clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

We watched every Alex Smith pass from 2015. Here's what we learned

New, comments

Here we are again.

I have dragged myself through over 25 hours of reviewing all-22 film. I have watched literally every dropback of Alex Smith in 2015. I have charted various stats (some you'll recognize, some completely made up by me), and I have taken notes extensive enough to make you seriously doubt my mental stability.

Why? Because I promised a review of Alex Smith, and a review of Alex Smith you'll have. I am a man of the people, and I give them what they want.

So here's how we're going to do this. The first section will be the deep stats section. I'll present the numbers I've gathered on Smith after a brief explanation of what I was charting, as well as numbers showing the depth of Smith's targets in every game. I'll then (for the sake of context), present the same numbers for one Derek Carr based on three games I reviewed of him.

Why review another QB? Because numbers, while somewhat illuminating, should at least have a LITTLE context to add to their meaning. Why Derek Carr? Because that's who ya'll chose on Twitter. Why three games, and why the three games I chose? Because two seemed like not enough, four seemed excessive, and Mrs. MNchiefsfan randomly picked three umbers between one and 16. I tried to make it as random as possible to avoid accusation of bias or skewing the numbers.

We also (because I wrote a monster of an article about Smith last year too) will compare some of the numbers with what Smith did in 2014 and see if we find any improvements or steps backward (though I charted things differently this year so that's only so valuable).

After the numbers, we'll talk about what I saw in over 500 snaps. We'll talk about what Smith did well last year, what he didn't do well, and MAYBE try and guess how he'll do this year (extrapolating play in the NFL is so difficult that the prediction will likely be worthless).

After that? I'm gonna take a nap. My goal with this article is not to talk you off one side of the Smith fence or another (we all know I like Smith OK, though I believe there's roughly 10 QBs in the league definitively better than he is). My goal is to just provide you with as much information as possible. Keep in mind that I'm just one guy, and some of this stuff is pretty subjective. I did everything I could to chart and observe things as accurately as I possibly can, but remember when reviewing the film of ANY player (especially QB), we're limited by not knowing the play call or coach's orders.

All right, let's do this. I hope you've got some spare time today.

The Numbers

Here is a link to an article wherein (that's right, wherein) I describe majority of the deep stats I tracked while watching Smith. The name of the stats are as follows: missed shots, happy feet, drops (and estimated yards lost), flushes, saves, inaccurate passes, potential picks, drives extended with scrambling / running by the QB ("DEs w/ Feet"), franchise QB throws, and reads per snap (RPS). In that other article I don't discuss drives extended, franchise QB throws or RPS, so here's what those mean...

DEs w/ Feet- This is when the team was facing a conversion down (3rd or 4th down) and Smith got a first down by scrambling or running a read option. So the drive was, you know, extended. The general consensus has been Smith's feet added value in 2015. I wanted to see if that was the case.

Franchise QB Throws- Obviously a highly subjective stat. These are throws that go beyond being accurate passes. NFL quarterbacks should be accurate. These have to be GREAT throws, throws that carry a play and make you go whoa. Something like this (though I'd accept a throw slightly less impressive)

RPS- Reads per snap is an attempt at quantifying how many receivers (or reads) Smith went through before throwing the ball or scrambling. While impossible to be absolutely certain how many reads a QB went through, you can (using both the normal view and the "Madden" view on all-22) get a pretty good idea how many receivers a quarterback looks at prior to throwing.

So here are Smith's numbers, immediately followed by the depth of target of passes Smith threw:

(IMPORTANT NOTE: I discarded obvious throwaways from the depth of target charting, so the numbers you see won't match with the number of attempts Smith made in a given game. I also included plays that were cancelled out by a penalty, because you can still gauge performance on those if the players keep playing).

Game Missed Shots Happy Feet Drops Flushes Saves Inaccurate Potential Picks DEs w/ Feet Franchise Throws RPS
HOU (1) 1 1 0 10 6 4 1 1 1 1.48
DEN (1) 3 2 2 (12 yards) 5 1 4 0 1 3 1.71
GB 5 2 3 (20 yards) 13 4 8 2 0 6 1.82
CIN 2 3 4 (22 yards) 9 2 4 0 1 3 1.77
CHI 3 2 4 (26 yards) 3 1 4 0 1 2 2.07
MIN 1 0 5 (45 yards) 9 6 9 0 0 2 1.92
PIT 3 1 3 (28 yards) 7 2 4 0 0 4 2.04
DET 2 1 5 (59 yards) 6 2 3 1 2 4 1.9
DEN (2) 2 3 2 (10 yards) 5 1 5 0 2 0 1.91
SD (1) 2 2 1 (15 yards) 8 6 4 0 1 2 1.86
BUF 3 2 0 7 4 5 1 2 4 1.68
OAK (1) 2 1 0 6 1 1 1 0 3 1.85
SD (2) 2 0 2 (22 yards) 6 3 3 1 2 2 1.85
BAL 2 1 0 7 2 2 0 1 4 1.73
CLE 0 1 1 (10 yards) 6 5 3 1 2 4 2
OAK (2) 3 2 2 (10 yards) 6 3 2 0 2 6 1.88
HOU (2) 1 2 1 (5 yards) 4 1 1 1 1 4 1.67
NE 6 5 5 (39 yards) 11 4 5 1 3 8 2.06
Total 43 31 40 (323 yards) 128 54 71 10 22 62 1.84

Game Behind LOS 1-5 Yards 6-10 Yards 11-19 Yards 20+ Yards % Under 5 Yards % Past 11 Yards
HOU (1) 8 7 8 6 3 46.9% 28.1%
DEN (1) 6 5 11 2 1 44.0% 12.0%
GB 10 16 5 6 5 63.4% 26.8%
CIN 6 13 13 7 2 46.3% 21.9%
CHI 4 7 11 4 2 40.7% 22.2%
MIN 4 11 12 7 5 38.5% 30.8%
PIT 5 7 11 5 8 33.3% 36.1%
DET 8 7 7 3 2 55.5% 18.5%
DEN (2) 8 7 8 4 5 46.9% 28.1%
SD (1) 7 6 7 7 1 46.4% 28.6%
BUF 4 4 11 4 6 27.6% 34.5%
OAK (1) 6 4 7 3 2 45.4% 22.7%
SD (2) 0 4 14 1 4 17.4% 21.7%
BAL 9 3 6 6 1 48.0% 28.0%
CLE 4 4 9 4 3 33.3% 29.2%
OAK (2) 2 4 6 8 3 28.6% 52.4%
HOU (2) 3 6 5 6 2 40.9% 36.4%
NE 5 16 9 12 6 43.7% 37.5%
Total 99 131 160 95 61 42.1% 28.6%

Now that, my friends, is a whole buttload of numbers. I'm gonna give you a second to soak it in...

What can we take from all that? Well, people look at stats differently, so my best answer is take whatever you want to out of it. Seriously. Whatever aspect of it you find most important for QB play, focus on that. The point here is to provide you with information.

One thing that surprised me was that Smith tested the intermediate / deep zones just a BIT more than I thought he did during the season. I also was surprised at the percentage of passes that were within five yards of the line of scrimmage. I expected it to be close to 50 percent with all the different types of screens and packaged plays the Chiefs ran last year.

I would also note the 22 drives extended by Smith's feet. That's not an insignificant number when you consider that those are punts (and thus zero points) if Smith doesn't get the first down. I made sure to keep track of how those drives ended, and 13 of them resulted in the Chiefs scoring: five touchdowns, eight field goals. In other words, that's a total of 59 points the Chiefs added on drives that would have been dead without Smith's legs. That's a bigger number than I expected.

On the depressing side of things, Smith's accuracy didn't improve from last year (in 2014 Smith had 3.93 inaccurate passes per game, in 2015 it was an astoundingly close 3.94 per game). While I don't have it charted here, I can tell you that Smith's accuracy was at its shakiest on deep passes (which you likely already knew). There were probably half a dozen deep throws (20-plus yards) that were JUST out of reach of a receiver. Frustrating stuff to watch at times.

Another depressing state is the number of flushes (plays where the offensive line allows pressure quickly enough to badly disrupt the play). Right tackle was a major problem last season, as was LDT and Zach Fulton (at times). I was actually surprised that, in my opinion, RT was the weakest spot on the offensive line in many games. Here's hoping Mitch Schwartz changes that.

One positive change from 2014 to 2015 was the number of happy feet snaps (where Smith bails on a totally clean pocket). Smith had 30 snaps like that in 2014, while having only one more in three extra games in 2015. He really struggled with that at times against New England down the stretch (they had been teeing off on him all game, but that's not an excuse as an NFL quarterback), though.

Smith's number of potential picks went up a bit, though they remain extremely low. As always, Smith generally doesn't allow the defense opportunities to take the ball away.

Going back to depth of targets, you can see that Smith's tendency to take a few more shots (percentage-wise) in the intermediate and deep zones went up a LITTLE after the Minnesota game. This has been a very common place fans (and myself) have divided Smith's season, as starting in the Pittsburgh game Smith clearly had a lot more control at the line of scrimmage and seemed to improve his play.

From Weeks 1-6, Smith went past 11 yards on his targets 23.3 percent of the time. After that game, Smith went to that area of the field 30.3 percent of the time.

Smith also had fewer passes in the five yards or less area of the field post-Minnesota-crapfest. In the first six weeks of the year, Smith's passes went five yards down the field or less 46.6 percent of the time. Thereafter, that number went down to 38.9 percent (a 7.7 percent swing, which is pretty close to the INCREASE in intermediate-to-deep passes).

Man, we've really gone pretty deep with numbers here. Let's break things up with a pretty play, shall we?

There, much better.

So now... the context. How do these numbers stack up against a different quarterback? As I said, I went to the Twitter masses, and the Twitter masses wanted Derek Carr. So I tracked all the same numbers. The point isn't to determine who the better quarterback is (though obviously I'll talk about how the two stack up a bit), but to provide a little context.

Many Chiefs fans really like Derek Carr, and there are some obvious reasons for that. He's got a ton of arm talent, moves well in the pocket, and seems to have a lot of potential. In fact, many Chiefs fans I've spoken with believe that Carr is the second best QB in the division behind Phillip Rivers. So it seemed a fair comparison, getting Smith stacked up against a guy many believe is a good quarterback.

Here are Carr's numbers.

Game Missed Shots Happy Feet Drops Flushes Saves Inaccurate Potential Picks DE's w/ Feet Franchise Throws RPS
MIA 4 2 0 2 0 5 2 0 2 1.29
ARI 2 1 3 (48 Yards) 6 3 6 1 0 5 1.57
BUF 1 0 2 (11 Yards) 3 0 4 2 0 2 1.37

Game Behind LOS 1-5 Yards 6-10 Yards 11-19 Yards 20+ Yards % Under 5 Yards % Past 11 Yards
MIA 6 6 3 6 2 52.20% 34.80%
ARI 5 4 7 7 4 33.30% 40.70%
BUF 6 10 6 4 4 53.30% 26.70%
Total 17 20 16 17 10 46.20% 33.70%

(NOTE- Due to an unbelievably stupid mistake on my part and design flaw of Gamepass, I used 2014's games instead of 2015. Given that I was only looking for various "Weeks" of the season I didn't notice my error until it was pointed out to me. I have no doubt that Carr improved on his reads per snap and tendency to stare down wide receivers during 2015, so I owe him an apology. Ridiculous error on my part that waters down the comparison, as Carr was a rookie during this tape)

Obviously, we're dealing with a much smaller sample size here (I love ya'll, but I am NOT spending 25 hours watching the Raiders. I'm just not), but to be honest, the numbers very much surprised me.

See Carr has something of a reputation among Chiefs fans as a bit of a gunslinger. I expected his depth of targets to be well past Smith's average (I figured it would be at least 10 percent more). Instead, while he does test intermediate and deep targets more than Smith, the number isn't astronomically higher (and becomes even closer when you factor in Smith's midseason change. Then it gets downright close).

I was also surprised to find that, in using these games as a comparison, gunslinger Derek Carr throws the ball within five yards of the line of scrimmage MORE OFTEN than noodle arm Captain Checkdown Alex Smith. That completely blew my mind, and it does blow a bit of a hole in the idea that Smith is throwing short far more than any other quarterback.

With regards to the other deep stats, take a look at potential picks. Carr threw five in two games. Smith threw 10 in 18 games. That's... not close. Carr has a tendency to force throws when he really shouldn't, and it shows in how often he'll toss a ball into a defender's hands. He got away with it more in 2015 than he did the year before, but that's basically a luck of the draw situation.

It's also worth noting, though, that Carr wasn't THAT much more inaccurate than Smith. That frightens me, as Carr was really, really inaccurate his rookie year. Progress in that area scares me, so that's something to keep an eye on. On the brighter side of things, take a look at Carr's reads per snap.

No, that's not a typo. Carr averaged 1.37 reads per snap while I watched him, as compared to Smith's 1.84 reads per snap. While a difference of .47 might seem tiny, when you're dealing with numbers that small it's a huge disparity. Carr sticks to his first read the vast majority of the time, even when he has protection for 3-4 seconds.

I wouldn't brag overly much about Smith making 1.84 reads per snap (although that's high enough past one that it should definitely deflate the idea that Smith is a one-read-and-run guy. He's not. Take that meme out of your narrative, it isn't part of reality on a consistent basis), but when comparing him to a promising player like Carr it's at least worth noting that Smith goes through his reads SIGNIFICANTLY more than Carr.

So how do the two compare on film? Well, they're different. Carr has a lot more arm talent. He puts more zip on the ball and can flick it effortlessly 40 yards down the field. His deep accuracy is, in my opinion, a significant step above Smith's. It's not close. He also moves around the pocket better than Smith does (though it's worth noting his line is much, much, MUCH better. He consistently had clean pockets to work from, and his footwork faltered when the protection faltered) on a lot of snaps, which is a big deal for a young guy.

On the other hand, Smith is more accurate in shallow in intermediate zones, goes through reads much, much faster, doesn't stare down his receivers the way Carr does (Carr is really bad about that), is better at making things happen when blocking breaks down, and seems to do significantly more pre-snap than Carr.

Who would I take, given their contracts and age? Carr, because of his potential. Who is the superior quarterback at the moment? Smith. He plays like a veteran who reads coverages well, knows how to use his eyes and can handle pressure. Carr... well Carr (most of the time) plays like a guy who is told who he's supposed to throw the ball to before the snap, and throws the ball to that one guy.

Carr, at this point, seems in large part dependent on exceptional pass blocking and his first read getting open. If that doesn't happen, he struggles. When it happens, he does really well because of his natural talent. I cannot emphasize enough how different the pass blocking situation was for Carr on the vast majority of snaps, and how much his play dropped when he wasn't getting great protection. Lots of really, really stupid throws when that happened.

But now we're veering toward tape talk, so let's stop discussing a guy who doesn't even play for the Chiefs and talk about Alex Smith's tape.

The Film

I asked people to provide me with some narratives they wanted me to investigate while I watched Smith's snaps. Let's walk through some of those, then I'll talk about my overall impression of Smith's 2015 tape.

Does Smith's play change in two minute drills?

Not that I noticed, no. Smith is pretty consistent, by and large. He's the same guy snap by snap (except in the Green Bay and New England games, which I'll talk about later). I didn't see any uptick in Smith getting happy feet or having accuracy issues on third down or in two minute drills (the high pressure situations). On the flip side, I didn't notice his play getting BETTER in those situations either.

What did change, all too often, was the play calling. Andy Reid loves him some pre-determined reads and packaged plays. I think most of you know what a packaged play is, but the basic idea is that you read the numbers pre-snap and a single defender post-snap to decide where the ball goes (often between running and a quick screen). The options aren't quite as dynamic as a traditional play call.

Predetermined reads are plays where the ball is going to one guy, and everything is set up to help that guy. Think of all the quick wide receiver (or TE, if it's Travis Kelce) plays you saw last year. There is exactly one place to throw the ball on those plays because no one else is looking for a throw. Which means if the defense anticipates that one option, you're basically screwed unless you can scramble.

I found that Reid's usage of those plays rose on third downs and during two minute drills. I also found that they increased to an extent against good defenses. I think Reid is a guy who believes in his offense, and so when the going gets tough he reverts to what he knows best; trying to make a play succeed by design rather than having his playmakers make a play.

So no, Smith didn't seem to change. But the offense sure did, even later on in the year. The New England game in particular it became glaringly clear that packaged plays and predetermined reads weren't going to cut it against a Belichick-coached team in the playoffs. They were swarming before the ball even got to its place on those plays. In fact, throughout the second half of the year the offense performed better on more traditional play calls than "Reid specials." There's a place for them in the offense, but I hope they're used a lot less this season.

Does Alex Smith throw poorly on the run?

The majority of the time, yes. Smith is not a guy you want throwing while running. When he has a second to reset his feet a little he does much better. But throwing on the run is a weak spot in Smith's game, which is unfortunate considering the threat his legs present. If he could throw well on the run (like, say, Russ Wilson) it would add a nice element to the offense.

What's the problem with Smith's deep ball?

As others have observed, Smith doesn't put air under the ball often enough when going deep. I assume this is because he doesn't want to risk an interception, but all too often this means receivers can't run under the pass. If Smith wants to improve his deep ball (which needs to happen, seriously. It was so close so many times last year), he needs to be willing to loft it down the field and let the receiver go to work.

I did notice Smith's accuracy down the field improved when he was going to Maclin. So whether that's because Maclin is better at tracking the ball than other receivers, or because Smith was more trusting and lofted it a bit more to him, he's gotta find a way to get on that page with other players. It's too important and would mean too much to our offense to add a consistent deep component.

Oh, and the player Smith seems MOST comfortable lofting it up to? Travis Kelce. Go figure.

Does Alex Smith make plays on his own or is he overly reliant on his playmakers?

I observed Smith make plenty of plays with his legs when things broke down, so in that sense he is a playmaking quarterback. With regards to his throws, we've already discussed how often Smith was throwing to the shallow zone of the field. While it was often, it wasn't nearly as often as the meme is. Smith, especially later on in the year, was making throws that were a part of the playmaking process just as much as Carr was.

Now, is he a playmaker in the mold of Aaron Rodgers? No, he's not. But over the course of a season he makes more plays than people remember. Some of the time I think people don't notice because you don't realize what a good throw / play got made on something that's not a 40 yard bomb.

That's an extremely tough throw with a defender screaming his way. But it's not a deep pass (it's not even in the intermediate zone), so many people don't notice it. That's just the nature of the NFL and how we view it.

How are Smith's eyes upon exit? When he scrambled, did he have his eyes up looking for receivers or did he completely bail on the pass play once pressure came?

It varies. I was actually pretty happy with this component of Smith's game. He struggled with it early in the year (I actually wrote an article about the need for him to keep his eyes up), but it improved quite a bit as the games went by. This is interesting, because Smith was using his legs more down the stretch, not less. You'd think that meant he would lower his eyes sooner. But to the contrary, he did a better job watching his receivers until he hit the point of no return.

Smith will absolutely lower his eyes at times, but I found that it was often when he had clear daylight in front of him to get a first down. I think at that point, by Smith's thinking, he had a sure win in his pocket and wasn't going to worry about a better win. Now, he had a few missed shots that way, but generally speaking he put a lot more on the table than he took off when he scrambled.

I do want to see Smith work on his happy feet, though. I know many believe it's a product of the offensive line, but at the same time it's on Smith to recognize during the play whether things are really breaking down or not and act accordingly.

Are the sacks on Smith or the offensive line?

It is much, much more often on the offensive line than Smith. You can see from the number of flushes that there were multiple plays every single game (sometimes a lot of them) where the line allowed a guy to crash through to Smith almost immediately. It was rough.

The times when Smith caused sacks were when he hesitated. That's a bad habit he has on occasion. He'll have an open receiver and start to pull the trigger, but will instead hesitate and pump fake. That almost always ended badly, either with the receiver getting more attention from the defense or pressure getting through to Smith because of the extra time.

I didn't track a percentage of sacks on the QB vs. sacks on the offensive line, but I'd say it was maybe an 80-20 thing or so, with 80 percent of the time it being on the line.

General Notes

I think the time for the "Captain Checkdown" term for Smith has ended. Smith is no longer a quarterback who checks down immediately in the face of pressure. He's just not. I'm sure he earned the nickname while in San Francisco, but things have changed from what I watched.

The vast majority of short throws (which the average fan erroneously believes was a checkdown because it was short) made in 2015 were made during packaged plays or predetermined reads. The more the Chiefs moved away from this, the less often you saw Smith throwing short.

Also, the idea that Smith doesn't scan the field is just not accurate. I say that with a caveat: often, Smith will scan half or three quarters of the field in his reads. The offense seems built that way, keeping receivers in certain zones to make reads easier. That said, I saw Smith go from one side of the field to the other many, many times over the course of 18 games. The idea that Smith isn't going through reads is false. Considering the number of predetermined read plays the offense ran (which, of course, will have only one read) it's rather remarkable Smith averaged 1.84 reads per snap.

The narrative that Smith took control of the offense in the second half of the season seemed, on film, to hold up. The number of times you'd see Smith making presnap adjustments tripled or quadrupled after the Minnesota game. It was blatantly obvious the very next week against Pittsburgh.

Along with that newfound authority came, from what I saw, more efficient play. As we've discussed, Smith went shallow less and deep more with the ball after Minnesota. He also had fewer inaccurate passes, made franchise QB throws on a more frequent basis, and just... LOOKED better (ah, the subjective always springs to the surface, no?).

Now, it's not all roses. As I've said before, I think Alex Smith is a good quarterback with some specific weaknesses. I still believe that. I think in 2015 he improved on some of his weaknesses (he made more risky throws in my opinion, and was slightly better in the pocket). But there are still problems.

The most glaring issue with Smith is his deep ball accuracy. A lot of his inaccurate throws were past 20 yards. I'm thrilled Smith is testing the waters deep more frequently, but he's got to connect more if it's going to make a significant change in how defenses approach the Chiefs. You all saw the Buffalo game. Smith's success shredding that secondary with Maclin put the defense in an impossible spot with how strong the Chiefs running game is.

He needs to force defenses into hard decisions more often. To do that, Smith needs to be more accurate down the field. I have no idea if he's capable of doing that at this point in his career, but I guess if practice makes perfect, the more he does it the better it should (in an ideal world) get.

I already touched on Smith's hesitation issues. It was better at the end of the year than the beginning, but it's still a very real problem. Clutching the ball rather than throwing it leads to sacks, picks, and blown up wide receivers. Smith is conservative by nature, but when he sees a receiver open (or about to get open) he needs to let it fly.

A final area where Smith struggles that keeps him from moving from good to great is his lack of throwing receivers open. I had many of you ask me if Smith does this (throw to where the receiver is going and give him a chance to run from the defender), and the answer is generally no. Smith is good at reading coverages and seems to know presnap which players will be open and which ones won't. He's not a post-snap read guy who sees what is unfolding and then throws to an area, anticipating the receiver making the play.

The very best quarterbacks throw guys open. Smith throws to open guys. There's a difference there, and I think it's far too late in Smith's career to expect it to change.

I was going to write some final thoughts on Smith with regards to the future, but I don't think I'm going to. What I do know is that Smith was a very integral piece of the puzzle in 2015, and he did some things I didn't really expect him to do. He was good enough in 2015 that watching his film (well, most weeks) was much more fun than it was torturous. I look forward to watching in 2016 and seeing if the small changes Smith made last year continue. Especially the audibles and reads before the snap.

Play nice in the comments, folks, and let's all revel in the fact that football is very, very nearly here.