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Alex Smith vs. the Steelers: Placing Blame

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The latest film breakdown from Seth Keysor takes a closer look at who deserves the most credit for the Chiefs’ postseason loss.

Well, here we are: the final Alex Smith film review of the season. I think this is an appropriate time to sit back and take stock on who Alex is, who he isn’t, what he’s done this season, and where things stand moving forward.

Because this is a “special” film review and there were so many questions after the Chiefs’ offense struggled against a poor Steelers defense, I decided to go a bit further than a normal film review of Alex (the methodology of which can be found here, if you’ve never read one before). What I want to explore, in addition to Alex’s film, is the concept of blame.

Since the Steelers game, I’ve heard a lot of blame for the reasons the offense played poorly get thrown around. After some discussion, I’ve found four potential culprits for a passing game that sputtered.

  1. Failures by Alex Smith (missing open receivers, inaccurate throws, etc.)
  2. Failures by the offensive line (allowing quick pressure to kill plays)
  3. Failures by Andy Reid (a particularly popular one, with the idea that Reid’s play calling was poor and doomed too many plays to failure before they began)
  4. Failures by receivers (drops, misplaying the ball, moving to the wrong spot, etc.)

Well, since I’m a sick man who can’t help himself, I also tracked every “failed” passing play in which there was clear (in my opinion, remember that this is subjective) failure in one of those four areas. The question everyone seems to want to ask is “who is to blame?” We can never know for certain, but this seems to be one way to at least find the PRIMARY blame for the offense failing to exploit a vulnerable defense.

So let’s get into Smith’s in-depth numbers. Then we’ll talk about his film in connection with the other failures on offense. Finally, we’ll talk about the future.

Missed Shots: 5 (there was one play with 2 missed shots, so it was technically 4 plays)

Happy Feet Snaps: 4

Drops: 4 (conservatively 56 yards lost, each drop would have been a 1st down)

Flushes: 4

Saves: 1

Inaccurate Passes: 4

Potential Picks: 0

Drives Extended w/ Legs: 0

Franchise QB Throws: 3

Throws Behind LOS: 7

Throws 1-5 Yards in Air: 4

Throws 6-10 Yards in Air: 8

Throws 11-19 Yards in Air: 9

Throws 20+ Yards in Air: 6

This was an interesting game from Alex Smith. On one hand, he made a number of very good throws (ones that don’t quite meet “franchise QB throw” criteria, but are impressive nonetheless). He also protected the ball (the INT was not on him, but rather an OL failure) and did a good job finding open receivers a lot of the time. He was let down by drops and other receiver failures multiple times when he made the correct play, and that’s frustrating to watch. He also converted on several huge 3rd and 4th downs, including on Travis Kelce’s drop/penalty/meltdown drive where it took this to even put the Chiefs in a position to get a field goal.

Anyone who tells me that Alex Smith was abysmal against the Steelers... well, that let’s me know a lot about what their view of him was going into that game. Smith was not abysmal by any means.

However.

Smith also had too many missed shots down the field, had happy feet on some snaps where the protection was absolutely fantastic and missed a couple of crucial throws (most particularly Jeremy Maclin down the field, which could perhaps have been a miscommunication but looks like a misplaced throw to me after multiple views).

In a tight game, plays like this nearly caused the Arrowhead crowd to riot...

Several of the shots Alex missed were receivers open down the field. I can say that only one other “missed shot” snap was as blatant as this one, all were plays where Smith could have seen the open players had he kept a cool head and continued to go through his reads rather than getting happy feet. That’s discouraging, and absolutely worth getting fired up about.

If I were to sum up Alex’s game against Pittsburgh, I would say he had a slightly-above-average game as an individual. The problem is that, on a day when there were other issues with the offense, they needed Alex to be more than above average. They needed more than competent. And they didn’t get it. Additionally, there were several mental errors that are tough to not pin on Smith, like the delay of game penalty when there should’ve been plenty of time to snap the ball, or the inexplicable timeout in the 4th quarter that had Andy Reid looking stunned and asking, “He call a timeout?” into his headset.

I could show you multiple gifs of nice plays by Alex where he was let down. I could also show you multiple gifs of plays Alex left on the field. However, we can’t fit all that on one page, so you can either take my word for it or just check out my Twitter media feed from the last few days. It’s a bloodbath of failure to execute by multiple offensive players.

And execution was the name of the game against Pittsburgh. Because if it wasn’t one thing, it was another. And not just on big plays like Kelce’s drop (a gorgeous down the field throw that went to waste at a crucial juncture in the game), but on shorter plays as well.

I’ve talked about this before, but timing is so, so important in the NFL. Wilson’s drop here was on 3rd down and led to a field goal on a drive they really could have used a touchdown. In an extremely close game where the momentum mattered throughout, that’s a big deal.

And as the missed shot to Hill above shows, if it wasn’t the receivers, it was Alex. Or the offensive line. But let’s talk about that. Overall, I found 20 plays I deemed “failures” in the passing game (YIKES) wherein it was fairly clear that one party or another (or in one case, 2 different players) were to blame. So let’s look at who was at fault on the failed passing downs.

Alex Smith failure- 7.5 plays

Pass Protection failure- 3 plays

Play Call failure- 3 plays

Receiver failure- 6.5 plays

Looking over that group of numbers (and watching the all-22 of the offense), it became increasingly clear to me that Andy Reid was not the problem against the Steelers. Yes, there were a couple of poorly-timed screens that were pretty telegraphed and blown up by the Steelers (who seemed very prepared for those types of plays the majority of the game), but the VAST majority of the plays were well-scripted and created openings for the offense to exploit (Andy’s play calls consistently get receivers open). The failures were in execution.

And the numbers bear out what many said after the game: Alex was too much a part of the problem.

Does that statement absolve the receivers? Absolutely not. If you take out the drops and misplayed passes by receivers, the Chiefs very likely win that game. And while the offensive line wasn’t too bad in pass protection, when they failed it was quickly and at the worst possible moments, with huge implications. Both groups need to do better.

But the problem is that on a day when other things are going poorly, you need your quarterback to do one of two things:

  1. Make enough plays on his own that it overcomes the struggles of others; or
  2. Make so FEW mistakes that the team is generally able to operate efficiently despite the struggles of the rest of the offense.

Alex has generally not been the type of quarterback that we see doing that first thing. He’s not traditionally a playmaker, and never has been. However, where Smith is supposed to make up for that area is in making so few mistakes that other players are consistently put in a position to succeed. That’s how Smith can overcome a bad game from other offensive players: executing on each down so that when the OTHER guys succeed do their job, the offense succeeds.

And unfortunately, against the Steelers, Alex made too many mistakes to be an “option number 2” kind of guy, and he didn’t make enough big plays to be an “option number 1” guy either. The result? An offense that couldn’t move the ball against a very, very questionable secondary.

So where does that leave the Chiefs? Well, that’s a big-picture question. I’ll start with one statement: Andy Reid deserves a great deal of praise for the job he did coaching the offense in the Pittsburgh game, and the vast majority of other games as well. He is not the issue, despite some of his maddening tendencies.

So Andy Reid is here to stay. What next? Well, the Chiefs should continue to try and upgrade their playmakers (always) and take a look at the offensive line (though I’m perfectly happy with most of the line, to be honest). But the real question is what to do at quarterback.

My opinion of Alex Smith did not change based on the Pittsburgh game. He is what he’s always been: a slightly above-average (or “decent”) quarterback with a unique set of strengths and weaknesses. He’s a guy you can win a ton of games with at quarterback because of his ability to execute an offense, avoid mistakes, and give you good general accuracy and a few great throws a game. He’s also a guy who will cost you some opportunities because of his happy feet tendencies (which lead to missed shots) and his accuracy issues down the field.

In other words, Smith is good enough. But he’s not quite good enough. If that makes sense.

The problem with Smith is that he’s not Matt Cassel. Seriously, that’s a weird problem, but a problem. Anyone who says the two are at the same level of quarterback is kidding themselves. Matt has some of Alex’s weaknesses, but they’re magnified and he lacks Alex’s strengths. Matt was easy to move on from (though some of us hung on too long) because he was clearly a backup-level quarterback at best. He didn’t bring enough to the table to help a team consistently win.

Alex DOES bring enough to the table to help a team win. But he falls short of what you’re really after, a guy who can execute the offense AND occasionally pick up the slack when others are faltering. Does that mean I’m saying “we need Tom Brady and nothing less?” Of course not. But am I completely comfortable with Alex in a must-win game? No, I’m not.

Which leads us back to why Alex’s competency is a problem. He’s good enough that a coach or GM is going to hesitate to move on from him, because matching or upgrading his ability isn’t necessarily as simple as “anyone can throw X touchdowns and Y yards a season.” It’s a scary idea to move on a from a guy you can win with, whether fans like to admit that or not. And so it creates a strange, unique limbo. Do you take the risk of downgrading the position (a much more likely risk than when trying to move on from Cassel), or do you try to fortify the rest of the team and hope Alex does enough?

I could argue back and forth on it all day, but here’s what it comes down to: in a year where the pass protection was improved over what he’s had since his first year in KC, and where his receiving weapons were drastically better than he’s ever enjoyed in his entire career (with the addition of Tyreek Hill, Kelce morphing into a superstar and Chris Conley developing into a solid #3 receiving option)... Alex did not look better. He looked, at best, the same as he did much of last year. And I’d argue he looked a bit worse at times.

And so it seems to make little sense to assume that Alex will improve in year 5 to the point that he’s a guy who is dragging the offense up rather than being a cog in the machine.

I don’t believe the Chiefs NEED to move on from Alex Smith. But I believe they should take a long, hard look at their options this offseason. Andy Reid’s offense is good enough to help a young passer thrive, and the weapons available are enough to make any quarterback excited. With an offensive line that should stay intact with the exception of Parker Ehinger returning, the pieces are all there to help a young QB develop quickly OR help a veteran QB improve on what Alex has done here (that’s not a call for Romo or Taylor or Cousins or whatever).

Will Andy Reid and John Dorsey make a move? I doubt it. But if I were them, I would look to the draft and find a talented player to at least compete with Smith next season. Because the Chiefs failed to take a step forward in a year that they really did boast a Super Bowl caliber roster. And that can’t be allowed to happen again.