Alex Smith: A Quarterback is No One

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“Death is certain. The time is not.”

The words of Jaqen H’ghar (courtesy of HBO’s Game of Thrones) could not more perfectly describe a situation than that of Alex Smith’s. When the Kansas City Chiefs traded up to the 10th pick in the 2017 NFL Draft and drafted Texas Tech quarterback, Patrick Mahomes, Smith knew his time in Kansas City was limited. This is something Smith probably knew was coming as he approached his age 33 season – his 13th year in the league. The Chiefs have stalled in the playoffs in back to back years with Smith at the helm, losing in the Divisional Round to the New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers. While it is certain that all quarterbacks are eventually let go in favor of younger and potentially more talented ones, quality play can delay that inevitable metaphorical death.

The problem with a Smith run offense prior to 2017 was that he couldn’t push the ball down the field quick enough when absolutely needed. He was too conservative of a passer and when he was aggressive he didn’t complete passes at a high rate. In 2016 Smith was 7 of 26 for a 26.9 completion percentage when throwing passes 21-30 yards down the field. If Smith wanted to prolong his time in Kansas City he needed to become a different quarterback.

But first a quarterback must become no one and shed all of his notions about himself and style of play. Similar to Jaqen and the Faceless Men of Braavos who give up who they are to become different people by taking their faces.

Valar Morghulis

Drafting Mahomes was a signal that the Chiefs wanted their next quarterback to have the arm talent and aggressiveness that Smith was lacking to have a chance of furthering their playoff runs. At Texas Tech, Mahomes made throws off platform from difficult angles and walked the line of what could be considered poor decision making. However, due to his talent he could get away with what would be considered a dangerous pass for most quarterbacks.

Thus far in 2017, Mahomes’s presence has seemingly had an affect on Smith’s style of play. He’s increased his volume and accuracy on deep passes through 7 weeks this season. Smith has completed 8of 11 passes in the 21-30 yard range for a completion percentage of 72.7%. He’s now thrown for one more completion  in that range  than last year’s total and it’s only October.

After completing 36.4 and 33.3% of passes in the 31-40 and 41+ yard ranges, Smith has also improved in 2017, completing 42.9 and 40% in those ranges, respectively. It is apparent that Smith has added the face of aggression to his game and perhaps changed the Chiefs front office’s plans at quarterback for at least another season. The quarterback has thrown 16 touchdowns and 0 interceptions while completing 69.1% of his passes.

Here’s how that off-season trip to Braavos translated to success on the field for the Chiefs quarterback.

The Chiefs are in 11 personnel with 6:26 remaining in the 4th quarter down 12-3 against the Pittsburgh Steelers in a Week 6 matchup on 2nd and 10. Pre-snap CB Joe Haden (#21) is in a press man alignment against Tyreek Hill (#10) to the top of the screen. On the opposite side, CB Artie Burns (#25) is playing off coverage across from Demarcus Robinson (#14).

When the ball is snapped Smith surveys the left side of the field in what I believe is an attempt to move the inside linebacker. Smith then makes his way to the right side of the field where he has Hill and TE Travis Kelce (#87) running a post/curl combination. Smith has Kelce on the curl route underneath if he gets the ball out immediately when Kelce turns around, but he hesitates and pump fakes because of how LB Ryan Shazier (#50) is shaded. Haden also passes Hill off to his safeties and covers the curl on the play.

Back on the left side of the field there are some communication issues between Burns and the rest of the secondary as to who is responsible for the defending the flat. Both Burns and slot CB on the play Mike Hilton (#31) are defending the same part of the field with De’Anthony Thomas (#13) running up the sideline behind Burns. Smith feels the pressure and slides to his left before throwing a pass on the run to Thomas with Burns’ back to the quarterback. Thomas makes the catch near the sideline and makes several defenders miss before making his way into the end zone.

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During Week 7 against the Oakland Raiders the Chiefs line up in 11 personnel on 2nd and 8 on their own 36 down 14-10.

Presnap CB David Amerson (#29) is playing about eight yards off Hill. When the ball is snapped Raiders newly signed LB NaVorro Bowman (#53) times up his A Gap blitz perfectly, but Kareem Hunt (#27) is able to cut block him down and save Smith from the sack.

Due to Hunt’s excellent pass protection the Chiefs routes are allowed to develop downfield. There is no safety help for Amerson as S Reggie Nelson (#27) is positioned to the top half of the screen. This allows Hill to beat Amerson one on one with his speed and Smith drops a perfect pass to Hill who scores the touchdown easily to go up 17-14.

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Smith is still a conservative passer. He wouldn’t be completing 69% of his passes otherwise. Yet, he’s been more efficient and opportunistic on deep passes through seven weeks, which is a significant difference from last season. He’ll need to continue to wear the face of aggression to complete his list that he recites every night before he goes to bed if the Chiefs want to make the Super Bowl this February.

Oakland Raiders…Denver Broncos…Pittsburgh Steelers…New England Patriots…

Check out more of Joseph’s work here, including a look at Kareem Hunt’s superior balance, how to mask deficiencies along an offensive line, and the effect environment has on a quarterback’s development.

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