Of all the goals I have when writing articles for you fine people (well, most of you. Some of you are probably jerks. It’s just statistics, folks), the most important thing to me is providing you with something you can’t get anywhere else. That way, you become dependent on me. You know, like a heroine addict or something.
Now that I’ve made you all uncomfortable with our co-dependent relationship, let’s talk about Alex Smith and a decision I made this offseason. As some of you know, every offseason for the last two years I’ve undertaken a massive project, wherein (yep, we’re going from heroine analogies to saying “wherein.” This is happening) I watch every dropback Alex Smith takes on all-22 and chart every deep stat you can think of. It’s a bit of a grind going over that many snaps multiple times. It’s a lot like eating an entire pizza. It seems like a great idea beforehand, it takes way longer than I thought it would, and by the time I’m finished I can’t feel my face.
So how does one make eating that pizza easier? By taking it one bite a time. And so, this season you’re not going to have to wait to find out how many inaccurate passes or saved plays Alex Smith had in a given game. You won’t have to wonder how many reads he made per snap or what depth his throws were at. Because we’re going to look at Smith’s film every single week now.
I’m that nice a guy I desperately want you to love me, honestly.
If you’ve never read my QB breakdown process before, you may want to take a look here first. That’s a link to 2015’s film review, and in it I explain some of the stats I track (and provide yet another link to an explanation of the others. Clickception, if you will), as well as use the word “wherein” another time.
For the rest of you, let’s talk about Alex Smith. As always, keep in mind that numbers, even numbers on deep stats like the ones I’m tracking, don’t tell the whole story. We’ll discuss Smith’s film and some impressions I had after we get the numbers out of the way. He did a few things against the Chargers that I hadn’t seen much of in the past... but we’ll get to that.
Alex, wanna lead us into the numbers?
Sometimes you just gotta stick a deep ball on the run in overtime during the biggest comeback in Chiefs history. pic.twitter.com/qMpAXDH86I— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) September 14, 2016
In case you’re wondering, that’s a “franchise quarterback throw” in my stats.
Missed Shots: 3
Happy Feet: 6
Drops: 2 (22 yards lost, one interception caused)
Inaccurate Passes: 5
Potential Picks: 1
Drives Extended by scrambling: 0
Franchise QB Throws: 8
Reads Per Snap: 1.73
Throws Behind Line of Scrimmage: 3
Throws 1-5 Yards in Air: 14
Throws 6-10 Yards in Air: 11
Throws 11-19 Yards in Air: 11
Throws 20+ Yards in Air: 4
Percentage of Throws 5 Yards or Less: 39.5%
Percentage of Throws 11+ Yards: 34.9%
(NOTE: I do not include passes thrown away in my depth of target numbers)
All right, that’s a lot of numbers. So ... now what?
Well, one of the first things I’d do is take a look at Smith’s averages from last season (again, that can be found here) and see how this game stacks up. Beyond that... you’ll see what some of you likely saw with the eyeball test: Smith had happy feet (especially early in the game) on too many snaps, but made a number of RIDICULOUS throws and saved multiple flushes (plays with pressure before any receivers come open). He also continued last season’s trend of testing intermediate and deep zones a little more, which is good to see.
I should note that the franchise QB throws stat is not something I just give away any time a Smith makes a good throw. NFL quarterbacks are SUPPOSED to make multiple “good” throws every game. No, a franchise quarterback throw is like the above gif: one that makes you go “whoa” when it happens.
Gorgeous throw w/ defender's back turned, fantastic catch by Kelce. Smith got hit as he threw, too. pic.twitter.com/8eagh7H6r1— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) September 13, 2016
You get bonus points for factors that up the pressure (like it being third or fourth down) or create a higher degree of difficulty (like getting hit as you throw, like Smith was on that ridiculous pass to Kelce).
Anyways, the point is that when I say Smith made eight franchise QB throws, I’m not saying he only made eight good throws in the game. in fact, he made a ton of them. But we’re straying into the film aspect, let’s talk about the numbers just a bit more.
One thing I’m very concerned about is the number of times Smith was flushed from the pocket and the effect that clearly had on his footwork and willingness to move around the pocket. The line did improve in the second half, but it was also a situation where Smith just started moving around the pocket better as well. Parker Ehinger, in particular, struggled (as should be expected for a rookie). I’m going to put a pin in this for a week and see how things go against Houston’s tough defensive front. If the offensive line can keep Smith from running for his life all day, they’ll be fine this year.
On the plus side, Smith was able to save half the plays in which he was flushed from the pocket (by scrambling or moving around enough to find a bailout option). There’s such a fine line between happy feet and saving bad pass protection, and Smith (in the second half and overtime) was pretty effective about knowing when it was time to bail and when it was time to hang tough. That said, I’d like that happy feet number to go down a couple notches.
Like I said earlier, Smith did some things that really popped on tape this last week. His overall film was more impressive than I thought it would be going into the review. This is in part because his play wasn’t QUITE as bad in the first half as I thought on the first watch (some really poor pass protection and oddly solid coverage by the Chargers on a lot of plays). Make no mistake, he wasn’t good. But he wasn’t as bad as I feared, like “Green Bay on Monday Night Football in 2015” bad. He just didn’t do much to help a tough situation and a few times made it worse.
On the flip side of that, Smith’s play from late in the third quarter on was exceptional. And I’m not just talking about the great throws, either. It was the NATURE of those throws (and what came before them) that stood out on tape.
What I noticed immediately as different when watching Smith wasn’t where the ball was going when he released it, but WHEN he released it. Take this screenshot, for example.
This shot is taken on what turned out to be a 12-yard gain on a comeback route to Chris Conley. Smith is midway through his throwing motion at the time this picture is taken.
Take a look at where Conley is in his route. Conley is only now planting his foot to come back toward Smith, meaning Smith started the throw before Conley even began to turn. That’s a pretty wild deviation from what we normally see from Smith, who generally speaking waits until routes are in motion (or complete) before making the throw.
Now, look at where the defender is. He’s in position and is already driving on the throw. Conley is by no means open here and, again, Smith makes the throw anyway. This is obviously another big departure from Smith’s standard operating procedure.
What you see on this play is the ever-elusive throwing the receiver open. I’ve said of Smith in the past that he doesn’t throw receivers open, he throws to open receivers. Well, against the Chargers on Sunday, Smith did a bunch of throwing receivers open. Honestly, it was bizarre. He did it, by a rough estimate, nearly a dozen times. Keep in mind this is something you generally only see Smith do a few times a game, if at all.
Another thing Smith was doing that was very different from his usual play was aggressively throwing into tight windows. Take the Maclin touchdown, for example.
This is about as good as a back shoulder throw gets. Really, the CB did a decent job. Just impossible to defend. pic.twitter.com/RsfyMK612b— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) September 14, 2016
Look, it’s easy to get excited about the ball placement there (which is exceptional), or Maclin’s ridiculous ability to adjust to a pass and haul it in (also exceptional). But my point here is that this is the type of throw Smith regularly gets chastised for not making: the tough throw into a tight window. By refusing to try those throws, Smith at times takes potential gains off the table.
Much like with throwing receivers open, Smith seemed determined to break that habit against the Chargers. He made multiple “small window” throws down the stretch, and had a high degree of success making them. It was like watching a different quarterback at times.
Though... not an EXACTLY different quarterback. Smith still managed to keep his potential pick number quite low, which is good to see. I’ve often wondered if Smith could continue to protect the ball well and still take chances. Turns out, you can have both!
(Yes, I’m aware Smith threw a pick. But a WR having the ball literally taken from their arms is not on the quarterback. His only potential pick was a knocked down pass over the middle of the field that the linebacker should have caught)
Funny enough, Smith being who he is actually may have saved the game for the Chiefs. Check this play (on the game-tying-touchdown drive) out.
Watch coverage on Conley. Tried to bait Smith into INT. Turned it down, avoided pressure, found West for small gain. pic.twitter.com/Ya2XaGMqbB— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) September 14, 2016
As stated in the tweet, the inside corner does a nice job in zone coverage watching Smith. He anticipates the route Conley is going to run and does a good job back pedaling without committing his hips one way or another. Because of this, when Smith starts to even hint at throwing to Conley, the defender is able to immediately shift to driving on the route. If Smith releases that football, it’s a pick and the game is over.
But Alex Smith, quite simply, doesn’t make those kinds of mistakes. He ALMOST does, but pulls the ball down in the nick of time to avoid an interception. At that point, the pressure starts to get to him. However, he’s able to shake it off and dumps the ball off to Charcandrick West for a short gain.
Yes, it’s a very unsexy play: a three yard gain where the star of the show is a throw that isn’t made. But it’s worth noting that Smith, even on a day when his aggression was off the charts (for him), retained the ability to know when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em.
Also, isn’t the idea of Alex Smith helping win a game by NOT throwing a bad pass just the most Alex Smith thing you’ve ever heard?
Overall, this was a really, really strong outing for Smith, which is what you’d expect in a game where he threw for 363 yards on 7.6 yards per attempt (#stats). It wasn’t just the success he had, it was the manner in which he achieved it that has me intrigued.
I called Smith “Alex Smith 2.0” down the stretch last year as he started to stretch the field a little more, took more control at the line of scrimmage and made a few more risky throws. Frankly, what we saw during the comeback against San Diego wasn’t Alex Smith 2.0. It was something entirely new. Let’s see what next week brings and we can hopefully figure out if we’re looking at the emergence of a pattern or a blip on the radar of a conservative quarterback.