Alex Smith Superstar

Now that an Alex Smith trade to Kansas City appears a fait accompli, long-suffering Chiefs fans are wondering what to make of the former No. 1 draft pick turned bust turned redemption project turned Wally Pipp.

I have to admit, the news doesn’t particularly excite the emotions. Everyone who knows anything knows Smith is a game manager masquerading as a viable starting quarterback due to the brilliant machinations of one Jim Harbaugh.

Kansas City hasn’t attempted to draft a franchise savior since they used the No. 7 overall pick in 1983 to select Todd Blackledge with Dan Marino on the board. They haven’t tried it again for thirty years, instead opting for a long series of retreads that includes Steve DeBerg, Dave Krieg, Joe Montana, Steve Bono, Elvis Grbac, Trent Green, and Matt Cassel. An entire generation of fans has known nothing but castoffs.

It’s hard to handle the idea of the Chiefs with the No. 1 overall pick and trading for Smith instead of selecting their own Matthew Stafford or Andrew Luck or RG3. Of course, there are supposedly no franchise quarterbacks in this draft, which has me scanning the historical archives for the what the ‘scouts’ had to say about Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick. Survey says: . . . Well, you never know what’s going to be on the board.

John Dorsey and Andy Reid are just joining the Chiefs, but they better understand the stakes. To go with Alex over Geno in the battle of the Smiths, they need to be absolutely certain the rookie won’t turn into a star and simultaneously have a lot more confidence in Smith than the rest of us.

Regardless, if Smith is the hand we’re dealt, let’s see what we’re likely to get.

The most accurate way to do quarterback comparisons is to use adjusted yards per attempt. We also want to get a large enough sample to even out the inherent randomness of quarterback stats. Most importantly, we want to focus on a set of years that accurately compares quarterbacks at the same level of experience and athletic development. Therefore, we’ll use three seasons worth of data and compare Smith to other quarterbacks in their age 26 to age 28 seasons.

Alex Smith Historical Comparisons Age 26 to 28

Passing
Player Cmp Att Cmp% Yds TD Int Rate Y/A AY/A Y/G W L
Tom Brady 939 1531 61.3% 11422 77 40 90.2 7.46 7.29 238.0 38 10
Donovan McNabb 786 1308 60.1% 9380 64 25 90.4 7.17 7.29 228.8 32 9
Carson Palmer 1042 1604 65.0% 12002 86 45 93.6 7.48 7.29 250.0 26 22
Mark Brunell 825 1346 61.3% 10249 57 36 87.9 7.61 7.26 238.3 28 15
Chad Pennington 706 1066 66.2% 7932 51 27 93.7 7.44 7.26 208.7 20 14
Alex Smith 630 1005 62.7% 7251 44 20 90.7 7.21 7.20 196.0 22 12
Troy Aikman* 806 1226 65.7% 9221 51 32 91.2 7.52 7.18 209.6 34 10
Marc Bulger 849 1304 65.1% 10106 57 45 88.8 7.75 7.07 273.1 22 15
Drew Brees 1119 1706 65.6% 12417 78 44 91.6 7.28 7.03 258.7 26 22
Provided by Pro-Football-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 2/27/2013.

 

The comps turn out to be shockingly good. Troy Aikman is already in the Hall of Fame and Tom Brady and Drew Brees will  be in the not too distant future. The list also includes a former Reid signal-caller in Donovan McNabb.

The comparisons also serve to undermine the major argument against Smith – namely that he’s purely a system quarterback who’s recently benefited from crafty manipulation. Brady, Brees, and McNabb had access to some of the best coaching the NFL has to offer. Aikman is in the Hall of Fame at least in part because he was the caretaker for a franchise overflowing with talent.

The other major argument against Smith suggests that if he was going to be a franchise quarterback, he would have done so before now. His comparisons suggest otherwise. Although the group generally posted excellent win/loss records between ages 26 and 28, most only took off as passers at age 29 or later. Brees put up gaudy numbers a little earlier, but, like Smith, he started off his career with three very poor seasons. He rallied to post similar efficiency numbers to Smith during this age window and then exploded to superstardom in subsequent seasons. Facts, not memories. That’s how you investigate.

Red Flags

The one big red flag for Smith is the lack of prolific passing yardage on a per game basis. Smith ranks at the bottom of the category and by a pretty wide margin. This could be a testament to the weaknesses in Smith’s scouting report, or it could simply be that San Francisco had the personnel to be extremely run-oriented.

On a more optimistic note, his touchdown and interception rates are very similar to the rest of the group. He threw a touchdown on 4.4% of his attempts, right in line with Aikman and Brees. His interception rate of 2.0% is the second lowest behind McNabb. (Such a low interception rate probably suggests a level of cautiousness he’d have to abandon on his new team.)

A Few More Advanced Numbers

You can understand why Alex was so disappointed to get benched last season. He finished 2012 with the third highest passer rating in the NFL, trailing only Aaron Rodgers and Peyton Manning. His 7.97 yards per attempt trailed only Griffin, Manning, and Cam Newton. When it was all said and done, he led the NFL in completion percentage.

Of course, Colin Kaepernick came in and made him look very average, which has led some evaluators to believe Smith was just a product of the system. I doubt that’s the case. Kaepernick was a tremendous college quarterback and an elite talent. He should have been selected in the Top 10 of the 2011 NFL Draft based on his college numbers alone. Given that Luck, Kaepernick, and Smith are the three quarterbacks mostly commonly associated with Jim Harbaugh, QB Whisperer, there’s little reason to give credit solely to Harbaugh. He’s obviously working with very good talent.

Accuracy

The Pro Football Focus game charters have come to similar conclusions about Smith. (Unlike scouts, PFF logged every Smith throw from the last two seasons.) After finishing as the third most accurate passer in 2011, Smith jumped to No. 1 in 2012. He barely edged Rodgers, Griffin, and Manning. While coaching obviously helps – and Harbaugh is clearly at the very top echelon of the coaching fraternity – these aren’t the types of numbers you can simply ‘manage’ a quarterback into achieving.

Deep Passing

The difference between Smith and Kaepernick – and one of two big issues with Smith’s game – can be seen in deep passing. While Smith was reluctant to attack downfield (8.7% of attempts), Kaepernick aired it out with almost reckless abandon (15.1%). But that’s only part of the story. The phenom was accurate on 60% of his deep throws, easily leading the NFL. That pretty definitively eviscerates the idea that Smith was merely beaten out by another good player. Kaepernick is a paradigm-shifting talent, a fact which will become only more obvious in 2013.

Smith, on the other hand, was accurate on 47% of his deep attempts, which is actually a very solid number. That was better than guys like Matt Ryan, Matthew Stafford, Eli Manning, Tom Brady, Tony Romo, and Joe Flacco. The big question is whether Smith will play aggressively enough. In addition to an unwillingness to throw deep, he tends to hold onto the ball and take too many sacks. If there’s an area where he differs from the historical comparisons listed above, that’s probably the one. Both the conventional numbers and the game-charting results suggest he’s below average in getting the ball out on time.

Alex Smith Superstar

Going on age 29, Tom Brady had only one 4,000 yard season – and just barely one at that – and hadn’t yet hit on a 30 touchdown campaign. Seven years later and he’s reached 4,800 or more three times and cleared 30 touchdowns on four occasions.

Alex Smith has had the misfortune of playing for some truly awful coaches and on abysmal teams. To hold those results against him and then not give him credit for his accomplishments under Harbaugh is to create a ridiculously unfair grading rubric. Keep in mind that I included his age 26 season under the completely overmatched Mike Singletary.

Smith hasn’t given the vibe of someone who could carry a team, but think back to the three championships the Patriots won with Tom Brady. During that portion of his career, Brady wasn’t seen as more than a game manager. Or flashback for a moment to the early Brees days in San Diego where he was so bad they drafted Philip Rivers.

It’s almost impossible to hide a quarterback at the NFL level or allow him to ‘manage a game’ in a way that makes his stats look better than they are. Eli Manning has played on two Super Bowl champions and he doesn’t show up on the list of Smith comparisons because his efficiency numbers during his age 26 to age 28 seasons were far worse than Smith’s.

Joe Flacco just won a championship and played so well during the playoffs that it’s easy to forget how awful he was during the regular season. If not for their defense and running game, the Ravens wouldn’t have even made the playoffs. Flacco has just completed his age 26 and age 27 seasons. He’ll have to have a tremendous age 28 season just to rise to Smith’s efficiency level. Both Eli and Flacco play for Super Bowl winning coaches and with ferocious defenses, yet their coaches haven’t been able to ‘manage them’ to good passing numbers.

Even with all of these positives, it’s hard to get excited about Smith from a reality perspective. Like everyone else, I watch Smith play and can’t help but think, ‘well, he doesn’t seem that good.’ But I can see why John Dorsey might be intrigued. Almost everyone writing about the potential Smith-to-KC trade seems to believe he will only act as a stopgap, but I doubt that’s the way Dorsey and Reid see it. Smith is young enough to lead the Chiefs for the next six or seven years if he’s good enough to start for them at all. There’s very little reason to make this trade if the acquiring team doesn’t see him as a franchise quarterback.

 

Shawn Siegele has finished in the Top 10 of the NFFC’s Main Event Classic for two consecutive seasons and is one of only a handful of players to own three or more Main Event league titles. He also writes for Rotoviz and Pro Football Focus.
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