Look, it’s 12:52 a.m. right now, so let’s get right down to business. I review every Alex Smith dropback on all-22 for every game, I use a process and stats I describe more in-depth here, and I married a woman way too good looking for me.
Now that we’ve got the introduction section out of the way, I know what you’re asking. What changed late in the game? Why did Alex (and the entire offense) suddenly go from inept to competent down the stretch?
The three most popular theories as far as I can tell are as follows:
- Andy Reid’s play calling was horrible early and robbed the offense of any chance at success.
- Alex Smith stopped playing terrible and started playing well late in the game.
- Receivers stopped dropping the ball like it was on fire late in the game (less popular, but I’ve heard it more than once so we’ll throw it in there).
As always, I’m here to answer these questions and determine which theory is correct. If you were to ask me, “So which was it MN? Was it the play calling, Alex, or the receivers that changed?” I’d answer you definitively...
Yes. Yes it was.
(waits as the boos and shouts of “fence sitter!” die down)
Sorry, it is what it is.
You want ammo on Alex during those first three quarters? Here you go.
This was on the second drive of the game. Smith took the snap and immediately rolled right, with Kelce and Wilson as his only reads. Denver was playing way off Wilson, which resulted in him being open the entirety of the play (well before Smith started to wind up). That’s an easy pitch and catch if Smith throws it at any point.
Instead, Smith threw to Kelce, who was well covered by Von Miller. Now, Kelce dropped what would have been an easy catch, which cost the team five yards or so. But Smith reading the field shallow, then deep cost the team easy yards here.
Smith missed several open receivers during the first three quarters, and that’s on no one but him (it happened a couple times when he got happy feet and scrambled from a decent pocket).
Want ammo on Andy Reid during those first three quarters? Here you go.
Watch the Broncos RDE and secondary. Think they knew what was coming? NO chance for success this play, set up 3rd and 13. pic.twitter.com/UwZFxJuyDx— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) December 3, 2016
Now, this play maybe could have had potential had things worked out a little differently (the OL got into space quickly and Kelce does great things with the ball in his hands), but seriously, watch the way the RDE plays this. Instant recognition. You think that they rehearsed that situation a little bit? This play was dead in the water with absolutely no options once the screen didn’t pan out.
If you go back and re-watch the first three quarters, there were EIGHT passes thrown behind the line of scrimmage (various versions of screens, mostly), and none of them except one or two resulted in anything. Denver was clearly prepped for those kinds of plays and Reid kept going to them anyway. It was gross.
Want some ammo on the receivers during those first three quarters? Here you go.
2nd Chiefs drive, 2nd and 20 on the 38. Really tough drop by Kelce, had room to run. Would've put them in FG range and manageable 3rd down. pic.twitter.com/Fz6D42runr— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) December 2, 2016
Kelce had a bad day with regards to drops. When it was all said and done, I counted four passes that he ABSOLUTELY should have caught (and only one of them was even a borderline hard catch for an NFL tight end). It is what it is. Kelce is a route-running maestro who is essentially impossible for even good corners to cover one-on-one, and given his improvement with ball security this year I expect he’ll figure out the drops issue (it largely seems to be one of focus as far as I can tell, he wants to run before he catches). He’s a good enough player that you take the good with the bad.
Anyway, the answer to why the offense was bad in the first three quarters was that multiple things went wrong and took turns ruining drives. And that’s leaving out pass protection. The tackles had a really, really rough game against Denver. Mitchell Schwartz is clearly still hurting, and Fisher had his worst game in a while.
Now that we’ve got that out of the way (so everyone can blame everyone and say how right they were!), let’s talk about Smith’s numbers and film, both versions of him. Because yes, Smith played different starting that last drive in the fourth quarter.
Missed Shots- 5 (four prior to last fourth quarter drive, one after)
Happy Feet- 4
Drops- 6 (48 yards lost conservatively)
Inaccurate Throws- 3
Potential Picks- 1
Drives Extended w/ Feet- 0 (Smith has scrambled so little this season I may stop counting this)
Franchise Quarterback Throws- 4 (all four coming on the last fourth quarter drive and overtime)
Throws Behind LOS- 9 (eight prior to last fourth quarter drive, one after)
Throws 1-5 Yards in Air- 11 (eight prior to last fourth quarter drive, three after)
Throws 6-10 Yards in Air- 16 (eight prior to last fourth quarter drive, eight after)
Throws 11-19 Yards in Air- 7 (one prior to last fourth quarter drive, six after)
Throws 20+ Yards in Air- 2 (one prior to last fourth quarter drive, one after)
Alex wasn’t as terrible during the first three quarters of the game as the general narrative has been, but he wasn’t good on a lot of snaps. As I said earlier, there were no favors done for him by the play calling, the offensive line or his receivers, but he missed some open receivers when he DID have chances at plays. When everything is going wrong on offense, you hope that your quarterback can take advantage of the times when everyone else does their job. Smith didn’t do that much at all through three-plus quarters, and as a result the offense floundered.
So what changed late in the game? Well, single read plays DID seem to be largely eliminated, and that definitely makes a difference. So those of you who believe Andy Reid is at fault for Smith’s struggles early against Denver, I think there’s some truth to that.
However, Smith himself played differently down the stretch in ways that had nothing to do with the play calls. He started hanging in the pocket and being patient with routes rather than bailing, as evidenced by this third and 10 conversion on the last drive of the fourth quarter to Kelce.
This play on 3rd and 10 was the first time I thought "well, maybe." Smith hung in there and gave Kelce time to get to the marker. pic.twitter.com/kNrGHUteZL— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) December 3, 2016
Smith stared down Kelce too much for my liking on this play, but he did everything else right. He didn’t get impatient, he waited for Kelce to get to the first down despite a rusher getting free around Fisher’s edge, and he delivered a strike where only Kelce could make a play on it.
Alex just wasn’t making those kind of patient decisions earlier in the game, seeming to bail too quickly on pockets or his reads. That’s an Alex issue, not a play calling one.
The other big change that occurred for Alex was throwing with anticipation. A big knock on Alex is that he doesn’t throw receivers open, he throws to open receivers. In a similar vein, he tends to wait until routes have fully developed before committing to a throw. The problem is that at the NFL level receivers often don’t stay open for long, and an extra half-second hesitation prior to a throw can result in what would have been an easy catch being contested.
It’s a little thing, but it makes a huge difference when a quarterback starts his throw anticipating where the route WILL be, rather than waiting for the route to... you know, actually be in the spot.
Throw to Hill on final drive is an example of Alex throwing w/ more anticipation. Watch where Hill is at in his route when Alex throws. pic.twitter.com/FyZ4ewprkU— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) December 3, 2016
Again, this is nothing earth-shattering, but Smith simply wasn’t throwing with anticipation earlier in the game. He started doing a lot of it with Hill, Conley and Kelce when the game was on the line, and it made a big difference in beating Denver’s coverages.
Overall, after re-watching the film I’m stuck on what is the BIGGEST problem for the Chiefs offense: Reid’s over-commitment to single-read plays, or Alex’s lack of patience and anticipation. I would lean toward the latter being the bigger issue, but both are problematic.
Where Reid finds himself now is with a quarterback who has demonstrated the ABILITY to do certain things that get the offense moving, but hasn’t done so consistently in weeks. Smith is going to be the Chiefs quarterback down the stretch this year barring injury, so it’s Reid’s job to figure out the best way to put him in a position to succeed. In my opinion, that would involve speeding up the offense and dumping the majority of the screens and other single-read plays, at least until defenses stop keying on them so much. Smith performs better (as has been noted time and again) when he doesn’t get in a position to overthink things.
One way or another they’ve GOT to figure it out. Because the Chiefs offense (and quarterback) through three-plus quarters against Denver isn’t going to be good enough in January. The Chiefs offense (and quarterback) we saw thereafter? That offense (and quarterback) can help make a deep playoff run.
I’ll leave you with arguably Reid’s worst play call of the day in my opinion, dragged into success by a killer throw and great body-shielding by Demetrius Harris.
Great execution by Smith (not all great throws are deep) and Harris, but I hate this play call. Really a one-read play, Kelce is BLOCKING. pic.twitter.com/4ZIfqxh8bS— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) December 3, 2016
Good Lord, Andy, don’t do that again. My heart can’t take it.