The Chiefs can’t win a Super Bowl with the 2016 version of Alex Smith at QB

At his best, Alex Smith is an above-average quarterback. But he is struggling this season, even as the Chiefs keep winning.

| 1 week ago
Alex Smith

(Jason Hanna, Getty Images)

The Chiefs can’t win a Super Bowl with the 2016 version of Alex Smith at QB


The Kansas City Chiefs just improved to 8-3 with a win on Sunday night against their division rival the Denver Broncos. (Check out PFF’s grades recap here.) They ended last season on a 10-game win streak in the regular season, and have now won 18 of their last 21 regular-season games, and 19 of their last 22 games if you include the playoffs.

With Justin Houston returning to the fold with a dominant performance, and Dee Ford emerging as a pass-rushing threat while he was away injured, things seem to be looking good for the Chiefs. But the truth is that this team can’t win what they really want – a Super Bowl – with the 2016 version of Alex Smith at quarterback.

Given the beginning to Smith’s career, he has always been seen as something of a letdown. The former No. 1 overall pick was a disaster in his first couple of years in San Francisco, but those years tint the perception of the rest of his career — when he had actually become a passable, above-average starting QB, first for the 49ers and then for Kansas City.

His early career wasn’t the only thing working against him in the perception game, either, as Smith’s style of play also does him no favors. Everybody loves a gunslinger, and the prospect of a home run from that type of high-variance QB can keep them hanging around the league far longer than is sensible. They become the football equivalent of a gambler at the tables in Vegas, throwing good money after bad just waiting for the one big win that pulls them back into the black. In the end, the house always wins, and with almost all gunslinging QBs, the bad outweighs the good over the long-term.

The point, though, is that people love seeing big plays, and if your QB is going to be flawed, fans would rather he be flawed and exciting rather than flawed and dully conservative.

And Alex Smith is as conservative as you can get as a quarterback.

Only Minnesota’s Sam Bradford has a lower average depth of target this season than Smith’s 7.0 yards downfield, and Bradford’s has become a necessary measure as the Vikings try and get the ball out of his hands as quickly as humanly possible before his offensive line gets him flattened by the opposing pass rush.

Smith has had the league’s lowest average depth of target in each of the past three seasons, and hasn’t ranked higher than 31st in the league dating back to 2008. He does not, cannot, and will not attack down field in the way everybody wants to see their QB do.

Obviously, that is a flaw, and the difficulties that presents to an offense are obvious. With no real threat of a deep ball, defenses can cheat towards the line of scrimmage and make life harder for all of the passes that Smith does attempt. They effectively don’t have to defend as much of the field as they do against other quarterbacks that will make them respect the deeper sections of the field.

You can win the Super Bowl with flawed QBs. The Denver Broncos are the reigning champions and while their starting QB was named Peyton Manning, his 2016 play far more resembled that of Smith than it did the Manning of his prime. Manning’s grade for that Super Bowl victory was 43.9, which is a lower PFF grade than Ryan Fitzpatrick has this season, and only marginally better than Josh McCown. Smith is at the heady heights of 75.1, and is currently ranked 22nd in the league.

The issue isn’t just that Smith is a flawed passer, but that he has declined in play from his best form. 75.1 represents Smith’s worst season grade since 2010, and a notable drop from his baseline of the past five years. Smith remains flawed, but the flaws are getting worse, and he isn’t offsetting them with as many positive traits as he did in the past.

Smith’s rushing threat has evaporated this season. He has had a better-than-average rushing grade in every season since 2006, and we saw in particular during the Chiefs’ playoff run last season what an effective weapon it can be. Last year he carried the ball 85 times during the regular season, gaining 497 yards on the ground and scoring a couple of touchdowns. Only 14 of those plays were designed carries, but in the playoffs, he had six of those as they expanded that threat.

The majority of his damage was done on scrambles, where he averaged 7.6 yards every time he took off from the pocket, a number which held steady in the postseason. This year Smith has just 56 rushing yards to his name, only two designed runs, and his scrambles have gained an average of only 4.4 yards per carry.

Ironically, Kansas City’s improved offensive line may actually be hampering Smith’s play in this regard. The Chiefs are showing option looks to teams on 30.2 percent of their runs this season compared to 26.5 percent a year ago, but the biggest difference in the offense has been how often Smith is under pressure.

In 2015 he was hurried on 37.3 percent of his dropbacks, but that figure has plummeted by 10 percent to just 27.3 this season. Smith isn’t being forced from the pocket with as much regularity as he was a year ago, but even in games where he is hurried a lot — like this week (33.3 percent) — he isn’t taking off and making plays with his legs like he has in the past.

Ordinarily giving a quarterback more time in the pocket and less pressure to deal with is a good thing, but that’s when the best plays your QB makes are the ones with his arm. Smith’s passing performance has a pretty defined cap on it because of how conservative he is, and those pressure plays where he ad-libs from the pocket provided a valuable spark to an otherwise lifeless passing game.

You can win a championship with a quarterback as flawed as Smith, but you need everything else to go right, and that QB needs to be able to provide the occasional spark. This year’s Chiefs defense isn’t the Denver Broncos defense of 2015, even with Houston returning, and the one thing that Alex Smith does not provide right now is spark. Without that this team may continue to rack up wins, but they will come undone in the postseason.

| Senior Analyst

Sam is a Senior Analyst at Pro Football Focus, as well as a contributor to ESPN.

  • Greg Phillips

    I watched Trent Dilfer and Brad Johnson win Super Bowls. Nothing is impossible.

    • cd3382

      Exactly.

      • Rodrigo Campos Pedro

        Counting on special teams that much(as much as your merit as the oponent’s demerit) to beat Denver doesn’t bring much hope to KC.

    • Cam Davis

      Trent Dilfer had arguably one the best defenses of all time, and the #1 ranked defense that year. Brad Johnson had a coach who knew the opposing team better than anyone.

      I would love to see the Chiefs win it all, but the odds of Alex Smith beating 3 or 4 good teams in a row (as every Champion must) are so minuscule, it’s really hardly worth talking about. He’s just too conservative.

  • Richie

    Agreed. While I do think the Chiefs need to draft a QB of the future, Kelce needs plays designed to add him to the mix and become that security blanket for Smith on 3rd downs.

  • crosseyedlemon

    Sorry Sam but I just can’t drink that kool-aid your serving. I think the conservative mistake free approach Andy Reid has adopted has produced champions in the past and will do so in the future. Not saying the Chiefs will be trophy winners this year but their approach gives them just as good of chance as anyone else.

    • https://twitter.com/MALACHiOFCOURSE Malachi

      the only championship reid has won was with the ’96 eagles, as their tight ends/assistant offensive line coach at that.

      • crosseyedlemon

        Andy just beat your guys so I can understand why you would want to knock him some here. Anyway I stated that the approach he is using has won championships….not necessarily Reid himself.

  • UncleBrigham

    These Alex haters are just ignorant and stupid. Is he one of the best QB’s in the league? No, and I think he knows that and stays within his game. We are working with nearly a 4 year sample of his work in KC. If he is that bad and defenses can just pack the box, why does the team keep winning? He is one of the winningest QB’s in the league over that time span. If throwing the ball all around is what you believe equals winning, why have the Saints been in the toilet for years and why are the packers playing like garbage?
    A good QB is much more than throwing the deep ball. He reads defenses well and makes a lot of good decisions. Two years ago against the Colts in the playoffs, Charles went down and Alex carried the team. Too bad the defense couldn’t deliver. He led an amazing comeback against San Diego and he was awesome last night. Sorry he made 4-5 throws to lead the drive rather than “one amazing deep pass”. If he had done it with one pass, maybe the Broncos score because more time is on the clock. Who the hell knows. Bottom line.. Chiefs won.
    The Chiefs can easily win a Superbowl with Alex Smith. It’s no guarantee but to believe it’s impossible because he doesn’t throw the deep ball often is absurd and shows you’re better off writing cooking articles rather than discussing football.

    • Cam Davis

      Brees has a ring, Rodgers has a ring. How many rings does Smith have? If Alex Smith’s QB way works so well, why hasn’t he won a Super Bowl?
      You say Alex carried the team against the Colts. Chiefs lost that game.

      Call me crazy, but I wouldn’t say 220 yards with 1TD in a 75 minute football game is a great job by your QB.

      • crosseyedlemon

        Dan Marino doesn’t have a ring so was he a chump QB?

  • larry mckinney

    Read your first paragraph again, Sam. You need not review the rest of your article, full of meaningless stats, often contradicting your own premise.

    Smith is winning. Sorry he cannot win in a style you prefer, but all of your arguments cannot silence that one fact. Smith is winning.

    • https://twitter.com/MALACHiOFCOURSE Malachi

      2-3 career playoff record

      • larry mckinney

        Still hurting, eh, donkey boy?

        • https://twitter.com/MALACHiOFCOURSE Malachi

          just shining our trophies. was that the biggest win you’ve experienced in 15 years?

          • larry mckinney

            Sunday night wasn’t a bad one. Polish a little harder.

          • https://twitter.com/MALACHiOFCOURSE Malachi

            that’s cute. KC hasn’t even been to a superbowl since the merger.

          • larry mckinney

            I can understand your dwelling on the past. Why, just last year the donkies equaled the Chief’s total of clean SB wins. Polish a little harder. Some of those blemishes may never come out!

          • https://twitter.com/MALACHiOFCOURSE Malachi

            enjoy your AFL trophy case, can’t polish a turd afterall

          • larry mckinney

            Funny. Seems no need to polish it.

            Good luck, donkey boy…

          • https://twitter.com/MALACHiOFCOURSE Malachi

            you’re right, can’t polish a turd afterall

          • larry mckinney

            You would know…