Is Alex Smith Less Than a Game Manager?

Alex Smith seems like a good fit for Kansas City, but is he still playing like a below average quarterback?

I was a baseball player growing up. Summers were filled with traveling to different fields, playing tournaments against teams from the other side of the state and post-game huggie drinks. It was the best way I could have lived my childhood years.

Clearly, being a little leaguer, I couldn’t drive a vehicle. And that frustrated me. Not because I wanted to drive a car, but because, before every single game, I scrambled around my house yelling at my poor mother that we were “going to be late.” If could drive the car myself, I would've always been on time.

We were late – late according to me, not to her – to a lot of my games. Perhaps I missed a little bit of catch with my teammates as a result. And even though it angered me like you wouldn't believe, in the end, I never was too late. I always made it to my game.

To my wonderful mom, it didn’t matter how we got there. If I made the game, I made the game. To me, it mattered a lot. The anxiety of being ready and having to wait drove me nuts. And hey, maybe my batting average would’ve gone up a bit if I actually had some time to warm up.

That same feeling is the way I get when I hear NFL fans talk about Alex Smith being a game manager.

“He’s won nine games,” they’ll say. To me though, just like it was back in the day, that end result doesn’t tell the entire story. Just because Alex Smith is quarterbacking a team that’s now 9-2 doesn’t mean things couldn’t be better. Just because Alex Smith is winning doesn’t mean another quarterback couldn’t win more.

While some are dubbing Alex Smith a "game managing" success in Kansas City this year, I’ll warn you: The end game isn’t telling the entire story. Alex Smith may be getting to the baseball field on time, but there have been plenty of bumps along the way before arriving.

Alex Smith by the Numbers

Let’s start, of course, by looking at Smith’s Passing Net Expected Points (NEP) numbers. If you need a refresher to remember what the NEP metric is all about, click here.

Entering Week 12, Alex Smith had a Passing NEP of -3.68. Among the quarterbacks who have dropped back to pass at least 100 times this year – 40 of them – Smith ranked 29th. To put this another way, 28 different quarterbacks are contributing more value for their teams compared to Alex Smith to his.

I know, Chiefs fans – you don’t want to believe it. But it’s true. Alex Smith has not only played below expectation so far this season, but he’s throwing the ball less effectively than players like Ryan Tannehill and Mike Glennon.

For those of you who want to blame volume for this, Smith’s per pass NEP isn’t any better. In fact, it’s worse. With each drop back, Alex Smith is effectively losing .01 points for the Chiefs, a mark that’s barely better than Christian Ponder's.

Granted, these numbers are bound to rise after his performance against the Chargers on Sunday. However, let’s not run around saying that Alex Smith can all of a sudden win games when he’s needed to throw the ball. The Chargers defense entered Week 12 with the fifth-worst Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP total. So far this season, the San Diego secondary has allowed 60 more points through the air than a team in their situation would have, besting only Green Bay, Jacksonville, Minnesota and Atlanta.

Folks like to call Alex Smith a "game manager". While there's no strict definition for this, a loose one could be "a quarterback who limits turnovers and doesn't lose games for his football team." But I have to ask: Would a game manager be an overall detriment to his team? Would a game manager be a well-below average quarterback?

The fun has only just begun.

The Chiefs Defensive Help

Any football watcher knows that the Chiefs 9-2 record is a result of good defensive play. Going into their tilt against the Chargers on Sunday, Kansas City’s defense had an Adjusted DNEP of -72.67, the best in the league. Throw another defense into the Chiefs situation this year, and you’d see a 73-point swing in their opposition’s favor. We can credit that to them being opportunistic, creating turnovers and scoring touchdowns.

Clearly, when a quarterback has a good defensive unit on the other side of the ball, that quarterback benefits from less pressure and, usually, better field position. From an efficiency standpoint, a good defense should help that team’s quarterback.

We’ve seen Alex Smith’s numbers: he’s been below average this year. What I’m curious to see is how well quarterbacks with top defensive units have compared in the past. To find out, I looked at the top-five defensive units in terms of Adj. DNEP over the last five seasons, and compared them to their quarterback’s Passing NEP and Passing NEP/P.


PlayerPassing NEPPassing NEP/P
Joe Flacco-7.53-.02
Ben Roethlisberger23.59.05
Donovan McNabb70.84.12
Kerry Collins46.01-.02
Jeff Garcia35.05.09


PlayerPassing NEPPassing NEP/P
Mark Sanchez-68.36-.18
Alex Smith-9.52-.02
Aaron Rodgers122.70.21
Kyle Orton29.94.05
Jake Delhomme-41.51-.12


PlayerPassing NEPPassing NEP/P
Ben Roethlisberger88.24.21
Aaron Rodgers113.04.22
Jay Cutler-6.74-.01
Philip Rivers149.59.26
Eli Manning50.64.09


PlayerPassing NEPPassing NEP/P
Mark Sanchez-59.37-.10
Joe Flacco31.96.06
Jay Cutler18.41.05
Alex Smith21.59.04
Matthew Stafford112.26.16


PlayerPassing NEPPassing NEP/P
Jay Cutler-9.88-.02
Peyton Manning164.88.27
John Skelton-55.23-.26
Matt Schaub99.52.17
Colin Kaepernick40.50.17

Among the 25 quarterbacks above who have played with a top-five defense since 2008, we’ve seen seven seasons go worse than Alex Smith’s has so far. Two of those seasons are owned by Mark Sanchez, while another came from John Skelton (or Ryan Lindley) and Jake Delhomme. Joe Flacco’s rookie season falls just under Smith’s -.01 Passing NEP per Pass mark, and so does Jay Cutler’s 2012 year. And there's still time - Alex Smith could still quite easily reach those numbers.

(Also, Alex Smith was worse than Alex Smith just five years ago.)

So what does this tell us? Well, I think the first thing we need to recognize is that it’s unfair to compare Smith to someone like Aaron Rodgers or Peyton Manning. Those two passers represent three spots on the list, so we could realistically remove them and continue on.

But what’s alarming here is that players like Kyle Orton, Kerry Collins, Matt Schaub, Jeff Garcia and Joe Flacco all “managed games” better than Smith did when they played with a top-five defensive unit. And quite honestly, some of those quarterbacks, aside from Mark Sanchez, had a defense that wasn’t nearly as efficient or productive as the Chiefs have had this season.

Smith Needs to Do More

Perhaps the most frightening part of this situation is that Alex Smith isn’t throwing interceptions. While this may point towards him being a good game manager, it actually shows me that he’s been that ineffective throwing the ball.

If you’ve comprehended the Net Expected Points metric thus far, then you’d probably realize that a turnover is bad for a player’s score. If a passer throws a pick, his team goes from having a positive NEP on a drive to a negative one.

Typically – and I’m looking at you, Geno Smith – low Passing NEP and Passing NEP per Pass totals can be a direct result of interceptions thrown. And that’s actually what you get from the signal-callers above who have performed worse than Alex Smith.

Looking back, each of them threw at least 12 interceptions in their respective season (Skelton was easily pacing for that). Alex Smith, entering Week 12 against the Chargers, had thrown just four interceptions in 10 games. Extrapolated, that’s about half of what the typical “bad” quarterback on a team with a top-five defense has thrown.

What does this mean, exactly? Well, it’s showing us, through numbers, exactly what anti-Smith analysts have been saying: Alex Smith isn’t managing this offense effectively whatsoever. While he’s limiting turnovers, his low Passing NEP is showing us that he’s doing just as much harm for his team by not throwing the ball downfield as some of the quarterbacks in very similar situations did while turning the ball over.

To put this another way, just because Alex Smith isn’t throwing picks doesn’t mean that he’s a game manager. Game managers, despite playing the game more conservatively, should at least benefit from playing around above average units. Alex Smith is not.

Can the Chiefs Win With Alex Smith?

Though he played well against a miserable defense this past week, it’s difficult to act like Alex Smith can take this Chiefs team far into the playoffs.

Perhaps he still has room to grow – after all, over his final two seasons with San Francisco, he was a very good manager of the game. But before folks dub him the right fit for this offense, they need to realize that being a bad game manager is one of the worst things a conservative quarterback can be called.

But that's what Alex Smith has been this year. He's been less than a game manager.