Do the Kansas City Chiefs Need to Move on From Alex Smith?
The Chiefs don't need to move on from Alex Smith. But they need to at least look into it. https://t.co/z3rO2cyYzs
— Sam Mellinger (@mellinger) January 16, 2017
It's certainly not an ill-conceived thought, given Smith's struggles in Sunday's divisional round loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. He attempted 34 passes, resulting in just 172 yards with a touchdown and an interception as the Chiefs fell, 18-16, ending their season prematurely.
Smith has now been the Chiefs' starter for four seasons, three of which have resulted in trips to the playoffs, but none of them have extended beyond the divisional round. Is Smith really the asset that's holding them back?
We can try to answer this using numberFire's Net Expected Points (NEP), the metric we use to track the efficiency of both teams and players. A three-yard completion on 3rd and 2 has radically different value than that same three-yard completion on 3rd and 4, and NEP helps illustrate the discrepancies in those two outcomes.
Let's look at Smith through the eyes of NEP to see whether or not it's time for the Chiefs to move on.
He Is What He Is
This will probably be a shock to legitimately not a single soul, but Smith is firmly average when we take a peep at his efficiency stats.
He finished the season ranked 18th in Passing NEP per drop back of the 34 quarterbacks with at least 200 drop backs. This really isn't bad, putting him ahead of starters who are much more firm in their roles like Philip Rivers, Ryan Tannehill, Eli Manning, Joe Flacco, and Cam Newton. At the same time, it's also well short of all four quarterbacks who will play in the conference championships, a spot the Chiefs would likely want to find themselves next year.
What further complicates all this is that it mirrors exactly what Smith has done his entire career with the Chiefs. Below are his ranks the past four seasons in this same stat. Basically, you know what you're going to get.
|Season||Passing NEP per Drop Back||Rank|
In this four-year span, he has never been below 19th and never higher than 14th. It's almost as if Alex Smith's metrics are a parody of Alex Smith.
This past year was Smith's 10th season with at least 200 drop backs. He has never been a top-10 quarterback (as defined by Total NEP, which adds expected points gained as a rusher), and he has been in the top 15 just twice. Is that really what you want out of a quarterback if you have Super Bowl aspirations and a defense that can lead you there?
While that seems to be a requirement this year, it hasn't been the case in the past, even when we look just at the past five seasons. Here are the respective ranks of each quarterback to start the Super Bowl over the past five years in Passing NEP per drop back among quarterbacks with at least 200 drop backs, a group that will generally consist of between 36 and 40 players.
|Season||AFC Quarterback Rank||NFC Quarterback Rank|
Just last year, Peyton Manning took the Denver Broncos to the Super Bowl despite being one of the least efficient passers in the entire league. This obviously isn't how you want to model a franchise, but teams can do damage with guys much worse than Smith at quarterback.
The main takeaway from the table above is that you don't necessarily need a top-flight quarterback to make it to the Super Bowl. Does it help? Absolutely. But when you've got a solid defense, there's a bit more wiggle room to get by on mediocrity. The Chiefs had the league's 10th-best defense this year, according to numberFire's schedule-adjusted metrics, and ranked fourth against the pass despite missing studs Justin Houston and Derrick Johnson for significant chunks of the season.
Even after seeing this, it's easy to understand frustration from Chiefs fans around Smith's play. So let's dabble into hypothetical waters about finding a replacement. Are you sure there's an upgrade available?
Beware What You Wish For
In order to replace Smith, the Chiefs have two separate options. First, they could sign a free agent. Second, they could snag a rookie in the draft. Both of these plans have potential shortcomings.
Let's start with the free agency route under the assumption the Chiefs want to capitalize on the window they have as a team already on the cusp of playoff glory. We can see which quarterbacks may be available thanks to a running list from Rotoworld's Evan Silva. We'll toss in Tyrod Taylor's name, as well, just in case the Buffalo Bills decide to move on from Taylor at some point in the offseason.
With this list, let's compare some of the top names to what Smith has done the past four years through the eyes of NEP. These are cumulative stats throughout the four seasons with Success Rate representing the percentage of drop backs that result in positive NEP.
|Quarterback||Drop Backs||Passing NEP per Drop Back||Success Rate|
If Kirk Cousins were to hit the open market, then the Chiefs (and a lot of other teams) would have an interesting decision on their hands. Taylor would certainly be under consideration, but his Success Rate does at least present some mild concern. Outside of that, it's a bunch of guys who are either on par with or below Smith. Is this really that fruitful of a situation?
That leaves us with the draft. The Chiefs will pick 27th, an area of the first round in which bust rates are unfathomably large. The aforementioned Broncos tried a similar strategy last year by selecting Paxton Lynch 26th overall, and they still wound up starting Trevor Siemian when he was healthy. If you're looking for a short-term fix to get you over the hump, this likely isn't the avenue for such an endeavor.
If they want to trade up to snag their future signal-caller, as we saw last year, it's going to cost a boatload. Additionally, this year's draft class may not even feature prospects with resumes as solid as those of Jared Goff and Carson Wentz coming out last year. It's hard to see a scenario in which the cost would match the expected return.
Neither free agency nor the draft seem to possess assets that can provide a major boost over what Smith has done. It could force the Chiefs to explore trade options for Tony Romo or Jimmy Garoppolo, but even those guys come with major concerns and high costs, as well. The thought of replacing Smith is easy; the execution, however, is a whole new story, and it may mean the Chiefs would be better off just riding the known commodity.
Smith isn't an elite passer, and after over a decade in the NFL, it's safe to say he never will be. But he's also not a complete liability, and that may still make him the best option the Chiefs have.
In his four years with Kansas City, Smith has been exactly what you'd expect him to be: average. The past few seasons have shown us that average quarterbacks can wiggle his way into the Super Bowl in the right conditions, and the Chiefs have a lot of things going for them. Just because Smith hasn't gotten them there doesn't mean it's impossible.
If you're going to kick Smith to the curb while the team is still relatively successful, you had better find someone else who is an upgrade. The issue here is that there is no clear path to such a find. Guys like Cousins and Taylor could move the needle in free agency, but beyond that, there aren't quarterbacks with upside just chilling on street corners. If they were to replace Smith, there's a good chance it'd wind up being a downgrade, only further decreasing the odds they finally break through on the strength of the defense.
It's frustrating to watch a team get so close year after year, only to fall short. That's fully understandable. And when the quarterback is a guy like Smith who lacks any semblance of upside, it becomes even more so. But that doesn't mean you should change for the sake of change, and in the Chiefs' case, keeping the status quo may be the one strategy that could get them over the top.