Alex Smith Is Playing as Well as Any Quarterback in the NFL

The year 2005 was a long time ago. Like, I was in college in '05, creating players who had 99 skills across the board in NCAA Football on XBox, using a flip phone and setting away messages on AIM.

Long story short -- 12 years is a very long time.

In football, 12 years should be enough time for us to get a pretty good feel for what type of player someone is. In fact, with quarterbacks, you can pull a lot from their first season of action.

That's what makes Alex Smith's 2017 campaign so insane.

It was 12 years ago, 2005, when made his NFL debut, and what followed has been a pretty solid career -- one with some ups and downs, but the guy is still getting paid to play football after all this time in a league with an average career length of 30 minutes, so it's a win for Alex Smith.

But, as you know, Smith has kind of been the poster boy for quarterback mediocrity -- good enough to be in demand but bad enough that it seems his teams are always looking for a way to upgrade (see: Colin Kaepernick and Patrick Mahomes).

Then 2017 happened, and it's still happening.

Smith has taken everything we thought we knew about him and tossed it in the trash can. Not only is he playing the best football of his NFL career, he's been a truly elite quarterback through seven weeks, and it's forced us to reevaluate the 12th-year veteran.

Looking at the Numbers

When peeping Smith's 2017 stats, it's hard to find an area in which he's not posting a career-best number. That's no exaggeration.

Here's a list of some -- just some -- of the categories that Smith currently owns career-best marks in: completion percentage (Cmp%), touchdown rate, interception rate, yards per attempt, adjusted yards per attempt (AY/A), yards per completion, yards per game and quarterback rating (QB Rating). He's probably getting career-best gas mileage in his car.

I mean, there are career years, and there's what Smith is doing right now. He's not just putting up career-best clips; he's destroying his previous career highs.

Year Games Cmp% Yards Per Game TDs INTs AY/A QB Rating
2005 9 50.9% 97.2 1 11 2.4 40.8
2006 16 58.1% 180.6 16 16 5.6 74.8
2007 7 48.7% 130.6 2 4 4.0 57.2
2009 11 60.5% 213.6 18 12 5.8 81.5
2010 11 59.6% 215.6 14 10 6.4 82.1
2011 16 61.3% 196.5 17 5 7.3 90.7
2012 10 70.2% 173.7 13 5 8.1 104.1
2013 15 60.6% 220.9 23 7 6.8 89.1
2014 15 65.3% 217.7 18 6 7.2 93.4
2015 16 65.3% 217.9 20 7 7.6 95.4
2016 15 67.1% 232.5 15 8 7.0 91.2
2017 7 72.4% 283.7 15 0 10.0 120.5

He threw for 232.5 yards per game last year, which was a new career high. He's averaging 51.2 more passing yards per game this season. Smith had a 104.1 quarterback rating in 2012, per Pro Football Reference, and that was an outlier season for him. His quarterback rating this year is a league-leading 120.5.

Yes, Alex freakin' Smith leads the NFL -- with all-time greats like Tom Brady and Drew Brees still slingin' it at a pretty high level -- in quarterback rating. And completion percentage. And interception rate. And adjusted yards per attempt.

You get it.

What Do Our Metrics Say?

We can dive even deeper into this by using our Net Expected Points (NEP) metric.

NEP is the metric we use to track the efficiency of both teams and players, with the team totals being adjusted for strength of schedule. A three-yard completion on 3rd and 2 is wildly different than a three-yard completion on 3rd and 4, and NEP helps account for that by tracking the expected points players add to their team's total over the course of a season. You can read more about NEP in our glossary.

For quarterbacks, we use Passing NEP. In 2016, Smith totaled 70.68 Passing NEP, meaning, over the course of the season, he added 70.68 expected points to the Kansas City Chiefs on his drop backs. This year, in seven games, Smith has already racked up 79.04 Passing NEP.

In less than half the starts, Smith has already provided more value to the Chiefs than he did in all of 2016.


Here's Smith's per-drop-back numbers over the course of his career along with his Passing Success Rate, which is the percentage of his drop backs which positively impact NEP.

Year Drop Backs Passing NEP per Drop Back Success Rate%
2005 194 -0.46 30.41%
2006 477 -0.03 41.51%
2007 210 -0.33 31.43%
2009 394 -0.02 41.62%
2010 367 -0.03 39.78%
2011 490 0.04 43.88%
2012 242 0.14 52.89%
2013 547 0.05 44.79%
2014 509 0.10 47.74%
2015 515 0.08 46.41%
2016 517 0.14 47.39%
2017 249 0.32 49.40%

To give you a measuring stick, Matt Ryan won a fully-deserved MVP last season with a Passing NEP per drop back of 0.37 and Success Rate of 54.64%, and those were historically great numbers. Here is the league average Passing NEP per drop back in each of the past three years -- 0.08 (2014), 0.11 (2015) and 0.12 (2016).

So Smith has more or less been pretty average -- until this season.

Zeroing in on 2017, here's how Smith's 0.32 Passing NEP per drop back and 49.40 Success Rate clips stack up against the rest of the league (showing the top 10 in order by Passing NEP per drop back).

Spoiler alert: they're pretty good.

Quarterback Drop Backs Passing NEP per Drop Back Passing Success Rate
Tom Brady 280 0.32 48.93%
Alex Smith 249 0.32 49.40%
Carson Wentz 251 0.25 49.40%
Drew Brees 226 0.24 50.00%
Jameis Winston 216 0.22 53.24%
Derek Carr 200 0.19 47.50%
Deshaun Watson 188 0.19 47.34%
Philip Rivers 266 0.18 47.74%
Kirk Cousins 210 0.16 50.95%
Jared Goff 233 0.16 43.78%

As of right now, Smith's 0.32 Passing NEP per drop back ties for the 16th-best single-season mark in our database -- which dates back to 2000 -- among quarterbacks with at least 200 drop backs in a season.

Week 7 is probably too early to get into MVP talk, but I probably shouldn't have eaten most of a bag of Doritos last night. Per Bovada, Smith sits third in current MVP odds at +500, trailing only Tom Brady (+200) and Carson Wentz (+300).

Alex Smith may very well win the MVP this year.

Let that sink in.

Moving Forward

Is Smith due for some regression? Sure. Even though he's always been judicious with the ball, he has almost no chance of finishing the season with zero picks, and his 6.6% touchdown rate is going to be hard to sustain. For reference, only twice has Tom Brady ever had a single-season touchdown rate of at least 6.6%.

But that doesn't mean Smith is going to all of the sudden turn into a pumpkin.

Smith is surrounded by a diverse and talented set of playmakers in tight end Travis Kelce, speedy wideout Tyreek Hill and stud rookie back Kareem Hunt. Kansas City's offense is legitimately explosive as KC leads the NFL in yards per play (6.5) and yards per carry (5.2) while ranking third in net yards gained per pass attempt (7.4).

They're good. And there's a perception that the Chiefs have a good defense because their D has been stout in the past, but our schedule-adjusted metrics have Kansas City ranked 23rd in overall defense.

In other words, Smith (and the offense) is carrying this team, and he is the main reason KC has the third-best title odds, according to our models.

Despite that -- despite Smith's truly elite play -- Smith isn't getting enough love. Maybe we'll never fully appreciate him. Even now, in the midst of a dream season, it's not a given that he'll be back in Kansas City next year.

Smith's 2017 has been crazy, but an NFL team willingly letting go of a quarterback who is playing at this level, that would be even crazier.