Chiefs Film Room: Alex Smith and the new normal


So, this is kind of an unpleasant feeling. After being spoiled for three, glorious, months with win after win, experiencing the crushing-weight of defeat is a dose of harsh reality for Chiefs Kingdom.

But, alas, it’s time we move on to that bizarre seven-month period, where next season’s champions are crowned and overreactions come in large quantities, known as – The Offseason. But hold on there, before we do said moving on, I’d like to revisit last Saturday’s fateful game in Foxborough and the play of one Alex Smith. 

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But why Alex Smith?  Well, I think this game exemplified exactly what we can expect from him going forward. Let me explain; this season, we’ve seen Smith go from the cautious quarterback unwilling to take even the slightest risk, to a guy unafraid of challenging secondaries on a fairly consistent basis.

However, this evolution coincided with a let up in the schedule’s difficulty, so I was apprehensive as to whether the change would stick. That’s why the Patriots game was important for me (other than the whole advancing in the playoffs thing, obviously): I wanted to see when faced with adversity, would Alex Smith regress into old habits, or was his gunslinger mentality here to stay.

Even though he came out on the losing side of things, I saw an Alex Smith who: was aggressive on third (and fourth) downs, kept his eyes downfield in the face of pressure, and refused to settle for check-downs when afforded the time. While he still has his faults, which we’ll get into, I came away convinced that Smith’s new mentality is his new normal.

Smith Moving the Sticks

By now, most, if not all, of you have heard about Football Outsiders’ ALEX metric and how Smith was the most conservative quarterback on third-downs in the regular season. Against the Pats however, Smith wasn’t looking to settle on third-down; Smith threw the ball twelve times on third-down (not including a first quarter throw-away), with eight of them going beyond the sticks (five of the eight resulted in a first down). Not astounding numbers, but definitely encouraging ones.

Smith 1
Smith 1 /

Looking at this third-and-ten in the fourth quarter, you’d think Smith is getting ready to deliver a ball to Kelce in the flat. I mean, the defender is a good five-yards away and Kelce would have enough room to get the first if he broke (or jumped over) that tackle. So not the worst place to go with the ball. But this ball is going to Conley, who is well covered and not even out of his break when Smith decides to throw it.

Smith 2
Smith 2 /

That’s a good seven-yards past the sticks, against tight coverage, and to a rookie receiver no less. Smith attacked the defense rather than settling on third-down, which is exactly what good quarterbacks do. We saw these throws against lesser defenses during the regular season, but this is against a formidable Patriots defense with the game on the line. To me, that’s a very encouraging sign of what to expect from Smith going forward.

Standing Tall Under Pressure

Few things throw a quarterback off of his game more than consistent pressure, and few are more familiar with that than Alex Smith. But when a quarterback is afforded time in the pocket for the healthy majority of the game, the odd defender bearing down on him is not nearly as debilitating to the offense. I think we can all agree that the line’s play has improved over the course of the season, and in turn, Alex Smith has done a much better job of dealing with pressure when it does come.

Smith 3
Smith 3 /

This is another third-down play (the guy played fantastic on that down throughout the game) and the Patriots decided to bring a stunt (or is it a twist?) on Smith’s left, freeing up the blitzing linebacker. Meanwhile, things are only slightly better on the right side – somehow the Center and Guard can’t figure out how to properly double-team the defensive tackle (sigh). So unless Smith tucks and runs straight into #91, who’s spying, he is going to take a hit by making this throw.

Smith 4
Smith 4 /

Smith hangs in there, delivers a dime to Mr. Maclin, and proceeds to absorb the contact from the two Patriot defenders. This play was made possible because the offensive line gained Smith’s confidence as the season progressed. With only one key free agent amongst the line, – Jeff Allen (who should 100 percent be re-signed) – there is no reason to believe the improvements made in this area over the season will not continue to pay dividends in the next. This offense becomes exponentially more dangerous when Smith keeps his eyes downfield in the face of pressure.

Those Pesky Ball Placement Issues

While I strongly believe the mental improvements Smith made this season will carry forward to the next, there’s still the issue of his arm-talent. And lucky for us, this game had the full spectrum of Alex Smith throws.

We’ll start with the perfectly placed ball, low and outside, on Wilson’s touchdown:

Smith 5
Smith 5 /

The defender had great coverage and could’ve easily undercut the route should that throw have been placed anywhere but where it was. We often hear the phrase, “throw it where only your guy can get it.” Smith did that to perfection here.

But then there is the other side of the coin, the one where Smith doesn’t give even his guy a chance at the ball. More often than not, this happens when Smith pushes the ball downfield.

Smith 6
Smith 6 /

At first look, you may not think this miss is too egregious. But when you consider Smith was given a decently clean pocket, there was no safety help over the top, and Maclin had the slightest of steps on his man (see below), it’s frustrating to see the receiver not even have an opportunity to make a play. 

Maclin 1
Maclin 1 /

The Chiefs have three guys on the outside who are capable of being blowing the top off of defenses, however, Smith’s arm-talent limitations hinder how effective they truly can be. We’ve seen an inconsistent deep ball from Smith all season long, and it’s something we will probably see in the years to come. He is who he is, after all. But I can’t be too upset about it, I’m just glad it’s something he’s willing to go to now.

So everything I saw above, in addition to incredible scrambling ability, is what I consider to be the new normal for Alex Smith. And given the defense he has behind him (here’s hoping we can keep it mostly intact), I feel comfortable in saying this Alex Smith is indeed capable of taking the Chiefs to the next level. Now, whether he has the necessary pieces around him to do just that is an entirely different question. Lucky for us, we have a seven, long, months ahead of us to debate the answer.

Chiefs GIF of the Week Season

There is absolutely no doubt about it, this was the play of the year for the Chiefs.

Smith Scramble
Smith Scramble /

If only it had come in a winning effort…