I’m going to dive right in, because we’ve got a lot of territory to cover: I thought Alex Smith struggled against the Broncos, and I was wrong. Alex Smith was, in fact, one of the main reasons the Chiefs won the game on a night when a lot of things didn’t necessarily go their way on offense. True story
“But Seth, he missed Tyreek Hill deep on that one throw.”
He totally did, bad throw for sure.
“But Seth, his completion percentage was only 45.2%!”
“You’re seriously saying Alex was good against Denver with that completion percentage and (insert either the miss to Hill or the miss to Kelce later in the game)???”
Let’s talk about it. Allow me to present exhibit A, which represents more than just one throw... but what a throw it was.
Holy crap, this was an incredible throw. Absolutely fantastic. Seriously, Alex was SLINGING it in the 1st half. pic.twitter.com/RvbpCfa4Ae— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) November 3, 2017
That throw alone was fantastic, but what it REPRESENTS is more important: Alex made multiple franchise QB throws against the Broncos, whether they were into tight windows or it was him throwing guys open down the field. He made multiple big plays in moments the Chiefs needed some yards. And he did it all on a night where the rest of the offense (outside of Travis Kelce) was not having its best night.
If you’ve never read one of these before, here’s a good primer that explains my process and the deep stats I chart while evaluating quarterbacks. Quite simply, I use all-22 to go beyond what basic box score stats tell us.
As I’ve said, we’ve got a LOT to unpack, as I tend to want to give more details when I have an opinion that goes against the grain. And saying Alex played well against Denver definitely does that (I look forward to getting yelled at in the comments. It’s always a treat). Let’s start with some numbers.
(Note: As always, the total number of accurate/inaccurate passes doesn’t quite match up with the total number of throws charted in depth of target. That’s because on some throws while the level of accuracy can’t really be gauged due to a tipped pass or something like that, the target can still be clear)
Let’s talk some numbers. First off, those franchise QB throws. Eight is an extraordinarily high number for that particular stat. For some frame of reference, it’s more franchise QB throws than Alex had against the Patriots and the Eagles ... combined. It’s actually the most franchise QB throws Alex has had this season.
Travis Kelce isn't fair. Nice throw by Alex for sure, but seriously... Travis Kelce isn't fair. pic.twitter.com/Aqd4aHqyIE— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) November 3, 2017
Alex was continually testing the Broncos in the deep and intermediate zones (notice that he had as many aimed throws over 11 yards as he did that were 10 yards or less), and was highly aggressive in the nature of the throws that he made, firing it in when he saw an opening even if there were zone defenders in the vicinity.
Alex was throwing the ball very aggressively in the 1st Q vs DEN. Saw the opening immediately here and fired it in before zone could react. pic.twitter.com/hDw9RXqkRh— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) November 3, 2017
That throw isn’t one you see from Alex much, because the underneath defender is very close to being in position to pick it off. Normally, Alex would wait and see if Kelce could drift into a more open area of the zone and risk the pass rush getting to him OR other zone defenders drifting Kelce’s way. Remember how often people would say as a criticism that Alex would wait for receivers to be wide open rather than throwing them open? This throw is the opposite of that, and Alex made multiple ones like it on the day.
Seriously, I was way off re. Alex vs DEN. Look at where Kelce is when he releases this throw. He was so, so aggressive. pic.twitter.com/YxldCQJyaJ— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) November 3, 2017
Another thing to note is the plays made statistic. Alex made several really nice plays with his arm or his legs when things broke down in the pocket, including an absolutely crucial scramble on 2nd and 14 with 9 minutes left in the game that brought the Chiefs into field goal range and helped push the lead to 13 points rather than 10 points.
Of course, some of the plays made by Alex didn’t show up in the stats sheet because of mistakes by other players, but we’ll get to that part in a second. Since we’re still talking about numbers, considering the pass rush the Chiefs were facing Alex did a really good job with happy feet and (not) bailing out of the pocket prematurely. He also only missed a couple of shots, which is a pretty reasonable thing on a day when the coverage by Denver was generally very good.
The only fly in the ointment on Alex’s day was a higher percentage of inaccurate passes than he normally has, a couple of which were in big enough moments that people walked away remembering them.
One of only a handful of bad plays by Smith so far. 3rd down, gets the matchup he wants and Kelce wins. Alex just misses him. pic.twitter.com/R4WCJtT4Bv— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) November 3, 2017
Harris was so lucky Alex didn't put air under the ball and let Hill run under it here. He had him beat and it was only gonna get worse. pic.twitter.com/Ttf8zrWhrv— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) November 3, 2017
Throwing the ball inaccurately on 28% of your aimed passes is obviously WAY from ideal, so that particular issue prevents this from being on quite the same level as the Texans, Patriots and Redskins games in my opinion. Fortunately Alex balanced that out and then some with franchise QB throws and “plays made” when things were breaking down, including at some of the most crucial times in the game.
It was Alex (and Travis Kelce, of course) who stepped up when the Chiefs NEEDED points late in the 3rd when the Broncos pulled within a touchdown.
last play of 3rd Q, 3rd and 5, DEN within 1 TD. NEEDED a 1st down here. Alex kept his eyes up and found Kelce. Biggest play of the game. pic.twitter.com/esurlqDSJU— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) November 3, 2017
Denver had really solid coverage across the entire field on this play, so when the protection started to get a little shaky it looked like a recipe for disaster, especially since Kelce broke open just as Alex was forced right. However, rather than bailing completely Alex kept his eyes down the field and properly moved away from the crushed pocket, saw Kelce in a soft spot in the coverage, made a quick fake to deke out the closing linebackers (that one almost gave me a heart attack), and completed the throw to Kelce for a HUGE first down.
Alex found Kelce down the field for a big gain the next play, the Chiefs ended up with a field goal, and I never had a doubt about the game for the rest of the evening.
So the question I’m sure you’re asking is “if Alex was so good against the Broncos why are his basic stats so bad?” And that’s a fair question. While stats like completion percentage don’t tell even close to the whole story, it’s rare that they’re SO unrepresentative of what happened in a game.
In this case, it’s the completion percentage that people are hung up on. However, when you talk about completion percentage you need to understand that Alex threw away at least five passes on the day by my count (note that of his 31 attempted passes I was only able to chart accuracy on 25 of them, so I’m actually being conservative when I say it was five passes). That’s not including the passes Alex had to place in tough spots due to good coverage by the Broncos, or throws that looked more like miscommunication than inaccuracy (when in doubt, I chart it as inaccurate in order to be a tough grader and balance out potential homerism).
So that’s five passes right out of the gate. Then we have the drops. Oh my, were there drops.
Second great throw of the game that should be a TD... but isn't. How differently do people view this game if Harris catches this? pic.twitter.com/A0Dn83sdY9— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) November 3, 2017
This is the drop that everyone remembers, and for good reason. Alex made a franchise QB throw down the field that was practically placed in Harris’s hands ... and Harris couldn’t deliver. For those who like to just analyze box scores, this one play took away a completion, 24 yards and a touchdown. That alone would’ve brought Alex’s QB rating from 77.6 to a 94.3 rating (part of that is because the QB rating puts too much emphasis on TDs, but I digress). Isn’t it wild what a big difference one play can make that Alex had absolutely no control over?
And not to pick on Harris, but that’s not the only drive he killed. On the first drive in the second half, this happened.
Happy feet snap for Alex, but he makes a nice play in the end... then Harris drops it. Not a great throw, but that's HS level catchable. pic.twitter.com/l2j49F3RlM— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) November 3, 2017
I’m trying to control my rage. That drop is the difference between 1st and 10 on the KC 43-yard line and ... punting the ball from their own 36. It was an absolute momentum stopper at a time when the Chiefs could’ve been moving in for the kill.
It wasn’t just Harris either. Kelce, Robinson, and West all had drops as well (Robinson and Kelce’s both being ones that you’ll probably remember). Overall, there were five blatant drops that I charted with a very conservative estimate of 67 yards lost. Of course all quarterbacks deal with drops, but it’s very unusual for them to be that many or affect yardage that much.
In fact, if you combine throwaways (again, a conservative estimate of five) and drops (another one where I was harder on Alex than the receivers), you’ve got 10 incompletions.
And drops aren’t the only kind of play that can result in an incomplete pass.
This came in CRAZY hot to get past the LB, but Travis has gotta be ready for that. I personally dig this throw, love the aggressiveness pic.twitter.com/vM14W0eU7y— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) November 3, 2017
I watched this play about 50 times from every available angle, and I ultimately walked away much more angry at Ross Travis than Alex. The throw here came in hot to beat the underneath linebacker (who broke really well on the ball), but Travis has GOT to get his hands up in time to catch it.
I did have people ask why Alex didn’t wait for Travis to get more clear before making the throw. What’s important to note here is that the defender doesn’t break hard on that route until Alex starts his throw. Had Alex held the ball and waited there’s no guarantee (and it’s not even likely) the defender does the same thing, and the throw doesn’t get any easier. In fact, it likely gets tougher as Travis drifts into the LB’s zone. Alex could’ve pump faked to get the same reaction and then went over the top, but he has no way of knowing how the LB would react.
Instead, Alex does exactly what we’ve been begging him to do for years. He sees there’s a tight window there, says “screw it, I can make that throw,” and FIRES the ball in there to give his receiver a chance to make a play. The receiver just ... didn’t. Not a drop, but still a play where Alex did his job very well and got let down by the guy at the other end.
In case you’re keeping score, that’s two TDs lost on the day by Alex. Imagine how different the narrative on the day would be had the other guy held up his end of the bargain on those days. A three touchdown day (and a bigger win by the Chiefs) absolutely has people talking differently about Alex.
Of course, the same thing could be said if Alex sticks the deep shot to Hill early in the game, so again, it’s not ALL on the other players. But it’s worth noting that a lot of the statistical shortcomings of Alex’s game weren’t on him.
There was also a promising drive in the first half that was killed by pass blocking.
Strip/sack to end 1st half. Alex moved his eyes to the middle of the field at JUST the wrong time to not see the rusher. pic.twitter.com/fsqwnNX4mF— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) November 3, 2017
Eric Fisher just gets beat here. There’s really not a whole lot else to analyze. Alex has time to go to his first two reads (both on the left side of the field) and see they aren’t open ... and he shifts his eyes to the middle of the field at the exact right time to miss the pass rusher go right around Fisher and come screaming his way. I guess they call it the blind side for a reason.
In case you’re wondering what the coverage looked like on that play...
If you're wondering what Alex's first read (L side) looked like. Kelce bracketed, no one else open. That's why he moved his eyes right. pic.twitter.com/dFvxZDhjot— Seth Keysor (@RealMNchiefsfan) November 3, 2017
The Broncos had Kelce bracketed with both defenders watching the quarterback, and every other option is completely covered. There’s just nowhere to go with the ball, and Alex (again, blind side) believes he has enough time to survey the field. He’s hit, ball comes out, and a drive that was heading towards at least a field goal (they’d moved the ball quite well most of the first half) ends with nothing.
Again, you see how stats can be affected by things that have nothing to do with the quarterback. Smith actually played well on that particular drive, scrambling for a big first down a few plays earlier.
So what’s the takeaway from this game? Well first, once again I learned that my initial impressions of a game during broadcast viewing is unreliable. Perhaps some of you can accurately analyze a game while watching it with emotion in play and without charting, but I can’t do it. I just can’t.
The second thing I take from this is that Alex played strongly against a tough pass rush and good coverage on a day when the run game couldn’t get moving at all and receivers failed him multiple times. He had one particular weak spot (higher number of inaccurate throws), but balanced it out by being the biggest playmaker the Chiefs had, even more so than Kelce (mostly due to volume, but still). Had Alex played a bad game or even an average game, I’m not sure the Chiefs put up more than 10 points on offense and they could well have lost that game.
This is also a good game to realize that the box score, at times, can outright lie to us. After review I’d say this game was more impressive than Alex’s game against the Raiders, where he completed almost 70 percent of his passes for 342 yards and three touchdowns. No, I’m not kidding one bit.
Against the Broncos, Alex had more franchise QB throws, missed fewer shots, had fewer happy feet snaps, made more plays, had one less potential pick (a huge deal), and only had a couple more inaccurate throws. This was despite playing a much better pass rush (flushed seven times as opposed to 4) and a MUCH better secondary (hence the multiple throwaways).
If it’s not Alex Smith 2.0 playing against the Broncos, the Chiefs walk out of Arrowhead with a loss instead of a win. I was just too stupid to realize it during the game. Let’s hope Alex continues the trend (outside of his accuracy/inaccuracy ratio) against Dallas.