Can Chiefs QB Nick Foles open up Kansas City's offense?
How pathologically conservative is Chiefs QB Alex Smith as a passer? In 48 snaps of action in relief of Smith against the Colts, Nick Foles has half as many completions on deep passes (20+ air yards), more than half as many yards, and the same number of touchdowns (one) as Smith has managed over the entire season to date.
Smith typically has the league’s lowest average depth of target. He has been 30th or worse every season since 2009 in that statistical category, and had the lowest average depth of target in each of the last three seasons. Over that span, he is the only quarterback in the league to average under 7 yards from the line of scrimmage per target.
Tom Brady’s entire offense has been focused on horizontally spreading defenses out and picking up incremental gains on short passes, and yet Brady typically averages nearly 2 full yards more than Smith.
So far in 2016, Alex Smith has actually averaged 7.5 yards per target, which is 29th in the league, and that’s his high-water mark. Smith was knocked from the game against Indianapolis after taking two blows to the head, and looks likely to miss a week of action with a concussion, paving the way for Nick Foles to start in his place. In 48 snaps this week, Foles averaged 9.7 yards per target, which would be the fifth-highest figure in the league (if he had a qualifying number of snaps).
The Chiefs have been trying to get Tyreek Hill into the offense more thanks to the electrifying playmaking ability he has already shown on special teams as a return man. With Smith, that means plenty of short passes and bubble screens. 47 percent of Hill’s targets before this week were screens, but Foles might open that up and harness that speed as more of a deep threat.
Against the Colts, Hill was thrown at deep twice, catching both of them and gaining 83 yards and a touchdown. Those two passes averaged 36 yards in target depth. There’s no doubt the Chiefs will still look to get the ball in Hill’s hands quickly on screens and short stuff, but at least the deep threat will become more of a concern for defenses than it was with Smith there.
The issue is, of course, that while Foles may be a more aggressive QB than Smith, he isn’t necessarily any better. Even in Sunday’s game, he ended with some very pretty looking passing numbers, but there were too many routine misses, and this was a performance in which he avoided the horrendous decisions that have plagued his career.
Nick Foles versus the Colts in Week 8
Smith is to some degree the architect of his own prison, at least from a schematic point of view. Because he is so compulsively conservative with the football, defenses can cheat down towards the line of scrimmage and crowd the area of the field that Smith likes to work in, making the very thing that he wants to do harder to succeed at. The other issue is that when Smith does throw the ball deep, he isn’t very accurate on those attempts.
Believe it or not, Derek Carr has actually attempted a deep pass less often than Smith this season (8.4 percent of attempts against Smith’s 9.4 percent), but Carr has been accurate on 59.3 percent of those passes and has a passer rating of 121.5 when he has taken the shot. Smith has been accurate on just 31.8 percent of those attempts, and his passer rating is more than 40 points worse, at 80.7.
If nothing else, Foles in the short-term will force defenses to play the Chiefs’ offense more honest. In a very limited sample size, he has gone deep on 21.7 percent of his attempts, and his passer rating on those plays is 143.8. Foles’ career shows a far more aggressive QB when it comes to attacking deep, and anybody preparing to face him as the starting quarterback will be aware of the deep ball as something that needs to be defended.
Kansas City’s offense has weaponry and big-play potential, but it will never fulfill the potential of that destructive power as long as Smith is starting. The team is undoubtedly happy to settle for the net gain of Smith’s conservative play even if it blunts the effectiveness of their other playmakers on offense, but in the short-term, Nick Foles could unleash the potential of those supporting players—if he can just keep himself from making the key mistakes.