(Editor’s note: Since this story was written, Nick Foles has been named the starter on Sunday against the Jaguars)
When I began this wonderful journey of reviewing and charting every dropback of Alex Smith at the beginning of this season, I honestly never thought about what would happen if Smith got hurt in the middle of a game.
That sounds stupid saying it out loud, but it’s the truth. For whatever reason, I assumed that if Smith was hurt it would be at the very beginning or the very end of a game, and I would have to review Nick Foles against a completely different defense. Of course, that’s not what happened, and so today we’re going to get a very unique quarterback review article... I’ll be reviewing BOTH Alex Smith and Nick Foles.
(Side note: I’m not ready to write about Jamaal Charles. When he got hurt last year, I sadly talked about how amazing it is to watch him play. All I can do right now is echo those sentiments. I hope a miracle happens and we haven’t seen the last of him)
I think I’ll handle it by looking at the numbers (click here to see an explanation for the stats I track, which are largely self-explanatory) and then just have a final review section in which I compare the two. Keep in mind that what we have here is a very small sample size of Nick Foles in a game he came in cold after limited reps in practice. On the flip side of things, Foles also had the benefit of playing a defense that gameplanned for a very different quarterback in Smith, so perhaps that balances out.
All that said, it’s important to keep the sample size in mind. If you’re looking to just skip ahead to the part where I say which guy I’d go forward with from here on out, now’s the time. Because we’re about to look at a LOT of numbers. Since we’re starting with Alex, I’ll let him lead us in with his finest throw of the day.
The TD from Smith to Maclin was pretty to watch. Perfect throw, perfect catch. Just perfect. pic.twitter.com/960s5smSQJ— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) November 1, 2016
Missed Shots: 3
Happy Feet: 1
Drops: 2 (11 yards lost, both would’ve been first downs on a drive that ended in a punt)
Inaccurate Passes: 2 (one 20-plus yards, two in the 11-19 yard range)
Potential Picks: 1
Drives extended w/ feet: 0
Franchise QB Throws: 2
Throws Behind Line of Scrimmage: 3
Throws 1-5 Yards in Air: 3
Throws 6-10 Yards in Air: 4
Throws 11-19 Yards in Air: 6
Throws 20+ Yards in Air: 2
Like I said, we’re going to discuss the film in more of a “comparison” format at the end of the article. I’ll just add here that Smith was very aggressive pushing the ball down the field from the start of the game. In fact, he had a couple of deep shots to Jeremy Maclin early that, had the Colts cornerback not covered exceptionally well on each, either would have gone for a huge gain. It was nice to see.
It’s also worth noting that 44.4 percent of Smith’s throws were in the intermediate-to-deep range, as opposed to 33.3 percent traveling five yards in the air or less. Again, the gameplan against the Colts defense was clearly an aggressive one (and for good reason, given the results).
All right, on to Foles. Lead us in with a GIF, Nick.
Foles with a heckuva throw in the RZ for the Kelce TD. Had Maclin open on a more shallow route, passed him up for the superior read. pic.twitter.com/rl1wVg3KHv— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) November 1, 2016
Missed Shots: 2
Happy Feet: 1
Inaccurate Passes: 3 (one in 11-19 yard range, 1 in 40-plus yard range, and one within five yards of the line of scrimmage that cost the Chiefs a touchdown)
Potential Picks: 1
Drives Extended w/ Feet: 0
Franchise QB Throws: 3
Throws Behind Line of Scrimmage: 7
Throws 1-5 Yards in Air: 5
Throws 6-10 Yards in Air: 4
Throws 11-19 Yards in Air: 5
Throws 20+ Yards in Air: 4
Comparing Smith and Foles
One thing that I found interesting upon re-watching the game and charting the depth of targets was how little the offensive game plan changed with Foles behind center. The narrative since Sunday has been that the offense opened up once Foles entered the game and that they attempted more shots down the field.
To an extent, one could argue that the shots 20-plus yards in the air doubled under Foles (though he did have seven more opportunities to do so). However, when you look at intermediate and deep shots taken (I always look at both with regards to stretching a defense, as intermediate shots help keep defenses honest nearly as well as deep shots), something surprising emerges: Foles went to those deeper zones on 36 percent of his throws, a significantly lower percentage than Smith. Additionally, Foles threw five yards or shorter in the air 48 percent of the time, much more than Smith.
Does that mean there’s NO truth in the Foles stretched the field more narrative? Well ... let’s talk about that more in a second. What it does mean, though, is that it simply isn’t corresponding with reality to say the offense was that much more aggressive with Foles at the helm. Granted, with the Chiefs’ running backs dropping like flies (Charcandrick West was clearly hurt), Andy Reid called more than a few of his substitute runs down the stretch, which in all likelihood artificially inflated Foles’ short throw numbers. But even earlier in the game Foles was running very similar play sets to what I saw with Smith. From everything I can tell, there’s absolutely no truth in the idea the offense was more aggressive going from Smith to Foles.
That said, Foles did some things really well. He was aggressive pushing the ball a lot of the time (like I said, the game plan was clearly an aggressive one from the start), threw the ball pretty accurately by and large (the missed touchdown to West really hurt, but sometimes those throws happen), and demonstrated patience in the pocket the vast majority of the time. He played very well.
Of course, there’s some myth-busting that does need to occur when it comes to at least one play: the Tyreek Hill bomb. Look, if you’re going to use that gain (perhaps arguing it was a big play and we need plays like that) as an argument for Foles, you need to know all the facts on that play.
First of all, Foles missed a wide open Travis Kelce in order to throw to a covered Tyreek Hill.
Glad Foles is aggressive, but on bomb to Tyreek he had Kelce wide open (deep defenders running opposite direction). Ware too. Hill not open. pic.twitter.com/rtZncRa7gp— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) November 1, 2016
That’s ... less than ideal. The corner and safety are both running the opposite direction of Kelce, who would’ve had a ton of room to scoot after the catch. Spencer Ware was open too, with tons of real estate in front of him.
Of course, I’m generally not going to kill a guy for passing up one open player deep for another open player deep. But the problem is that Hill isn’t open, and therefore requires a much better throw (well, you’d think at least) than Kelce in order to get a big play. I’m not a fan of passing up open receivers in intermediate zones to throw to covered receivers deep. And the throw itself demonstrates why.
Foles put a ton of air under the deep pass to Hill, but it unfortunately came up well short of where Hill was running, forcing him to stop completely and backtrack to the ball. In the meantime, the Colts safety basically puked all over himself rather than defending the throw (plays like this are why defenders need to be able to keep an eye on the quarterback). Hill made a great play tracking the ball, and it was a huge gain. However, it was a very poor throw that had just as good a chance of being picked off as it did falling complete. Imagine if Ron Parker is the safety there. I’d say that ball has a 70 percent chance of getting picked off in that case.
Those are the types of throws that make me nervous. I understand letting your receiver make a play, but there’s a line there that shouldn’t be crossed, and this play crossed it. If you’re going to turn down an open Kelce to throw to a covered Hill, you best stick the throw. Foles didn’t. He is absolutely not as good at Smith as avoiding mistakes.
On the flip side of that, Foles passes the eye test as to pulling the trigger a little more quickly once he’s made a decision, at least in my opinion. Smith, as we’ve all seen, has a tendency to hesitate more than he should (Foles does to, but to a lesser extent) and not trust his arm.
This is a play where Alex gets 8 yards rushing BUT really should have made the throw instead. Too willing to take the easy play. pic.twitter.com/580FHRRLtF— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) November 1, 2016
Yes, Smith rushed for a nice gain here, but at the expense of an extra 10 yards when he passed up an open receiver in favor of the guaranteed yardage. While there’s something to be said for ball security, there needs to be a balance there when you’ve got a receiver that open.
We all know Smith tends to trust his legs more than his arm, which has been difficult this year because defenses have keyed on Smith’s running ability. He’s hardly had any positive runs this season, and it seems to have affected him at times having that option removed. While his play had VASTLY improved in the last few weeks, it was always a question whether Smith could be as good without the running option.
Of course, with Foles we don’t need to worry about that issue. He is ... well, he’s not fast. Or even kind of fast. And that’s going to hurt sometimes when plays break down.
This was late in the game when the Chiefs desperately needed a conversion. While the Colts were called with a defensive holding that made the play moot, you can see where being a statue can hurt. The rush got to Foles before anyone came open, and by now he’s running for his life and in no position to make the throw to the open receiver at the 20-yard line.
When you look at the real estate in front of Foles, I have no doubt in my mind that Smith is able to run for a first down here, and maybe more depending on how the receiver at the 31-yard line blocks. Foles gets chased down almost immediately. I don’t see broken plays going his way often.
But Foles DOES display, from what I can see, more touch and accuracy on deep and intermediate throws. By all appearances Foles has a stronger arm than Smith (though I wouldn’t call it a cannon, and he does loft some throws), and because of that he’s able to make throws without putting everything he’s got into. That’s naturally going to lead to more accuracy in general.
Colts blew the coverage BADLY on Hill TD. Wow. But still, a good throw by Foles to hit Hill on the money before the S could get there. pic.twitter.com/SZVt7ie7sK— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) November 1, 2016
Now granted, the Colts made a horrific mistake in coverage here that resulted in Tyreek Hill being ridiculously open. That said, you can see that Foles has an arm. He doesn’t need to put his whole body into the throw to get some good zip on it, which was necessary to get the throw there before the safety could recover. I believe that Foles has a better chance of completing throws past 20 yards than Smith does, simply because his accuracy looks better (again, small sample size alert) in that area of the field.
To sum up, on tape both Foles and Smith played solid, aggressive games against the Colts. If someone were to ask me who I thought played better on film, I’d lean very, very slightly toward Foles. Andy Reid was spot on when he commented that Smith would have done the same thing Foles did against that Colts defense. I think Smith tosses for 325-plus yards if he’s in there all day, and same with Foles. It was that kind of game plan.
Smith and Foles are just different quarterbacks. Foles, based on this game, is a statue who moves around the pocket better than Smith and possesses a better arm. Smith, based on this game, is more accurate on shorter throws, makes quicker decisions, has more athleticism and goes through reads faster (he also doesn’t stare down receivers as much as Foles).
Both of them were good against the Colts, neither were great. In short, while Foles was intriguing, the narrative that the offense suddenly came to life under him doesn’t hold water under inspection. He performed well, but also had some misses and decisions that made me cringe. At this point, I definitely would favor sticking with Alex Smith based on what I saw reviewing the tape. I didn’t see enough of an improvement in the deep and intermediate zones to justify taking the downgrade in other areas of quarterbacking.
That said ... you could talk me into at least considering the idea of Foles given the personnel the Chiefs have and the different strengths of the quarterbacks. With Hill, Conley, Maclin and Kelce, the Chiefs seem built to challenge defenses deep from a weapons standpoint. Foles appears at this point to be the better quarterback for that kind of offense, given his superior (I think) accuracy deep. However, I don’t see Reid turning the offense into a purely vertical one any time soon.
And really, the whole point is quite likely moot. Andy Reid, from everything I can tell about the man, isn’t going to be willing to bench a starter he likes when he thinks the guy is playing well. He’s just not. That’s not his style. I believe that even if Nick Foles came out and threw five touchdowns against Jacksonville Reid would still go with Smith once he’s healthy.
But it’s at least worth keeping an eye on. Will Foles improve with a week of practice, or will he regress as teams game plan for his particular weaknesses? If he improves on those other aspects (speed of reads and eye discipline especially), it’s perhaps worth having a conversation.
Should be an interesting week. I’ll see some of you this weekend, as I’ll be bringing my 10-year-old to his first game. Hopefully we get to see good quarterback play, regardless of who it is behind center.