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Alex Smith: MVP frontrunner, fixer of weaknesses

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Chiefs 42, Texans 34: Five takeaways from the game plus your questions and comments.

Posted by Arrowhead Pride: For Kansas City Chiefs Fans on Sunday, October 8, 2017

If you could go back in time to the offseason, what would you say Alex Smith’s biggest weaknesses as a quarterback are?

I’d be willing to bet anything that 99 percent of you would say, in some order, these three things:

  1. Lack of deep ball accuracy.
  2. Unwillingness to make tough throws down the field or into contested windows.
  3. Poor pocket presence/tendency to drop his eyes under pressure.

I wouldn’t fight you on any of those. And those weaknesses were what had many people ready to move on from Alex.

Then the first five weeks of this season happened. And I say this without exaggerating one bit: after five weeks, Alex Smith is the leading candidate for MVP so far into the (kind of) young season.

Yes, Kareem Hunt is close behind and has been wildly important to the team’s success. But quarterbacks are always going to get some preference, and after having yet another strong game against a tough defense (injuries or no), Alex is the guy.

This isn’t going to be an in-depth film review of the Chiefs/Texans game (I need to wait for the all-22 to come out first), but it’s time I say this in a more editorial way than an analytical way: if Alex Smith isn’t the quarterback for the Chiefs, they are quite likely at least 4-1 and much more likely 3-2. He’s been an integral cog in four of the five wins by the Chiefs and was able to contribute to the fifth.

Against the Texans, it became more apparent than at any other point this season that Alex has become a wildly important part of the offense. For starters, on a day when Kareem Hunt was getting shut down early (Hunt really didn’t do much until the 4th quarter and was clearly a focal point for the Texans), Alex and the offense were forced into 3rd down situations time after time after time.

All Alex did was go 9/12 for 137 yards and a touchdown on third downs (if my math is right ... it’s late, after all), good for a QB rating of 139.9. Obviously, basic stats aren’t a great way to evaluate a QB (or even a good way), but when you narrow things down a bit more like this it at least tells you SOMETHING. And anyone who watched the game could see that it wasn’t just Alex taking gimmes on third down. He was making plays.

It seemed like no matter how far the Chiefs had to go on third down, they were able to convert. Midway through the third quarter I realized that I was feeling supremely confident on third downs for the Chiefs. When was the last time we felt like that as fans? 2003?

Alex didn’t just make good plays early, though, he made good plays when it counted the most (much like he did against the Eagles a few weeks back, if you’ll recall).

In the fourth quarter, the Texans mounted something of a comeback, pulling to within 6 points after a Deshaun Watson touchdown pass. Momentum seemed like it was about to shift, and for the only time in the game I worried a bit.

Throw into that atmosphere the fact that Travis Kelce, around whom the entire Chiefs passing game is designed (along with Tyreek Hill), was out with a concussion. On top of THAT, Kareem Hunt had been bottled up all day. And naturally, the Chiefs were still, you know, playing without their two best offensive linemen in Mitch Morse and LDT. They needed points badly.

So what does Alex do? He proceeded to calmly complete an 18-yard pass to Ross Travis on first down to slightly calm down a suddenly awake group of Texans fans. Then, after a two-yard Hunt run, Alex completed a 15-yard pass to Conley to move the Chiefs into field goal range. You could FEEL the air leaving the stadium, even before Hunt ripped off a big gain up the middle (it’s interesting the effect it has on the running game when the quarterback is dicing up the defense, no?) and DAT finished off the drive on pop pass from Alex (which, hilariously, counts as a passing TD and I’m not even mad about it because I’ve been starting Alex Smith in fantasy and winning with plays like that...).

It wasn’t just the touchdown that let the air out of the Texans’ tires. It was how easily the Chiefs got into scoring position despite the absence of Kelce, who until then had been shredding Houston. THAT is what an MVP does ... when things are starting to spiral, he takes control. And that’s exactly what Alex did against the Texans, as well as the Eagles. He took control.

So what is Alex doing differently? Well, like I said, this isn’t the time for in-depth film review. But look back to that list of weaknesses at the beginning of this article, especially the last two. Now watch this play.

This season, Alex has been significantly better with his pocket presence (though not perfect), especially over the past few weeks. He’s done a better job keeping his eyes up as he moves around rather than going immediately to scramble mode when pressure arrives.

Additionally, Alex has been much more willing to make throws into tight windows or in the vicinity of more defenders, which is arguably what his most maddening weakness was during his recent years in Kansas City (at least, that’s the complaint I heard crop up the most). The TD to West, though it isn’t a deep ball or anything like that, is not an easy throw.

West had a defender basically draped all over him in coverage, which meant the ball had to go to precisely the right spot AND with velocity. In past years, that’s exactly the sort of throw Alex seems to avoid. This year, he’s taking those shots at a much higher rate, and not just on short throws either. He’s been more willing to put the ball into tougher spots on intermediate throws as well.

Alex, as Collinsworth spent some time talking about in the broadcast, is throwing the ball much more confidently this year. Whether that’s a trust issue, or the new attitude everyone wants to keep talking about, or feeling pushed by Mahomes, or whatever, Alex is not playing the same way he’s played in previous years, and it’s been going on long enough to view it as a (dare I say it?) trend. Crap, did you hear Al Michaels call him Alex Smith 2.0? I was so happy I couldn’t even be mad that he somehow stole my line.

Alex has also, as was pointed out during the broadcast, been significantly more efficient in his downfield throws. While he hasn’t been ATTEMPTING a ton more shots to deep and intermediate zones, he’s been more accurate on those shots, which has made for a much higher completion percentage on those plays (to be fair, having Tyreek Hill make incredible sideline catches helps).

In short, Alex has taken every one of his major weaknesses and somehow, after more than a dozen years in the league, kicked his game up a BIG notch in every one of them. As a result, he’s become a quarterback who is making clutch throws when his team needs them and is making plays even when Andy Reid doesn’t set him up perfectly. In other words, Alex has so far this season been what we’ve all been hoping to see him become for years. He’s taking more shots and still protecting the ball at an elite level. And when you become a QB who makes plays AND doesn’t ever turn the ball over? That’s MVP-type stuff.

I don’t know what tomorrow holds, and I’ve become a bit of a cynic over the years, especially when it comes to seeing my wildest hopes come true for the team I love to cheer for. But right now, today, Alex Smith should be considered the frontrunner for MVP. He’s earned every bit of it, and I can’t wait to see what happens next.