The Kansas City Chiefs just improved to 8-3 with a win on Sunday night against their division rival the Denver Broncos. (Check out PFF's grades recap here.) They ended last season on a 10-game win streak in the regular season, and have now won 18 of their last 21 regular-season games, and 19 of their last 22 games if you include the playoffs.
With Justin Houston returning to the fold with a dominant performance, and Dee Ford emerging as a pass-rushing threat while he was away injured, things seem to be looking good for the Chiefs. But the truth is that this team can’t win what they really want – a Super Bowl – with the 2016 version of Alex Smith at quarterback.
Given the beginning to Smith’s career, he has always been seen as something of a letdown. The former No. 1 overall pick was a disaster in his first couple of years in San Francisco, but those years tint the perception of the rest of his career — when he had actually become a passable, above-average starting QB, first for the 49ers and then for Kansas City.
His early career wasn’t the only thing working against him in the perception game, either, as Smith’s style of play also does him no favors. Everybody loves a gunslinger, and the prospect of a home run from that type of high-variance QB can keep them hanging around the league far longer than is sensible. They become the football equivalent of a gambler at the tables in Vegas, throwing good money after bad just waiting for the one big win that pulls them back into the black. In the end, the house always wins, and with almost all gunslinging QBs, the bad outweighs the good over the long-term.
The point, though, is that people love seeing big plays, and if your QB is going to be flawed, fans would rather he be flawed and exciting rather than flawed and dully conservative.
And Alex Smith is as conservative as you can get as a quarterback.
Only Minnesota's Sam Bradford has a lower average depth of target this season than Smith’s 7.0 yards downfield, and Bradford’s has become a necessary measure as the Vikings try and get the ball out of his hands as quickly as humanly possible before his offensive line gets him flattened by the opposing pass rush.
Smith has had the league’s lowest average depth of target in each of the past three seasons, and hasn’t ranked higher than 31st in the league dating back to 2008. He does not, cannot, and will not attack down field in the way everybody wants to see their QB do.
Obviously, that is a flaw, and the difficulties that presents to an offense are obvious. With no real threat of a deep ball, defenses can cheat towards the line of scrimmage and make life harder for all of the passes that Smith does attempt. They effectively don’t have to defend as much of the field as they do against other quarterbacks that will make them respect the deeper sections of the field.
You can win the Super Bowl with flawed QBs. The Denver Broncos are the reigning champions and while their starting QB was named Peyton Manning, his 2016 play far more resembled that of Smith than it did the Manning of his prime. Manning’s grade for that Super Bowl victory was 43.9, which is a lower PFF grade than Ryan Fitzpatrick has this season, and only marginally better than Josh McCown. Smith is at the heady heights of 75.1, and is currently ranked 22nd in the league.
The issue isn’t just that Smith is a flawed passer, but that he has declined in play from his best form. 75.1 represents Smith’s worst season grade since 2010, and a notable drop from his baseline of the past five years. Smith remains flawed, but the flaws are getting worse, and he isn’t offsetting them with as many positive traits as he did in the past.
Smith’s rushing threat has evaporated this season. He has had a better-than-average rushing grade in every season since 2006, and we saw in particular during the Chiefs' playoff run last season what an effective weapon it can be. Last year he carried the ball 85 times during the regular season, gaining 497 yards on the ground and scoring a couple of touchdowns. Only 14 of those plays were designed carries, but in the playoffs, he had six of those as they expanded that threat.
The majority of his damage was done on scrambles, where he averaged 7.6 yards every time he took off from the pocket, a number which held steady in the postseason. This year Smith has just 56 rushing yards to his name, only two designed runs, and his scrambles have gained an average of only 4.4 yards per carry.
Ironically, Kansas City’s improved offensive line may actually be hampering Smith’s play in this regard. The Chiefs are showing option looks to teams on 30.2 percent of their runs this season compared to 26.5 percent a year ago, but the biggest difference in the offense has been how often Smith is under pressure.
In 2015 he was hurried on 37.3 percent of his dropbacks, but that figure has plummeted by 10 percent to just 27.3 this season. Smith isn’t being forced from the pocket with as much regularity as he was a year ago, but even in games where he is hurried a lot — like this week (33.3 percent) — he isn’t taking off and making plays with his legs like he has in the past.
Ordinarily giving a quarterback more time in the pocket and less pressure to deal with is a good thing, but that’s when the best plays your QB makes are the ones with his arm. Smith’s passing performance has a pretty defined cap on it because of how conservative he is, and those pressure plays where he ad-libs from the pocket provided a valuable spark to an otherwise lifeless passing game.
You can win a championship with a quarterback as flawed as Smith, but you need everything else to go right, and that QB needs to be able to provide the occasional spark. This year’s Chiefs defense isn’t the Denver Broncos defense of 2015, even with Houston returning, and the one thing that Alex Smith does not provide right now is spark. Without that this team may continue to rack up wins, but they will come undone in the postseason.