Is Alex Smith Really Holding Back the Kansas City Chiefs?

The Chiefs have finished second in the AFC West for three straight seasons. Is it because of -- or despite -- Smith?

Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith can be a divisive topic. Where you fall on the former number-one overall pick likely depends on what type of on-field production you prefer. Favor completion percentage and limiting turnovers? Smith is your guy. Favor almost anything else, and there’s a lot left to be desired.

Or maybe you judge quarterbacks by the amount of wins the team racks up with him under center. Your judgement should be questioned, but you’d probably be fine with Smith as a quarterback since he came over to Kansas City. For three straight years, the Kansas City Chiefs have finished second in the AFC West. Two of those finishes were enough for playoff appearances, but the only playoff win came against a historically bad performance by the Houston Texans in a Wild Card game this past season. There’s been success in Kansas City but not an overwhelming amount.

The division appears to be wide open in 2016. The Denver Broncos, who happen to be the reigning Super Bowl champions, will be starting either a rookie or Mark Sanchez at quarterback. Then there’s everyone’s favorite breakout team: the Oakland Raiders. Even the San Diego Chargers could put together a competitive season if healthy.

This could be a year that the Chiefs win their first division title since 2010, but in order to do that, they’ll have to get more production out of the quarterback position.

The Past

The reality of the situation is that the Chiefs have found success over the past three seasons more in spite of the quarterback play than because of it.

Over the past three seasons, Kansas City has ranked significantly better in Net Expected Points (NEP) on the defensive side of the ball and in the running game than through the air. NEP, by the way, measures the value of each play on the field based on how an average team would be expected to perform in each scenario using historical data.

Here is where the Chiefs have ranked in each of the past three seasons with Smith under center. The below NEP numbers are adjusted for opponent and measured on a per-play basis.

Year Adj. Pass NEP/P Adj. Rush NEP/P Adj. Def. NEP/P Record
2013 21 4 4 11 - 5
2014 17 2 14 9 - 7
2015 19 2 5 11 - 5

In the lone season of the Smith era when the Chiefs missed the playoffs, the defense was simply a league-average unit instead of one of the league’s best. The running game has been top-five in the league all three seasons, regardless of the involvement of Jamaal Charles, who missed time last season. The Chiefs were able to plug in Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware to remain one of the most efficient teams on the ground -- something that reflects nicely on the future of the ground game.

But then there’s the passing game, which has yet to rank in the top half of the league during Smith’s tenure. The best passing attack came in the year when the Chiefs missed the playoffs, which shows the impact that part of the offense had on winning games: not that much.

The Present

What the Chefs have is a quarterback who does the bare minimum in order not to be "bad". What they really have, though, is a quarterback who tries so hard not to do anything considered bad that takes away any chance of being good.

During his days with the San Francisco 49ers, Jim Harbaugh turned Smith into a passable starting quarterback by focusing on completed passes and limited turnovers. When Smith was moved to Kansas City, this style remained his m.o. In his three years as a starter in Kansas City, Smith has thrown an interception on just 1.4 percent of his pass attempts. That’s tied as the best rate among starters over that time period with Aaron Rodgers. Rodgers gets there by one outstanding season in 2014 with a 1.0 percent interception rate but also a 2.1 percent interception rate during his nine games in 2013. Smith has been at 1.5 percent or lower in all three seasons.

Of course, there are vast differences in the games of Smith and Rodgers and reasons why one of them is considered, by some, the best quarterback in football and the other is not. While Rodgers and Smith have limited turnovers at the same rate over the past three seasons, Rodgers has thrown a touchdown on 2 percent more of his attempts, gotten sacked on 1.8 percent fewer dropbacks and averaged 0.8 more yards per attempt -- a gap that would be higher if not for the 6.7 yards per attempt Rodgers averaged in 2015.

So this brings us back to the cons of the risk-averse nature Smith exhibits. The limiting of turnovers comes from not making many throws where an interception could be made -- not because of pinpoint accuracy. Mostly, that means not pushing the ball downfield. Smith had the eighth-lowest air yards per attempt on throws in 2015 among full-time starting quarterbacks, a year after finishing with the third-lowest number. Among this year’s starters, only Nick Foles finished with a higher percentage of passing yards accumulated after the catch by his receivers.

That can be a passable strategy on early downs to advance the ball, but when the strategy doesn’t change on third down, it can become an issue. Kansas City had the seventh-lowest conversion rate throwing the ball on third down last season at 31.9 percent. Overall, the Chiefs converted 38.7 percent of third downs. That’s still below the league average of 39.5 percent, but it’s much better than the passing-only conversions.

When forced to pass on third down last season, Alex Smith had a Passing NEP per drop back of -0.14. Put another way, Smith turned from an average quarterback to Matt Cassel. Matt Cassel is not an ideal comparison for any quarterback in any situation.

The Future

If the Chiefs have any urge to move on from Smith, it’s not going to happen in 2016. Super backup Chase Daniel is now in Philadelphia along with Doug Pederson, which leaves Aaron Murray and fifth-round pick Kevin Hogan as next in line on the depth chart.

Smith’s 2016 will be important to take the Chiefs to the next step, but he might be playing for his job in 2017. Smith has $24.9 million in guarantees still on his contract for the upcoming season against a $17.8 million cap hit. In 2017, that drops to a $16.9 million cap hit with $7.2 million of dead money. Moving on from Smth in the offseason would free up $9.7 million.

With defensive players like Eric Berry -- playing 2016 on the franchise tag -- and Dontari Poe in need of new contracts for 2017, that nearly $10 million in cap savings could be of some use heading into 2017.

Kansas City has a good shot of making the playoffs again in 2016. With a well-rounded team, the Chiefs have the possibility to be one of the better teams in a suddenly weakened AFC. Kansas City won’t be reliant on their quarterback to get there, but another season of being held back could spark the need for changes sooner rather than later.