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Who was the better Chiefs QB: Alex Smith or Trent Green?

A fun debate on two former Chiefs starting quarterbacks

NFL: AFC Wild Card-Tennessee Titans at Kansas City Chiefs Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Author’s note: Seth, if you’re reading this, I want to say thank one more time for all the guidance you’ve offered me over the years. The only constant in life is change and not all change is bad. Thanks for the great writing advice over the years, particularly helping me understand to simply be myself. I am very happy for you and your move to The Athletic.

I was fiddling around with some stats on Pro Football Reference and I came across some interesting information that led to this:

If you’re a thinker, which I know you are, your first thought was probably something along the lines of, “Well, they played in different eras, moron.”

Of course, but there’s no reason to be mean about it. I know they played in different eras too.

However, when I really thought about it... I couldn’t make up in my mind as to who I thought was the better QB. My curiosity got the best of me and I decided to take a deeper look into both Trent Green and Alex Smith’s careers in Kansas City and how they stack up against each other.

Comparing QBs From Different Eras

There are two ways we will accomplish this:

  • Compare Green and Smith against their peers
  • Extrapolate the stats for Green’s era and compare that to Smith

To be honest with you, I’m quite excited about what we’ll uncover. Not only will we get to see how Green and Smith ranked against their peers, but we’ll also see how the NFL passing game has evolved over the past 10 or 15 years.

Oh, and we’ll also get to see what Trent Green’s numbers would have looked like in today’s even more pass-heavy NFL. Should be fun!

Here are some other important things to note:

  • I am using Trent Green’s 2001 to 2005 seasons. I did not include the half season he played in 2006.
  • In seasons in which Smith played 15 games, the numbers have been adjusted to include the 16th game using averages from the prior 15 games.

Quarterback Growth In the 2000s

Just for fun, I’m going to list a few graphs showing the statistical progress of QB stats since 2000. I love these graphs because I find it fascinating to see how the NFL has changed over time.

I also believe these graphs will give context to the Trent Green vs. Alex Smith debate.

Look at the dropoff in 2017... That’s interesting. The next graph may give a little insight into why that may be.

When we talk about the passing stats constantly rising, it’s important to note that is a function of passing opportunities. Teams are passing the ball more and more frequently in the NFL and that is leading to bigger statistical output.

However, if you look at 2017, the passing opportunities dropped. This could explain why the NFL saw a large reduction in passing yards in 2017.

These quarterbacks keep getting better and better over time...

During the 2000s, NFL teams really hadn’t progressed steadily in terms of yards per attempt and yards-per-completion averages. Honestly, I was a little surprised by this.

OK, now that we have some context, let’s start to look at how Green and Smith stack up against their peers.

Opportunities and Accuracy

I wanted to lead with opportunities because I think it’s incredibly important to acknowledge a quarterback who has more opportunities will likely throw for more yards, touchdowns, etc. (Note: I’ll find a way around this issue later.)

Below is a table showing Green’s opportunities and accuracy from 2001 to 2005 compared to the average team during that era.

Trent Green ‘01 to ‘05 vs. NFL Averages

Player Comp Att Cmp%
Player Comp Att Cmp%
Trent Green 319.8 515.8 0.6194
Average Team 308.88 520.68 0.5932

Now let’s do the same for Smith...

Alex Smith ‘13 to ‘17 vs. NFL Averages

Player Comp Att Cmp%
Player Comp Att Cmp%
Alex Smith 334.5 513.4 0.6516
Average Team 351.3 563.1 0.6239

Now comes the tricky part. The next table will show how well each quarterback did compared to his peers. We’re essentially looking at the percentage change between one quarterback’s numbers vs. the NFL average. We’re doing this so we have context given the era.

As you can see, Green completed about 4 percent more passes than his peers during this time frame. However, Green also threw slightly fewer passes than the average quarterback during his era.

Looking more closely at the numbers, we can say the following:

  • When compared to their peers, Green and Smith are equally accurate passers.
  • Given the eras, Green had more passing opportunities than Alex Smith...roughly 7 percent more.

It’s not that Green was part of a volume passing offense—he wasn’t. The ‘01 to ‘05 Chiefs didn’t throw the ball more than an average team. The issue is that Smith ran a low volume passing offense from ‘13 to ‘17.


Now let’s get to the meat and ‘taters boys and girls. We will show the same tables and graphs as for the opportunities section, but with some different stats.

Trent Green vs. Average NFL QB ‘01 to ‘05 - Production

Player Yds TD TD% Y/A Y/C
Player Yds TD TD% Y/A Y/C
Trent Green 4023.4 22.2 4.3 7.8 12.6
Average Team 3303.9 21.1 4.1 6.3 10.7

Now let’s do the same for Smith...

Alex Smith vs. Average NFL QB ‘13 to ‘17 - Production

Player Yds TD TD% Y/A Y/C
Player Yds TD TD% Y/A Y/C
Alex Smith 3709.9 21.5 4.2 7.2 11.1
Average Team 3782.7 24.9 4.4 6.7 10.8

And now the fancy table, showing how each quarterback stacked up against his peers during his playing era.

Green was better than I remembered...

Looking at these numbers, Green was massively ahead of his peers in terms of yards, yards per attempt and yards per completion. This is why we view him as prolific, and honestly, he should be viewed as such.

Looking at Smith, we see a quarterback who threw for below average yards, touchdowns, and touchdown percentage. However, Smith does deserve some credit for his ability to maintain a higher than average yards-per-attempt and yards-per-completion average.

Trent Green was dominant in his era in terms of production, while Alex Smith has been average.

Before I wrote this article, I was fairly certain this would be the case, but I had no idea how far ahead of the game Green was compared to his peers. In my defense, I was in my late teens/early 20s and drinking very heavily during this time... Maybe I had just blacked it all out!

(Also, kids, don’t be like me at that age.)

Rushing Production

I won’t spend too much time on this, but I know the Smith fans will flay me alive if I don’t include his rushing numbers.

  • Alex Smith averaged 334.4 rushing yards per season in Kansas City.
  • Trent Green averaged 126.6 rushing yards per season while in Kansas City.

So you can see Smith averaged about 208 more yards per year on the ground than Green. However, I don’t see this as equalizing Green and Smith’s production as even with the extra yards Smith is still well below Green’s level of production given the era.

Turnovers and Sacks

It is great to throw for a ton of yards and touchdowns, but sometimes mistakes can mitigate great production. Let’s go through the turnover and sack numbers (two stats that correlate with winning games) and see what we can find.

Also, I couldn’t find team quarterback averages for fumbles, so I did not include that stat. Also note that the fumble numbers are the totals over the five-year periods.

Trent Green vs. Average NFL QB ‘01 to ‘05 - Turnovers

Player INT INT% Sk% Fumbles
Player INT INT% Sk% Fumbles
Trent Green 15.2 2.9 5.4 36
Average Team 16.7 3.2 6.6 --

... Aaaand for Smith.

Alex Smith vs. Average NFL QB ‘13 to ‘17 - Turnovers

Player INT INT% Sk% Fumbles
Player INT INT% Sk% Fumbles
Alex Smith 7.0 1.4 7.3 25
Average Team 14.0 2.5 6.3 --

Are you tired of the tables yet? I’m not. (I may or may not have pushed my glasses up while thinking this.)

I’ve heard a lot of people nickname Green, TrINT. I don’t really think this nickname is justified over his entire time in Kansas City, as he was slightly above average in terms of not throwing interceptions.

Smith, on the other hand, was a wizard at taking care of the ball.

The sack numbers are not surprising to me. Green certainly had the advantage in terms of offensive line talent. It’s pretty incredible Smith was able to throw significantly fewer interceptions than Green even though he was often under much more pressure.

So what can we take away from this?

Trent Green was pretty average at taking care of the ball, while Alex Smith was a ball control saint.

Trent Green did not have to play through near as much duress as Alex Smith did in KC.

QB Rating and Winning Likelihood

I’ve been doing NFL-related data science research for years; whether it be on this site or while I was writing my Masters thesis in sports data science.

The single stat I have found in my travels with the highest level of correlation to winning is QB rating. Interceptions and sacks are also valuable towards winning games.

Meanwhile, passing yards do not have much bearing at all towards whoever wins football games. So, if you want to win a lot of football games, you would do well with a quarterback who could do the following:

  • Throws for a high passer rating
  • Doesn’t throw INTs
  • Doesn’t take a lot of sacks
  • Doesn’t fumble the ball much

We’ve already looked at the INTs and sacks, so now let’s look at both quarterback’s rating vs. their peers.

Trent Green vs. Average NFL QB ‘01 to ‘05 - Rating

Player Rating
Player Rating
Trent Green 88.3
Average Team 78.2

Alex Smith vs. Average NFL QB ‘13 to ‘17 - Rating

Player Rating
Player Rating
Alex Smith 94.8
Average Team 86.5

The last graph actually shocked me. All this time, I have viewed Green as a quarterback who was not quite proficient. I viewed Green as reckless with the ball, and as more of a gunslinger-type quarterback.

Given the time period, Green was 4 percent more efficient than Smith, which really blew my mind. I was not expecting this.

The narrative has always been Smith = efficient, while Green = glitzy.

The truth of the matter is, both quarterbacks were efficient in their own way, but Trent Green was more efficient during his era.

...yeah, but who’s better looking?

I feel like we’ve had enough numbers, for now, so let’s take a little break.

In life, you never really know where your day will take you, but when I tweeted about Smith and Green, somehow the conversation went to strange places. One such strange place was who is more attractive, Smith or Green.

(Yes, we’re actually doing this and I find it hilarious)

It was Clay Wendler who started the conversation.

So I checked with my sources, which happened to be my wife, and she thought Smith as more handsome too.

Of course, that wasn’t enough, so I retweeted a poll ran by a Twitter friend:

It’s only 93 votes, but Smith has a commanding lead. So what do you say, who melts your butter quicker?

Alex, or Trent?

Comparing Green and Smith’s Best Year

OK, now that we’ve taken a nice little break, let’s get back to the numbers.

Remember earlier how I said I was going to extrapolate Green’s numbers against the modern era? This is where we’ll do that. I am going to take Smith’s best year (2017), and compare it to Green’s best year (2004) with Green’s numbers adjusted for the 2017 season.

(Note, I used the five-year averages for both quarterback eras to extrapolate Green’s numbers to 2017’s production)

Trent Green vs Alex Smith - Best Years (Adjusted)

Player Yards TDs INTs
Player Yards TDs INTs
2017 Smith^ 4311 28 5
2004 Green* 5256 32 14

^ = Alex Smith’s 2017 stats adjusted to 16 games
* = Trent Green’s 2004 stats adjusted to Alex Smith era production

The all-time passing yards season record is 5,477 yards held by Peyton Manning (barf) in 2013. So Green is knocking on a pretty legendary door there, assuming his numbers progressed with the rest of the quarterbacks in the NFL.

Ring of Honor Discussion

Special thanks to @Countryboi567 for inspiring this section.

I’ve seen a lot of Chiefs fans bring up both Smith and Green in Ring of Honor discussions. In my opinion, I think neither quarterback belongs in the Ring of Honor.

My reasoning is that neither quarterback did much in the playoffs, and neither quarterback had the kind of franchise longevity that many other great quarterbacks have exhibited.

The Chiefs organization has been void of a great quarterback playing under center for a long period of time. The only quarterback who meets the criteria for playing great over a long period of time is Len Dawson.

Just because Green and Smith were good quarterbacks does not make them Ring of Honor worthy, and I believe the reason many Chiefs fans want either one of them in the Ring of Honor is due to the truly poor level of quarterback play through Kansas City’s history.


Final Verdict

This has actually been one of the toughest decisions I have had to make while writing for Arrowhead Pride, but between Smith and Green, the quarterback I would prefer running my team is Green.

I chose Green because he was more efficient in his era, his passing numbers would be off the charts in today’s NFL, and he was generally more aggressive down the field.

Quarterback efficiency is one of the most important stats in winning football games, and Green beat Smith out in this key metric.

This doesn’t mean Smith is a slouch, and I still think Smith is a very good quarterback. I just think Green is better.


Who do you take?

This poll is closed

  • 63%
    Trent Green
    (1214 votes)
  • 36%
    Alex Smith
    (688 votes)
1902 votes total Vote Now

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