Alex Smith, The Evil Exes, and a Fantasy MVP

Lucas LeePrepare to the feel the wrath of the League of Evil Exes!
Scott Pilgrim: The what?
Lucas Lee: You seriously don’t know about the League? Seven evil exes? Coming to kill you? Controlling the future of Ramona’s love life?
Scott Pilgrim: No…?
Lucas Lee: Really? [offers his hand to Scott] Hey, man, don’t worry about it.

Last year I suggested Alex Smith was going to be a star with the Chiefs. His steady presence facilitated a complete reversal of fortune in Kansas City. This time I’m going to take it one step further and predict that Alex Smith is going to be this year’s version of Andy Dalton, Nick Foles, or Josh McCown. He’s going to be the late round quarterback who almost single-handedly wins fantasy titles.

Alex Smith Versus the World: Or Narratives and Why They Create Value; Or The Anti-Narrative and Why It Can Be a Trap

Scott Pilgrim: We are Sex Bob-Omb and we are here to make you think about death and get sad and stuff.

It’s easy to get stuck on a certain idea and not be able to let it go. Most football pundits entered the 2013 season seeing Alex Smith as a “game manager” and weren’t able to shake that conviction even as he finished in the same range as Matt Ryan, Russell Wilson, Colin Kaepernick, and Tom Brady.

alexsmithAfter Alex Smith put on a performance for the ages in the playoffs against Indianapolis, many outlets praised the game as probably the best of his career, suggested he would be a high-end QB2 in 2014, and then reiterated that Smith was probably not a 4- or 5-year solution for Kansas City. That critique accurately reflects the mainstream opinion on Smith.

Once a narrative develops, it’s difficult to shake but easy to reinforce. Andy Dalton just completed a three-year run that stands among the best in NFL history, taking the Bungles to the playoffs for the third year in a row and finishing as QB3 in fantasy. Unfortunately, because Dalton is seen as a mediocre talent, it required only one poor playoff performance against San Diego in the wind and rain to foment calls for a new direction from Cincinnati fans.

The narrative around Alex Smith is slightly more complex. He was so incredible as a 20-year-old junior at Utah that the San Francisco 49ers selected him No. 1 overall in the 2005 NFL Draft. He was so bad as first year player that he posted the worst adjusted yards per attempt of any rookie starter in our analysis of first year quarterback numbers. That analysis suggests most signal-callers tend to be exactly what they appear as rookies. And so the first part of the narrative is written.

Alex Smith versus Aaron Rodgers and Colin Kaepernick

Stacey Pilgrim: Next time, we don’t date the girl with eleven evil ex-boyfriends.
Scott Pilgrim: It’s seven.
Stacey Pilgrim: Oh, well, that’s not that bad.

A host of recent psychological studies show that humans are much better at making relative judgments than absolute ones. When members of the opposite sex are determining your level of attractiveness, they anchor to the people in the immediate surroundings. You’re much better off going to a bar with a friend who is slightly worse looking than one who is slightly better. Your looks haven’t changed, but the impact on the way you’re perceived is dramatic. Alex Smith looks worse than he is because his career naturally invites comparisons to Aaron Rodgers and Colin Kaepernick.

While the 49ers drafted Smith No. 1 overall, Rodgers endured a well publicized slide to No. 24. Sitting behind Brett Favre, he didn’t really get to play until four years later. He then embarked on one of the most staggering careers in sports history. By most objective measures, Rodgers is the best quarterback to ever play the game.

In 2012 Alex Smith had finally arrived. The previous year he’d led his team to the NFC Championship game, and although he didn’t play well in that contest, he probably only missed checking the “Super Bowl participant” box on his resume due to a couple of muffed punts. A concussion derailed his campaign at mid-season, but he ended the year first in completion percentage, third in QB rating (behind Peyton Manning and Aaron Rodgers), and fifth in yards per attempt behind Griffin, Manning, Newton, and the man who would again make him look like the ugly duckling.

alexsmithColin Kaepernick took over when Smith was injured, and he was simply better. He led the NFL in yards per attempt and led the 49ers to the Super Bowl. But the important thing wasn’t just that he was better, it was how much better he looked. Instead of protecting the ball and taking the sure completion, he threw lasers into tight coverage. He elevated Michael Crabtree from afterthought to superstar. In the divisional playoff against Green Bay, he rushed for 181 yards and two touchdowns, scoring what would have been an absurd 50 fantasy points.

If Alex Smith had ever had a chance to shuck his game manager label, it was now completely gone.

Alex Smith versus Troy Aikman, Drew Brees, and Tom Brady

Scott Pilgrim: Why can’t we have secret shows?
Kim Pine: All our shows are secret shows.

Going to the evidence is the only way to make inroads against persistent narratives.

When I look at quarterbacks, I like to take a two or three-year snapshot and try to discover who was similar. The following list looks at age 27 to age 29 seasons and includes all quarterbacks since 1970 who threw for at least 7500 passing yards with an adjusted efficiency level between 7.5 and 6.75.

Gideon Gordon Graves: Do you have any idea how long it took me to get all the evil exes’ contact information so I could form this stupid league? Like, two hours! Two hours!
Player Cmp% Yds TD Int Rate AY/A Y/G W L
Troy Aikman* 66.2% 9080 44 25 92.7 7.46 206 33 11
Drew Brees 65.7% 13910 88 46 93.8 7.39 290 25 23
Donovan McNabb 60.3% 9598 63 28 90.1 7.36 240 29 11
Tom Brady 61.9% 11331 78 40 90.9 7.3 236 36 12
Brett Favre 60.7% 11978 105 52 92 7.3 250 37 11
Alex Smith 62.7% 8194 53 17 92.5 7.25 200 30 9
Mark Brunell 59.4% 8942 52 25 87.5 7.2 213 32 10
Eli Manning 61.9% 11261 79 49 88.3 6.97 235 30 18
Matt Hasselbeck 61.1% 10298 63 40 86.6 6.94 224 22 18
Jeff George 60.5% 8575 50 32 85.6 6.89 245 16 19
Dan Fouts* 60.3% 11796 78 68 83.5 6.86 251 32 14
Carson Palmer 63.1% 8897 57 37 87.9 6.84 247 15 21
Jay Cutler 59.2% 8626 55 37 84.3 6.83 216 27 13
Steve McNair 61.6% 9584 58 40 85.7 6.78 204 30 16

Once we start focusing on Smith in relation to other signal-callers than Kaepernick and Rodgers, the picture brightens.

The Upside

Wallace Wells: You doing okay there? 
Scott Pilgrim: Yeah, good, good, good. She changed her hair.
Wallace Wells: So, it looks nice blue!
Scott Pilgrim: Yeah I know, but she did it without making a big deal out of it or anything… She’s fickle, impulsive, spontaneous… God what am I going to do? 


1. From age 27 to age 29, Alex Smith had a virtually identical passer rating to Drew Brees (93.8 to 92.5) and a far better winning percentage. Smith and Brees are not particularly similar from a yardage perspective–Brees led the NFL in passing yards twice during that time–but they are similar in terms of career efficiency arc. Both struggled in their first two full seasons at the helm and then came on after that. Smith’s development was slower, in part because he missed his age-24 season due to injury.

2. If you don’t adjust for era, the most similar quarterback in terms of career arc is almost certainly Troy Aikman. Both players started very slowly, and both emerged as stars at similar times – Aikman one year earlier in winning the Super Bowl at age 26. During their age 27 to age 29 seasons Aikman had a better adjusted net, but they posted identical passer ratings, regular season win percentages, and Aikman edged him in passing yards per game 206 to 200. The NFL was very, very different in terms of how favorable it was to pass, but it’s still interesting that Aikman had Michael Irvin and Emmitt Smith yet threw fewer touchdowns and more interceptions.

3. From age 27 to age 29, Alex Smith has a slightly better QB rating (92.9 to 90.5) and a slightly better regular season win percentage (77% to 75%) than Tom Brady at those same ages. I’m not suggesting Smith was better than Brady. The two-time Super Bowl MVP threw for 36 more yards per game, which is a sizable gap. The key point in the comparison between Smith and Brady is that the Patriots signal-caller was widely considered to be a game manager himself prior to the 2007 season. He was considered to be an elite game manager, and the “QBs are defined by their wins” crowd suggested he might be superior to Peyton Manning, specifically because he was such a good manager of the game. But Brady morphed from elite game manager to fantasy superstar at exactly age 30 – the season Smith is about to enter.

Alex Smith versus Matt Ryan and Eli Manning

Wallace Wells: This isn’t a race, guys!
Crash: Okay, this one goes to the guy who keeps shouting from the balcony. It’s called: ‘We Hate You, Please Die’.
Wallace Wells: Oh, sweet. I love this one!

Some of the players on the above list played long enough ago that they really played in a different NFL. Aikman and Favre are obvious examples. If you extend the parameters some, you find that guys like Jim Kelly and John Elway were worse than Smith in terms of efficiency. They would both go on to ridiculous careers in their 30s. Those comps aren’t really fair.

We can compare Smith to his contemporaries however. Because he played his first season at 21, it’s easy to forget that Smith is younger than guys like Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler. Smith is only a year older than Matt Ryan, a man Atlanta obviously sees as their franchise quarterback, perhaps for the next decade.

mattryanRyan just finished his age 27 and age 28 seasons. If you compare the two players over that time period, you see that Ryan averaged 289 yards per game and Smith only 188. Not similar at all. But the difference is merely in the number of attempts. Smith led 7.36 to 7.29 in yards per attempt, 7.59 to 7.11 in adjusted yards per attempt, and trailed 6.35 to 6.34 in adjusted net. Moreover, Smith had a much better record as Ryan was only 17-15.

This isn’t to suggest Smith is necessarily better, but it’s worth noting that when a player records more yards and a worse record, he’s usually accused of piling up garbage time yards that aren’t skill-related. This is probably not the case with Ryan, but it’s important to keep our narratives straight, to realize how much impact they have, and how often they’re inaccurate. It’s also worth noting that Ryan plays a disproportionate percentage of games in a dome, a feature that definitely inflates passing totals and efficiency.

Eli Manning is another player with nearly identical numbers in his age 27 and age 28 seasons and worse efficiency numbers if you include age 29. Smith averaged 7.25 adjusted yards per attempt, Manning 6.97. Manning’s record was far worse. Those were the three years following his first Super Bowl win and a year before his second. At age 30, Manning threw for 4,933 yards, easily a career high.

Alex Smith versus Adrian Peterson

Todd Ingram[to Scott after sending him flying through some walls] I can read your thoughts. Your will is broken. You’re through.
Scott Pilgrim: [holds up two cups of coffee] Say we drink to my memory. Fair-trade blend with soy milk?
Envy Adams: Oh, please. But that’s pathetic.
Todd Ingram: Dude. I saw into your mind’s eye. You put half-and-half in one of those coffees in attempt to make me break vegan edge. I’ll take the one with soy. [takes one of the coffees via telekenesis] Thanks, tool. [and he drinks from it]
Scott Pilgrim: Actually, muchacho, I put the coffee in this cup. But I thought really hard to put it in that one, ‘in my mind’s eye’ or whatever.
Todd Ingram: [disbelief] What are you talking about?
Scott Pilgrim: You just drank half-and-half, baby.

The anti-Smith camp doesn’t see him as a long term solution in Kansas City purportedly due to his limited talents. The flip side of the argument would be that Smith is a better overall athlete than anyone on his previous comp list.

Because I’m (probably unjustifiably) obsessed with the Combine agility drills, I know that Alex Smith ran the short shuttle in 3.97 seconds. Since the Combine went to electric times, there are only two successful running backs with faster times: Edgerrin James at 3.88 and Darren Sproles at 3.96. Adrian Peterson ran it in 4.40.

It would be easier to conclude that Purple Jesus slipped on the shuttle if not for also running a slower 3-cone. Alex Smith easily defeated him in that as well, 6.80 to 7.09. (Some NFL quarterbacks are freakishly good athletes. Jake Locker ran a 6.77 and Andrew Luck a 6.81.)

Overall athleticism isn’t at the top of the list of important quarterback attributes. Peyton Manning is barely ambulatory on his best day. On the other hand, plus-athleticism has helped a handful of mobile quarterbacks compete well into their 30s.

Alex Smith versus Steve Young

Stacey Pilgrim: [Scott has just broken up with Ramona] Did you really see a future with this girl? 
Scott Pilgrim: Like… with jet-packs? 

Only eight quarterbacks have rushed for more yards at the age of 29 or older than Alex Smith did last season. One of them did it five times. If you want a sacrilegious, shoot the moon comp, this is it.

Steve Young’s football odyssey was unique to say the least. He played his age 22 and age 23 seasons with the Los Angeles Express of the USFL before moving to Tampa Bay where he went 3-16 while managing an 11-21 TD-INT ratio. He was then acquired by the 49ers to be Joe Montana’s understudy. He started only seven games between ages 27 and 29.

STEVE YOUNGOf course, it would be wildly optimistic to believe Alex Smith could manage even an [ ] version of what Young did next. The 49ers great absolutely shredded the NFL from age 30 to age 37. In fact, if you just look at what Young did after age 30, he’s pretty clearly the best old quarterback ever. His adjusted yards per attempt barely trails Brady’s 8.32 to 8.30, but Young also ran for 3,240 yards.

Alex Smith won’t be Steve Young, but it’s not outside the range of possibility that he could be Young-lite. Jeff Garcia ran for 250-plus yards for four consecutive seasons starting at age 30. In the first of those seasons, Garcia threw for 4,278 yards, ran for 415, and scored 35 total touchdowns. He posted 50 percent more fantasy points than Brett Favre.

Another one of the quarterbacks on the rushing list was Rich Gannon. The former Raiders star washed out with the Minnesota Vikings at age 27, latched on with Kansas City at age 30, and sat behind Elvis Grbac until an injury forced him into the lineup two years later. He led a 5-1 stretch that got the Chiefs to 13-3 but was benched for the playoff game because he hadn’t exactly lit the world on fire in the victories. After struggling during his 10 starts the following season, Kansas City opted to go with Grbac and Gannon moved along again.

Gannon caught on with an Oakland team that had just hired a young offensive mastermind named Jon Gruden. Under the coaching savant, Gannon enjoyed an unparalleled career renaissance. Over the next four seasons he led the Raiders to double figure victories three times and posted excellent passing stats. At the age of 35 he ran for 529 yards and put up 32 combined touchdowns. At the age of 37 he threw for 4,689 yards. Even with the recent passing explosion, that remains the 24th highest total of all time. Only 14 different quarterbacks have thrown for more yards.

Do the rushing yards mean anything?

Lollipop Hipster: What’s the password?
Scott Pilgrim: Ughh, whatever!
Lollipop Hipster: Cool.

scott pilgrim complicatedThey might not. The parallels between Alex Smith and Garcia or Gannon may be slim. The other quarterbacks on the list are known more as pure scramblers, but they’re not bad comps either. Michael Vick is a far better athlete, but it’s worth noting that he never posted 7.0 adjusted yards per attempt before blowing up as a passer at age 30 with Philadelphia.

Randall Cunningham’s totals cratered after age 29, but his overall athleticism allowed him to stay in the league until age 38. At the relatively advanced age of 35 he captained the Vikings to a 13-1 record, threw 34 touchdowns, and led the NFL in quarterback rating.

Alex Smith versus the Chiefs receiving corps . . . and defense

Wallace Wells: If you want something bad, you have to fight for it. Step up your game, Scott. Break out the L-word.
Scott Pilgrim: Lesbian?
Wallace Wells: The other L-word.
Scott Pilgrim: Lesbians?
Wallace Wells: It’s ‘love,’ Scott.

When we look at Smith and try to determine his upside, we quickly arrive back at the game manager problem. Smith has been efficient but not explosive. Fortunately, Charles Kleinheksel looked at this issue last offseason and discovered that Smith’s number of attempts have no impact on his efficiency. For him to throw for more yards, he simply needs to throw more passes.

Although the Chiefs are an ascending team, their defense is probably closer to the model that struggled down the stretch. From Week 11 to Week 16, Smith was both prolific and efficient. He finished as QB3, trailing only Peyton Manning and Ben Roethlisberger, while tying Cam Newton and Andy Dalton for most fantasy points per drop back.

The Chiefs 9-0 start this past season was a mixture of good fortune and good scheduling. It’s a  pretty safe assumption that Kansas City will need Smith to play a larger role for them to return to the playoffs. For Alex Smith to carry the Chiefs, he’ll need to play at more of a playoff level. How has Smith done in the playoffs? Well, he’s averaged 291 yards passing and 42 yards rushing. He’s scored 10 combined touchdowns, thrown zero interceptions, and owns a quarterback rating of 108.6.

Some of Smith’s value will probably depend on how the Chiefs receiving corps develops. It was disappointing to see them pass on Jordan Matthews, Davante Adams, and Marqise Lee with the No. 22 pick, but they’re still likely to be far better than they were in 2013. The utterly electric De’Anthony Thomas continues to fly under the radar despite entering the NFL as a mix of Randall Cobb, Tavon Austin, and Dexter McClusterTop 10 sleeper Travis Kelce has frequently been called a discount Gronk. His Freak Score may portend glory. Dwayne Bowe is reportedly eating better and doing yoga.((If we want to go back and traffic in narratives for a moment, Bowe has been manipulated into actually taking his craft seriously for exactly one season. Todd Haley’s depth chart machinations in 2009 finally lit a fire under Bowe the following year. In 2010 he led the NFL with 15 TD catches.))

albertwilsonEven the deep background characters in the Chiefs drama aren’t without some intrigue. UDFA Albert Wilson is both a better athlete and posted far superior final season college market share numbers than either Kelvin Benjamin or Sammy Watkins.

And it ends

Kim Pine: We are Sex Bob-Omb! And we’re here to watch Scott Pilgrim kick your teeth in! One-two-three-four!

The current wide receiver depth chart may not inspire confidence, but it’s still not impossible to see Alex Smith pulling off an Andy Dalton in 2014. If you’re a multiple universes fan, one may exist where Smith reprises Tom Brady’s magical 2007 season, perhaps with a little Michael Cera aka George Michael Bluth aka Scott Pilgrim mixed in.

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3 thoughts on “Alex Smith, The Evil Exes, and a Fantasy MVP”

  1. This question is for Shawn Siegele.

    I know your work on Zero RB drafting and that there are many different strategies in implementing Z-RB depending upon various factors. I liken it to the West Coast Off philosophy tree since Bill Walsh and the many iterations since.

    With that said, would this draft strategy have worked 15 years ago with less offensive production league wide? Does this strategy transcend offensive tendencies we see today? Or, will it fade in time if NFL Offenses trend back to lower scoring games in the next decade or two?

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