with him as our back-up, and it looks like a good, low-risk signing.

No one on this roster is going to execute a game plan on a more consistent basis than Alex Smith.

But if we can go back to the "controversy", I remember when Smith was red hot for San Francisco in 2012 and Colin Kaepernick came in and had one good game against the Bears. Everyone was complaining for a week or so prior to that that tight end Vernon Davis had disappeared from the offense. Kapernick came in and Davis was targeted and had a huge game. People felt vindicated. "Smith should throw more to Davis!", became, "Look! Smith was holding Davis back!"

But, of course, it was ridiculous. Davis set the NFL record for tight end receiving touchdowns in a single season in part thanks to Alex Smith. Davis and Smith were best friends, and Davis was always Smith's favorite and most reliable target. Smith had just helped Davis in the previous year's playoffs put up 292 yards and four touchdowns. In two games! In the playoffs! And this is the same quarterback who is holding Vernon Davis back? How sad and short our memories can be.

Plus, No. 11 was on fire in San Francisco that season, playing like one of the best QBs in the league. He was executing, so who cares who got the ball? It was just the simple fact that the Bears game plan called for Davis to get the ball early and often. Previous game plans had been about spreading it around. But Kaepernick came in and performed better. Never mind that it was a small sample size. Some wanted anything they could get to move on from The Phoenix. Jim Harbaugh saw all he needed and wanted to as well. Sadly, I don't think anyone was wearing their Certified Baseball Vision Goggles.

Does all this sound familiar? That's why I'm against it. Smith is not holding Kelce back. Smith was targeting Kelce just as much this past game as Foles was, and even more effectively. Not that any difference between the two based on one game means much. Speaking of which...

One game doesn't mean much

Now, statistically, Foles was better in this one game on his deep passes. And thank goodness, because he helped the Chiefs pull away late and saved us from any heart attacks. But one game of deep passes does not tell us much. Deep passes involve so few attempts per game, that a completion here or miss there can drastically affect your stats. Think about the difference for Foles if Kelce's obvious catch had correctly been confirmed as a catch. Or think about the opposite effect if Foles' underthrow to Hill is intercepted. The stats would look way different, and many would attempt to build a narrative about it. We could try to go crazy over one game of deep passes. But that one game of deep passes is five attempts. Five! That's nothing to build an offense on.

Deep passes are so seldom, even for pass-happy offenses, that statistical anomalies can last for a few games, or even a year. Joe Flacco managed to not throw a single interception on any deep throw for the entire 2013 season. That is unsustainable. Foles, thanks in part to the deep game, threw 27 touchdowns to only two interceptions that same year. Colin Kaepernick looked like one of the best QBs in the league during this time, too. In 2012, his deep game was fundamental to his success with San Francisco.

But deep games come back to Earth. Quarterbacks who heave it deep eventually throw interceptions. It's inevitable. More than zero. More than two. The deeper you throw on average, the more likely you are to throw picks. And the more likely you are, either way, of throwing an incompletion. Quarterbacks who are completing more than 40 percent of their deep throws, or maintaining absurdly low interception rates on said deep throws, aren't the next big thing, they're the next big bust.

(Unless you are Aaron Rodgers. In fact, I call this the Aaron Rodgers Rule: if a QB is better than Aaron Rodgers at throwing the ball deep, we should assume this is unsustainable, and that said QB will regress below Aaron Rodgers).

This is why Smith sets interception records and completion records. A lot of people said Smith's low interception rate was unsustainable when he nearly set the NFL record in 2011. But they didn't understand that it was completely sustainable because it wasn't due to luck, or to some statistical anomaly, but due to scheme. Smith was throwing short. Those passes are easier to complete and less likely to be picked off. The reverse is true of guys who throw deep all the time. Low interception rates and high completion rates are unsustainable when you throw deep. If much of a QB's success is from the deep game, then that QB's success is also unsustainable.

When the deep game stops working at that same insane level -- which it is bound to -- a QB can suddenly stop looking like the best QB in the league and look worse. In the case of all three QBs above, much worse.

That link takes you to the AY/A (Adjusted Yards per Attempt) of every QB who threw at least 500 passes (which is roughly one full season) since 2014. Smith's phenomenal 2012 campaign is not in there. Neither is Foles' or Flacco's 2013 campaign. Or Kaepernick's amazing start to his career. Each of our sample QB's best campaign is excluded. This is simply the last 2.5 years of football from them and every other major QB in the league.

  • Smith ranks 13th out of 33. Better than Newton, Rivers, Stafford, Luck, and both Mannings.
  • Kaepernick ranks 27th out of 33.
  • Flacco ranks 29th out of 33.
  • Nick Foles ranks 33rd out of 33.

Do not let one deep game mean anything to you. Get those certified Baseball Vision Goggles on and look at the football past this past Sunday. Deep throwing isn't what you build an offense around. It just has to be a part of your offense. Maybe 15 percent of it is nice. But even if you get there naturally via progression of a scheme, you expect it to fail more often than it succeeds. That's the nature of throwing deep. You also expect more picks and less completions. And a QB who relies on it at all costs, rather than being judicious and working within the scheme, is bound to throw even more incompletions and interceptions on a long enough time-line.

That timeline might not be one game. It might not even be two, or 16. But it will come. And you're stuck with your QB for more than one season, and stuck perhaps having to rebuild your whole team if the QB regresses. Plus, you endure the unpredictability of not knowing when the deep ball will regress. That is not a scheme, in other words, you can build a multi-year, consistent franchise around. Players like the ones above had high touchdown rates and low interception rates when their deep game was off the charts. But it was built in a way that could not last. Over the last 2.5 seasons, all three are worse than Alex Smith in both categories.

Put on your Certified Baseball Vision Goggles. Take the long-view. Smith is here to stay because he executes the game plan, no matter what it is. And everyone on the Chiefs roster, coaching staff, and front office knows it.

Trending up

Now, what is Smith doing throwing deep all the sudden? He's been doing it the last few games. It's because the team is improving. That's it. Smith will throw deep just fine if the scheme allows for it. Nick Foles doesn't suddenly give Kansas City the option of throwing deep. A healthy o-line gives Kansas City that option.

Again, just to clarify, let me state that we should all be super stoked that Nick Foles came in and kicked ass. Can we trust Nick Foles to have a positive role in beating Jacksonville if Smith is not ready to go? Definitely. He looked really good. Completed a lot of his throws. Was accurate for the most part, was efficient. He even threw the screens well and let our play-makers do their thing. But there is no narrative to be built from 22 attempts filling in against the Colts in late October. The narrative should come from the surrounding evidence, which spans more games, weeks, years...

For example, what if we go back to our previous list of QB rankings based on AY/A and expand it back a few seasons? We'll keep the threshold at 500 attempts, so that we still get any QB with at least one full season of attempts, but we will expand the query to include 2012. Now we get Smith's best year, and Kaepernick's best year, and Flacco's best year, and Foles' best year. Here's that table, which covers the last 4.5 years of football.

  • Alex Smith is ranked 14th.
  • Colin Kaepernick is ranked 16th.
  • Nick Foles, 19th.
  • Joe Flacco, 34th.
  • Matt Cassel, 50th. Out of 50. For perspective.

There is no QB controversy

Alex Smith improves each year, and grows with the scheme while executing it in a way that puts the team in a position to win games.

Give him one of the worst receiving corps in the league with a subpar o-line? Okay. He'll just break the franchise record for QB rushing yards out of necessity.

Give him a tight end who can catch? He'll use him until people crown him the next best thing at the position.

Go out and get a legitimate No. 1 receiver? Nice. Now Smith can throw to him for 1,000 yards. Something many people thought was impossible for Smith.

O-line can't protect for longer than two seconds? No worries. We're going to have the most horizontal, quick-passing game ever and Smith is going to execute it to the tune of setting franchise and near-NFL records for consecutive passes without an interception, and more records for completion percentage.

O-line improves and gets healthy? Sweet. We can protect for three seconds now? Time to open things up a bit, Alex. And it appears you've been doing that for a few weeks now? And even last season? Thanks a lot.

Every step of the way, Smith executed with what he was given and put the team in good positions to win football games. Baseball Vision tells us Smith is the starter for this team. He has the record of consistency and tradition of improvement to continue excelling and continue executing the game-plan that Reid draws up.

Now that Smith has time and has receiving options, he's throwing deep. That's what the stats say. And he'll keep throwing deep if the scheme calls for it. How do I know that? Because Alex Smith executes the scheme. You build and develop a game plan and you execute it. No one on this roster is going to execute a game plan on a more consistent basis than Alex Smith. He can do it all. Jeremy Maclin has said exactly that. Andy Reid has said that. Travis Kelce, Spencer Ware, Jamaal Charles. The list goes on. The roster looks up to Alex Smith as a leader, fighter, and starting quarterback capable of doing everything they ask him to do to win football games. There is no QB controversy.

Andy Reid wanted Smith for a long time. Went out, paid some draft picks, secured him. Dorsey sealed him as the starter for a few more years when it was obvious to the check-writers, as it has been to Reid all along, that Smith can do everything Reid wants him to do, and more than enough to take the team through each of the steps it needs to take to progress as a unit, as a scheme, and as a franchise, and win a Super Bowl. There is no QB controversy.

The Chiefs continue to take the next step

This is what great football teams do. The Kansas City Chiefs are a great football team. They can handle a game here and a game there with their back-ups. Great teams have depth, and can plug that depth in to a scheme that is smart, functional, and mature. And the back-ups will play well, because they have been given all they need to succeed. Heck yes! The scheme does not have to put together one amazing year and then fall to back to Earth. The scheme consistently grows and develops small steps at a time until it is built to last and built to win a lot of games. And the Chiefs have won a lot of games. The scheme does not have to become wildly less efficient or less productive when a back-up comes in. Tom Brady's back-ups do well for a few games. Aaron Rodgers' back-ups do well for a few games. We should be happy Alex Smith's back-up did well for a game. It means this team is inching ever-closer to a machine that can survive injuries; a machine that can win a Super Bowl.

Anything less than the No. 2 seed is going to reduce the Chiefs odds of winning a Super Bowl.

Injuries doomed Kansas City in their last two playoff appearances. The Chiefs were the hottest team in the league last year. But they played New England more-or-less without Maclin, Houston, Charles, Ware, and West. The No. 4 RB, who has finally been traded, and now cut, fumbled the ball when the team was driving in Patriots territory. It was just too much to overcome. The Colts playoff loss is best understood the same way: too many injuries. Combined with having to go on the road for each game, injuries to key starters reduced the Chiefs' chances. If the Chiefs are to take the next step this year, they need to do one of two things (and preferably both):

  1. have productive depth in case of injuries (or just somehow stay healthy!)
  2. earn home-field advantage.

That means all guys have to step up and play well when starters go down. Charcandrick West did that on Sunday. He was patient and utilized blocks well. Reminded me of Ware. Nick Foles did that on Sunday. He was efficient and accurate and executed the game-plan just as Reid drew it up. Reminded me of Smith. Both Foles and West helped us move to 5-2 and keep pace with Oakland and Denver. Anything less than the No. 2 seed is going to reduce the Chiefs odds of winning a Super Bowl. We have to win the West. So keeping pace with the current Division leaders is exactly what the Chiefs need to do until Spencer Ware and Alex Smith return to their rightful, unquestioned, unchallenged, non-controversial, obvious positions as starters.

Until then, and no matter who is at QB or RB, I will continue pumping sunshine. Stay the course, Kansas City. You have all the talent, coaching, and leadership you need to win the whole f'n thing. Stay the course.