The Super Bowl was played barely two month ago. The draft is still almost a month away. So why on Earth am I writing about the Chiefs‘ ability to make it back to the biggest game in America for the first time since 1969?
That is an excellent question, and the answer is because the Chiefs themselves are. Or rather, the Chiefs owner Clark Hunt.
Terez A. Paylor of The Kansas City Star reported the following from the Chiefs owner:
"“We’ve got a coach and a quarterback who can take us to the Super Bowl,” Hunt said. “And if we keep building the team the right way — and I will go back and mention again, I feel a big part of that is drafting right, (because) you have to do that every year — we’ve got a real shot of getting to the game we all want to get in.”"
Yes, there is certainly some “owner speak” in the above statement. What owner doesn’t build up their personnel and coaching staff, and say that good drafting can get them to the Super Bowl?
What caught my attention, though, was who he mentioned as making the team ready for a Super Bowl run—Andy Reid and Alex Smith.
Sep 14, 2014; Denver, CO, USA; Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith (11) talks with head coach Andy Reid during the first half against the Denver Broncos at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. The Broncos won 24-17. Mandatory Credit: Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports
Few people would squabble with mentioning Reid. With the Eagles, he managed to get to five NFC championship games and one Super Bowl. So while he may never have been able to hoist the Lombardi Trophy—at least as a head coach, but he did as a Packers assistant in 1996—he has had success in the postseason; something that Kansas City has been very noticeably missing over the past couple of decades.
The interesting mention is Smith. That decision would, I venture to say, not be shared by a lot of the Chiefs Kingdom. In fact, Smith is perhaps the most polarizing figure on the Chiefs roster. Hunt has multiple players who are legitimately elite at their positions (e.g. Jamaal Charles and Justin Houston). But even Smith’s biggest fans and apologists are unlikely to attach that moniker to him. So why would Hunt choose to mention Smith by name?
One reason may come from another quote from the same article in the Star: “I think [Smith]’s a great quarterback for Andy’s system.”
As mentioned above, Reid’s track record has enough success that there is every reason to believe that he could helm Kansas City to a game in February, given the right roster. And Smith, even though he is not elite, is a proven quantity that fits the system Reid likes to run. And that system, which relies heavily on short passes and yards after the catch, can be very successful.
In fact, back in February, I wrote this piece on how the Patriots used that very system—not just to win the Super Bowl but throughout the season.
Even if the system is good enough to win, though, there is still the issue that Smith is not Tom Brady. Just because you play the same style as a Super Bowl champion does not make you good enough to win it all yourself.
To see whether Mr. Hunt’s confidence in his quarterback is founded or not, let’s take a look at how Smith stacks up against the last five Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks.
To try and provide a more balanced perspective, I have placed both Smith’s career average, and his best statistical year against the same stats from the other quarterbacks in the year they won the Super Bowl. That yields the following stats:
Obviously, this is not a perfect comparison. There is a lot more than just individual talent and ability that goes into each player’s stats. It does highlight a few interesting things, though.
First, Smith, at his best, is able to perform at a Super Bowl-caliber level. His 2012 stats stand toe-to-toe with the guys who have rings. Smith’s passer rating and completion percentage were higher than anyone else. And he threw touchdowns on a higher percent of his passing attempts than everyone but Russell Wilson.
That year, Smith unfortunately also had the highest sack percentage. That led to a concussion and his best year being incomplete (and followed by a trade). But that high level of play shown in 2012 has been evident at one point or another in each of his years as a Chief (e.g. the 2013 playoff game against the Colts and the complete blowout against the Patriots last year).
Second, Smith, when he is at his average, will need a good bit of help. As nice as his best stats might look in comparison to the other quarterbacks on the board, there is no getting around the fact that Smith’s career averages are a step below. There is a little hope in that he compares decently with the 2012 version of Joe Flacco, having a marginally better completion percentage and comparable touchdown percentage. That is about as good as it gets, though. Smith’s average may not be far off from Flacco’s 2012 stats, but any objective reading will still give the edge to Flacco.
So Smith may not have to an unheard of year to get the Chiefs into the big game, but he is probably going to need to play above his average.
Finally, unless he becomes something he has never been, Smith is unlikely to be the focal point of a championship team. I say this because the most consistent aspect between Smith’s average and his best year is his low amount of passing yards per game. Smith’s entries are the only ones in the table that go below 200 yards/game. In fact, Smith’s best stats came when he was averaging 16 yards per game fewer than his already-low career average. It is not a hard and fast rule, as he has already thrown for more than 300 yards in a game as a Chief, but that has been the exception to his career.
So Mr. Hunt is probably right—Alex Smith has the ability to be a Super Bowl quarterback. On average, he will do his part. And at his best, he will do it very well. But he rarely carries his team to a victory single-handedly, and hoping for that kind of performance is a pretty big gamble.
If they want a championship, Mr. Hunt and coach Reid had better be betting on something more than just Smith.