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Let’s examine what could have possibly changed with Chiefs QB Alex Smith

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I’m a computer scientist, a logician, a nerd, a dweeb, a real L-7 Weenie. So it’s only natural for me to question if KC Chiefs QB Alex Smith was in some type of Pupa stage for 13 years until blossoming into a fully grown mature NFL quarterback.

Really, this sudden change bothers me. Don’t get me wrong, I love Alex Smith’s play as of late, but how did all of this happen? Being the nerd I am I began to think of functions, and how Smith’s play could somewhat resemble a function.

In any function you have an input, and an output. Alex Smith has always been the main function of the Chiefs offense, with the players on offense and coaching staff as the inputs, and the Chiefs passing stats as the output. In layman’s terms: Alex Smith is the quarterback, give him some players and coaches, and he’ll output some stats.

If the output (passing stats) changes drastically, you’d have to think the inputs (players on offense, coaching) have changed significantly as well. The goal of this article is to take a deep investigation into what exactly has changed for Alex Smith to be playing so well.

Maybe it’s all Alex Smith, maybe it’s his teammates, maybe it’s the coaching, maybe it’s something more, or maybe it’s a little bit of everything... we’ll see.

Changes in the roster

The easiest thing to take a look at is differences in the Chiefs roster between 2016 and 2017.

Chiefs Main Offensive Starters in 2016 and 2017

2016 POS 2017
2016 POS 2017
Alex Smith QB Alex Smith
Spencer Ware RB Kareem Hunt
Chris Conley WR Chris Conley
Jeremy Maclin WR Tyreek Hill
Demetrius Harris TE Demetrius Harris
Travis Kelce TE Travis Kelce
Eric Fisher LT Eric Fisher
Zach Fulton LG Bryan Witzmann
Mitch Morse C Zach Fulton
Laurent Duvernay-Tardif RG Laurent Duvernay-Tardif
Mitchell Schwartz RT Mitchell Schwartz

There are a few main differences between 2016 and 2017: Kareem Hunt replaced Ware, Tyreek Hill replaced Jeremy Maclin, and a few starters along the offensive line are different. (Yes, Conley is done for the year but for our purposes he was there the past five games) Looking at the offensive line, I don’t believe the differences between 2016 and 2017 are very significant so we’re going to call the offensive line a wash between this year and last.

This brings us to Tyreek Hill and Kareem Hunt....

Kareem Hunt

As football fans we often hear the same things over and over again: A good running back can take a lot of pressure off of a QB.

This is absolutely true. A good running back can help a quarterback move the ball down the field and put points on the board. But does having solid play from a running back help a quarterback statistically? Can we say Kareem Hunt’s play has helped Smith play at a higher level?

The answer is no.

How do I know this? I used data from the last nine years to see if there was any correlation between yards per rushing attempt and passer rating. There was no correlation between the two. Using empirical data we can say that Kareem Hunt’s play has no bearing on how Alex Smith plays.

I know this may challenge some people’s preconceived notions. There is no statistical correlation between yards per rushing attempt and quarterback rating. A good running back does not help a QB pass the ball better.

So sorry Kareem, I love you man, I really do, but you’re not the one responsible for Alex Smith’s transformation.

Tyreek Hill

Things get a little trickier when trying to find the relationship between a wide receiver like Tyreek Hill and how it affects a quarterback’s play.

The best approach I could think of was to look into some players who are similar to Tyreek Hill and see how their arrival affected their quarterbacks play. Thanks to AP user ChiefBearcat (seriously, he was incredibly helpful and totally saved my ass) I was able to find three receivers which I feel are somewhat comparable to Hill: DeSean Jackson, T.Y. Hilton, and Santonio Holmes.

Hill-ish WRs First and Second Year’s QB Ratings

WR QB QB Rating 1st Year QB Rating 2nd Year
WR QB QB Rating 1st Year QB Rating 2nd Year
Santonio Holmes Ben Roethlisberger 75.4 104.1
Desean Jackson Donovan McNabb 86.4 92.9
T.Y. Hilton Andrew Luck 76.5 87

Only Ben Roethlisberger’s jump in passer rating from 2006 to 2007 is close to matching the jump Alex Smith has made during the first five games of this season. All three of the above quarterbacks saw a rise in production. One of the quarterbacks saw a large gain in passer rating, while two of them saw smaller gains. Overall it looks like the transition from first to second year helped the quarterbacks with players similar to Tyreek Hill.

Of course this is only three examples and it’s not even remotely responsible to think this situation would hold true in every case. So as of now let’s view Tyreek Hill’s addition to the offense as a possible cause for some of Alex Smith’s boosted success, but not a guaranteed cause.

However, there’s one more way I can show that Tyreek Hill has had an impact. We’ll get to that eventually in the next section.

Personnel timeline

Let’s go back a ways and talk about the 2014 season opener where the Chiefs laid an egg against the Titans. In that game the Chiefs offense threw 11 deep passes (passes that went 15-plus yards through the air.) The Chiefs receiving corps consisted of Donnie Avery, Junior Hemingway, and Travis Kelce. Dwayne Bowe was absent because he was suspended for the 2014 season opener.

It’s pretty apparent the Chiefs were tying to push the ball down the field at the start of 2014. The 11 deep passes are more than any Chiefs game in 2016 and 2017. Thanks to the Titans game, it was obvious early on the 2014 Chiefs did not have the players to throw the ball downfield with much success.

During the 2015 off season the Chiefs picked up Jeremy Maclin, but Maclin dealt with too many injuries and he never established himself as a legitimate deep threat. Jeremy Maclin was gone shortly after the 2016 season. A move which many scoffed at. However, Tyreek Hill has been exactly what the Chiefs offense needed moving forward.

It looks like the Chiefs offense has wanted to push the ball down the field in the past, but the personnel wasn’t there, especially in 2014. The personnel in 2015 and 2016 did not quite give Smith what he needed as well.

But Smith’s play might not be solely reliant on player personnel, what if there were changes in the coaching staff as well?

What about the coaching staff?

There’s a small percentage of people who say Reid knew Alex Smith could play this well, but he chose to ask Alex Smith to dink and dunk.

That’s crazy talk.

There’s no reason Andy Reid wouldn’t dial up successful plays for Alex Smith in 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2016. As the great Herm Edwards said, “HELLO, you play to WIN the game.” I know Andy Reid uses a lot of trickery, but thinking he would withhold winning plays from Alex Smith in some scheme to win in 2017 is not what happened. It makes no sense.

Which brings me back to the what changed idea. Here’s a table showing what has changed in the Chiefs coaching staff between 2016 and 2017.

Chiefs Coaching Staff in 2016 and 2017

2016 Position 2017
2016 Position 2017
Andy Reid Head Coach Andy Reid
David Culley Assistant Head Coach Brad Childress
Mike Frazier Statistical Analysis Coordinator Mike Frazier
Tommy Brasher Special Projects Tommy Brasher
Childress/Matt Nagy Offensive Coordinator Matt Nagy
David Culley Wide Receivers Greg Lewis
Tom Melvin Tight Ends Tom Melvin
Andy Heck Offensive Line Andy Heck

There are three changes that happened in the Chiefs coaching staff between 2016 and 2017. One change was the removal of David Culley and moving Brad Childress to the role of assistant head coach. Childress was relieved of his offensive coordinator duties and Matt Nagy took sole possession of the position. Lastly, Greg Lewis took over the vacant wide receiver coach position.

Brad Childress

Often times when I think of Brad Childress I am reminded of the Office Space quote, “So what would you say you do around here?”. I’m sure Childress does a lot of good work, but his removal from offensive coordinator and move to assistant head coach may be helping the Chiefs.

What if Reid operates best when he has a strong second voice in his ear? Childress could be that pivotal voice as an assistant head coach. This could have a role in Alex Smith’s play, but I don’t think Childress is playing a major role.

Greg Lewis

Greg Lewis was a former wide receiver of Andy Reid’s and he quietly accepted the Chiefs open wide receiver coach position in the offseason. I don’t think anyone can doubt the job Lewis has been doing given the product on the field.

The Chiefs receivers are finding ways to get open and securing the catch better than years past. I would say Greg Lewis’ plays a relatively small role in Alex Smith’s development.

Matt Nagy

This is the big one folks. The biggest coaching change has been the promotion of Matt Nagy as the sole offensive coordinator. He could be the key.

We all know Andy Reid calls the plays, but Nagy has had a close working relationship with Alex Smith over the past few years seeing as how he used to be the quarterbacks coach. No one should know Smith’s tendencies better than Nagy (except Reid.)

I believe that Nagy will eventually be a head coach in the NFL and I also believe he will be a great coach. Nagy’s first year as offensive coordinator for the Chiefs supports that. Nagy himself has said he wants to be a head coach in the NFL. My dream for the Chiefs future is that Nagy will stick around long enough to be Andy Reid’s successor in Kansas City.

Nagy’s innovation can be seen with the changes in the Chiefs offensive style in 2017. Is it a coincidence the Chiefs offense has started to use plays that Alex Smith had success with in college at the same time Nagy has become the offensive coordinator? Is it a coincidence the Chiefs moved Nagy to the offensive coordinator position and suddenly the Chiefs offense becomes the best in the NFL?

Nagy’s move to offensive coordinator was the biggest coaching move in the offseason and it should follow logically that Nagy is one of the biggest reasons for Smith’s sudden outburst of success. Any Chiefs fan should be drooling over the thought of Smith and Mahomes working with Nagy in the future; a future which is incredibly bright. Long story short, Nagy appears to be an offensive wizard.

Speaking of Mahomes, that brings me to the next possible cause in Alex Smith’s unexpected boost in performance. (I know you were all waiting for it.)

Patrick Mahomes

I’ll start this section with a little story.

I have a good friend against whom I’ve played many different competitive games. If anyone makes this friend angry while playing any of these games, he suddenly becomes much better at whatever he’s doing. It’s like his focus intensifies and crap gets real.

Alex Smith is that type of competitor. Present him with conflict and his focus intensifies.

This can be proven by his play in 2011 and 2012 shortly after the Jim Harbaugh-led coaching staff decided to draft Colin Kaepernick in 2011. Smith answered the call with one and a half seasons of the best football of his career.

This version of “F&*% it” Alex was born the moment the Chiefs drafted Mahomes.

Smith has said he learned a lot from his experience in San Francisco. Perhaps this learning experience has allowed Smith to approach Mahomes with open arms, and also allow Smith and Mahomes to have good communication and a good working relationship.

No one knows what happens in the Chiefs quarterback room except for the people behind the closed doors, but there are certain elements of Smith’s game that seem like he may have picked up from Mahomes by osmosis.

We’ve seen Alex Smith in years past tuck this ball and run it. Instead, in 2017, he is keeping his eyes up the field and making a solid throw. This is the type of maneuver Patrick Mahomes has done time and time again and now Alex Smith is doing it time and time again.

Patrick Mahomes is known for his deep ball, another skill that Alex Smith has improved in 2017. There is no doubt in my mind that Patrick Mahomes has played some role in Alex Smith’s play, but no one has played a bigger role than Alex Smith himself.

Alex Smith

I feel the following is very important....

Smith is the one making the throws, Smith is the one playing like the NFL’s MVP, and Smith is the one who has turned his game completely around through five games in 2017. He deserves almost ALL of the credit.

However, what exactly is different about Smith’s play? I took to looking up passing stats from Pro Football Reference. I tracked the involvement of deep throws (balls that travel 15-plus yards in the air) and how significant they have been in Alex Smith’s play in 2016 and 2017. What I found was interesting...

Alex Smith Deep Play Per Game Averages in 2016 and 2017

Year Deep Throws Deep Completions Deep Completion % Total Attempts Deep Throw Percentage % Deep Yards Total Yards Deep Yard %
Year Deep Throws Deep Completions Deep Completion % Total Attempts Deep Throw Percentage % Deep Yards Total Yards Deep Yard %
2016 4.3 1.7 0.40 33.7 0.13 49.1 241.2 0.20
2017 5.4 3 0.56 31.6 0.17 103.2 278.2 0.37

(Keep in mind these stats are per game, also keep in mind I didn’t count the Colts and Jaguars games in 2016 because Smith was injured.)

I believe there are a number of stats that explain how and why Alex Smith has been playing at his current level. The first thing is that Smith is completing 1.3 more deep balls per game and is completing 16 percent more of these deep passes.

Another stat that jumps out is the difference in deep throw yardage per game. In 2016 Smith averaged 49.1 deep throw yards per game, but in 2017 he is averaging 103.2 deep throw yards per game. This tells me that Smith is not only completing more deep balls, but the length of the plays are significantly longer than they were in 2016.

Long story short, Alex Smith is throwing deeper and more accurately than he was in 2016 (or any other time for that matter.)

This has happened before

All Chiefs fans over the age of 30 should remember Rich Gannon. Gannon was a backup the majority of his career, but at the age of 37 he won the NFL MVP. Rich Gannon has said that he didn’t even know how to play quarterback until he was in his 30s. Maybe the same is happening for Alex Smith.

Gannon went from a quarterback known for middling play to the NFL’s best player. What’s more curious is that I see a lot of similarities in Gannon and Smith’s game. Both are mobile, both had slow starts to their career, both were discarded by their original teams and later picked up, and both traditionally did a good job taking care of the ball.

Wrapping it up

This is where I am going to list what I believe has caused Alex Smith’s play to explode in 2017. They are listed in order of importance as I see it:

  1. A very focused Alex Smith
  2. Matt Nagy’s increased role in the offense
  3. The Patrick Mahomes effect
  4. Tyreek Hill’s elite ability to stretch the field
  5. Andy Reid’s willingness to change and grow
  6. Greg Lewis’ work with the receivers

Each of these items has come together to create a perfect storm for Alex Smith. Is it all sustainable? I’m not sure, but I believe if the items above stay present, then Alex Smith will continue to play at this level.

For all of you who swore the problem wasn’t Alex Smith, and swore up and down that Alex Smith could be a great quarterback if given the right surroundings .... maybe you were right all along.