Like a PBR tallboy sports fan pessimism in Kansas City comes cheap and goes down easy. Wait, am I think of PBR or am I thinking of gasoline? No matter. This is the kind of stuff that happens when your football team hasn’t won a playoff game since the Clinton administration and your baseball team hasn’t been relevant since Germany was two separate countries. Yet, like humidity in August and snow in February this town can be counted on for its sports teams to make a move in their respective offseasons to conjure up fanbase malaise and anger not seen this side of Darth Vader.
I’d like to say it’s overblown. I would love nothing more than to say that fans just need something to complain about so they choose the [insert most recent move here] and run with it. Few things would please me more than to take a step back and say that our teams have been so good for so long that we have to find the most miniscule things to dissect as fans. This is something I would love to do.
I would also like for the fan complaints to be shut up by the teams themselves through, you know, winning. If the Royals make the playoffs and the Chiefs win a playoff game, the fan unrest will decrease exponentially. As it stands, we’re going on over two decades worth of futility in both departments.
So it’s no surprise that the reported move to bring Alex Smith to the Chiefs was met with the ire of a broken down and beaten fanbase.
Lots wanted the Chiefs to draft a QB with the number one overall pick. I wrote 3,000+ words saying they should do just that no more than two days before the trade was reported last week. That appears all but a pipedream now and any QB not named Alex Smith on this roster will be a flawed “project” from the later rounds Andy Reid will attempt to work his magic on.
For those that follow me on twitter you know which camp I stand in on this. I have said my opinion and made my peace with this. Whether I like it or not bringing in Smith is the move the Chiefs have made and we must push forward.
Having gotten the majority of my problems with this trade out there already I’m going to take a different approach. One of my New Year’s Resolutions was to be more positive and not overreact as much (especially on twitter). As I have not done so great with that so far this year, I dub this day “Positive Monday” and will try to make amends as I try to convince everyone—but mainly myself—that maybe the “same ole Chiefs” bringing in Smith isn’t such a bad thing after all.
First, let’s go over a few things. The incumbent Chiefs quarterback is Matt Cassel. Over the last two years it would be hard to find a QB who has played much worse, but even still he has to be the basis for comparison since he would most likely be the option if not for Smith. The two find themselves in somewhat similar situations, which is shocking given how wildly different their careers started. Cassel was a seventh round pick, career backup-type for one of the greatest QBs ever. Smith was the much ballyhooed number one overall pick who was supposed to save the San Francisco 49ers franchise and return them to the Promised Land.
Smith took his lumps and Cassel didn’t start a game in his first four seasons. At some point, they were both traded to the Kansas City Chiefs for a second round pick and heralded as the QB who will right the ship for a new general manager and head coach. Cassel never proved up to the task and Smith’s success or failure remains to be seen.
But the similarities end there. Alex Smith is not Matt Cassel. Besides the obvious fact of their driver’s license, the comparisons of their on-field prowess as similar are also rather off-base. Smith had the much better pedigree coming in to the league and he remains a more talented player. The gap isn’t as wide as someone like Peyton Manning to Cassel is, but there is no mistaking that Smith is a step up for the Chiefs of the last five years.
People often have brought up quarterback rating to show how similar the two QBs are. Cassel’s career QB rating stands at 80.4 while Smith’s sits at 79.1. If we’re completely objective then Cassel is a better QB over the course of his career than Smith. But these two career numbers don’t tell the whole story.
Many in KC think Cassel didn’t get a fair shot with the carousel of offensive coordinators that spun around him. His best season in 2010 with Charlie Weis showed what could be--if given consistency and a competent coach. These same people forget that Smith had the same problem, if not worse, in his first years in San Francisco. Smith had a different offensive coordinator his first four years in the league. Such a situation makes it hard for anybody to be successful, let alone a rookie who is just trying to get his feet on the ground.
Despite these odds, Smith showed improvement each near, no matter how slight it might have been. Since 2007 Smith’s QB rating has increased each year, showing that he still may be trending upwards in his career (Smith was injured all of 2008 and did not play). As we all know this is a “what have you done for me lately” league, therefor making importance of how awful Smith’s first couple of years are less and less important the further we get away from them.
Last year Alex Smith had a 104.1 QB rating which would have put him near the tops of the league. Now, saying “would have” is important there because after suffering a concussion Smith lost his job permanently for their run to the Super Bowl. Even still, he was 6-2-1 as a starter this year, albeit with a VERY good 49ers team around him.
Jim Harbaugh is seen as a big reason for Smith’s success and his role cannot be underplayed. However, if we look at the past four years of Smith’s career—two of which were without Harbaugh—his QB rating over that time is a solid 88.2. To put that in perspective Cassel’s rating for that timeframe is 77.5. Even last year’s Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco from 2009-2012 had an overall QB rating of 87.6. And he just signed a contract guaranteeing him $52M.
It must be said that Flacco and Smith have wildly different skill-sets. But, that only underscores the importance of the system. What those numbers will tell us is that in the right system, Smith can be just as successful as a Super Bowl MVP.
Another point brought up is the relatively low output of Smith’s stats. In a time when throwing for 5,000 yards in a season is becoming a regular occurrence in the league Smith has never tossed for more than 3,144 in a season. This is where it’s important to remember how Smith’s seasons have gone. Playing behind poor offensive lines for most of his career he has been injury riddled season after season.
If we take the last four years of his career, and get an average of his output per 16 games he would be putting up a line of 3,413 yards, 22 TDs, and 11 INTs per year. Comparatively, Donovon McNabb—Chiefs new head coach Andy Reid’s QB for the majority of his time in Philadelphia—had an average per-16-game performance as an Eagle of 3,553 yards, 23 TDs, and 11 INT. Pretty similar.
The narrative would have you believe that Andy Reid likes to air it out and that doesn’t mesh well with Smith’s shortcomings as a passer. But McNabb’s stats reveal a little more showing us what some already know that Reid likes the short to intermediate passing game. The most important trait for a QB in Reid’s system is to be very accurate for 25 yards and under, as well as be mobile in the pocket. Both of these are strengths of Smith.
Then we have to look beyond the stats and ask what we want to see from our quarterback. The biggest issue with Matt Cassel was that he couldn’t win you a ball game. At his best, Cassel wouldn’t lose you a game, but even playing above his head he couldn’t win one on his own. Looking at the Baltimore Ravens playoff game in 2010 gives you all you need to know.
So what do people want from their QB? Well, one who can be counted on with the ball in their hands with the game on the line is a great start. Such a thing is a nebulous metric at best and can even be subjective on many levels. Does Joe Flacco get credit for his game winning pass against Denver in the 2012 playoffs? They put the ball in his hands, he made the pass, and they won the game. But that doesn’t tell the whole story as Flacco’s touchdown pass in the waning seconds was an underthrown rainbow that, if not for an inexcusably horrible play on the ball by the safety, is intercepted nine times out of 10.
But subjectivity or no, putting the ball in the hands of the QB and coming up with the plays to win the game has to count for something. Due to the poor teams Smith played on for most of his career there isn’t much to go off of. However, Smith did play rather large in one of the biggest games of his career in the 2011 playoffs.
In the final 4:02 of regulation against the New Orleans Saints, Smith marched down the field twice on drives of 80 and 85 yards to score touchdowns en route to a 36-32 victory. In the remaining seconds of the game Smith put the ball in a tight window to tight end Vernon Davis and propelled the 49ers to their first NFC Championship game in over a decade. Regarding Smith’s performance against the Saints, Ron Jaworski said “Alex Smith won the game. Not Alex Smith won the game by not making mistakes. His performance won the game for the 49ers.” No such quote has ever been uttered about Matt Cassel.
I don’t know how well Alex Smith will play for the Chiefs. I don’t know how many wins it will translate to, or more importantly how many playoff victories. What I do know is that Smith has operated at a very high level as a QB over the last two seasons and only seemed to get better under a system designed to play to his strengths. I know that he has a record of 19-5-1 over the last two years and has won a playoff game. He also had an incredible defense. And if there’s one thing we all know, this Chiefs defense is closer to breaking out and being an elite unit than the offense is.
The future is still unwritten for Smith in Kansas City and that just may be the best part. This regime has hitched their wagon to Smith and their tenure will be defined by his success whether they like it or not. I believe both GM John Dorsey and Reid are aware of this and did not make this decision lightly. After the debacle that was the Scott Pioli era I am skeptical no matter how good of a reputation those in charge have. However, the track record is there from this front office to suggest our faith in them is not misplaced. With Smith the Chiefs are a better team in 2013. The only question that remains is how much better they will be.