Alex Smith: How The Offensive Line Affects The Chiefs Quarterback

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Alex Smith is the quarterback of the Kansas City Chiefs.

Everyone reading this already knows that of course, but just that one little statement immediately gets Chiefs fans of all kinds of fired up. Some instantly get upset and head to the comments section, telling anyone who will listen that Smith isn’t good enough and the Chiefs will never go anywhere with him at the helm of Andy Reid’s offense. Others instantly prepare themselves with every defense imaginable to defend Smith and give their unwavering support to the Chiefs QB, regardless of how Smith may have performed.

Myself, I try to stay somewhere in the middle. I see obvious flaws in Smith’s game that will keep him from ever being an elite QB, but I also see enough positives to believe that the Chiefs could be a contender with him at QB IF they have a good enough team around him. After watching the 2014 season unfold, I came away believing that NOTHING is more important to Alex Smith’s success going forward (and therefore the Chiefs’ success) than fixing the offensive line.

Put your personal feelings about Smith aside for a moment. Regardless of what you believe about him, I believe that anyone who watched the Kansas City Chiefs in 2014 can agree that the play of the offensive line was not good enough.

This piece will reference the offensive line and team blocking grades from Pro Football Focus (PFF). While some people may nitpick PFF, their player grades are a great reference point for player performance. And while they should not be taken as “law,” I have never seen a player with a bad grade that I thought was actually good or vice versa. Bottom line, they give an accurate gauge for how a player performed.

The 2014 Chiefs had a team pass-blocking grade of -37.4. That ranked 23rd in the NFL and, perhaps more importantly, was almost 30 points lower than the -8.3 team pass-blocking grade of just one year ago. The 47 sacks that KC allowed were the seventh-most in the NFL.

The pass blocking was simply not good enough. That is something everyone should be able to agree with. The question of how this poor pass blocking affected Alex Smith’s play is something that is less clear-cut.

Dec 7, 2014; Glendale, AZ, USA; Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith (11) reacts against the Arizona Cardinals at University of Phoenix Stadium. The Cardinals defeated the Chiefs 17-14. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

This post began with the basic idea of seeing how Alex Smith performed when the Chiefs had a positive pass-blocking grade compared to when the team had a negative one. Here are those results:

In Alex Smith’s six starts in which the team’s pass-blocking grade (which includes OL, RB, TE, etc.) was positive, the Chiefs were 5-1 (the one loss being to the 49ers). In those games Smith put up the following numbers:

65.2% completions, 7.6 YPA, 9 TDs, 1 INT

In the nine games in which the Chiefs had a negative pass-blocking grade ,they were just 3-6. Smith had the following stat line:

65.3% completions, 6.7 YPA, 9 TDs, 5 INTs

So Smith completed about the same percentage of passes (regardless of protection) this year, but he averaged more yards per attempt, with more touchdowns and fewer interceptions per game when the protection was good. Most importantly, Smith’s win percentage was 83 percent in games that KC protected him and just 33 percent in those they did not. That’s a staggering difference.

That got me thinking…Is this a flukey, small sample-size result? Or is this a legit sample of how Smith plays with and without good pass protection. So I decided to significantly increase the sample size.

Feb 3, 2013; New Orleans, LA, USA; San Francisco 49ers quarterback Alex Smith (11) warms up against the Baltimore Ravens in Super Bowl XLVII at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

I went back over every single game that Smith has started over the past five seasons (including playoffs) and looked at his stats and the PFF blocking grades for those games. That time span includes both of his seasons with the Chiefs, his two seasons under Jim Harbaugh and one season under Mike Singletary. That’s a sample size of 67 NFL starts.

Over those five seasons Alex Smith’s team had a positive pass-blocking grade in 28 games. In those games, Smith was 22-6 as a starter—that’s a winning percentage of 78.6. In those 28 games, Smith had the following stats:

64.7% completions, 7.5 YPA, 44 TDs, 9 INTs

In other words, Smith, over the past five seasons, has been consistently good when he has quality pass protection. His completion percentage, yards per attempts and touchdown-to-interception ratio are all very good when he’s protected, and his winning percentage is excellent. Think of it this way: In five years of starting games, Alex Smith has only lost six times when he’s had good pass protection.

So what about when he doesn’t have solid protection?

Smith has started 39 games over the past five seasons in which his team’s pass-blocking grade was negative. In those games, he is 20-19—that’s a winning percentage of 51.3 percent. In said contests, Smith had the following stats:

60.8% completions, 6.7 YPA, 49 TDs, 24 INTs

Smith’s completion percentage drops by about four percent. He also throws nearly one yard fewer per attempt, and his touchdown-to-interception ratio is significantly worse. While that is interesting, the most important part is that the team winning percentage goes from elite to .500 when the pass protection plummets.

This season, the Chiefs’ protection wasn’t good, and they posted a 9-7 record. I don’t think anyone, at this point, probably wants to argue that those two things aren’t directly related. I don’t care what your overall opinion of Smith is; what can’t be disputed is that he is a MUCH better QB when his pass protection is solid. Since KC is committed to him for the foreseeable future (whether you like it or not), then what it MUST do is improve the offensive line. I believe this to be the clear No. 1 priority, even over improving the WR corps.

The majority of that improvement must come from the left side of KC’s line. In 2014, Eric Fisher, Mike McGlynn and Jeff Linkenbach combined for -28.5 of KC’s team -37.4 overall pass-blocking grade. If Fisher can make the step forward that the organization thinks a healthy offseason should allow for, and they can find an average starting-caliber left guard, it would go a long way in solving the problem. While Zach Fulton struggled at times, his pass-blocking grade was only a -3.0, and over the final five games, it was actually a +1.7.

On the next page, I’ll take a look at if the run-blocking grades have an equally drastic effect on Smith’s results.