The plan was for the words that follow to explain in detail how Alex Smith is playing spooked ever since those two non-concussion concussions in Indianapolis.
Because that’s what it looks like, at least on the surface, and perhaps more to the point that’s what makes sense. The Chiefs quarterback is a brainiac, and football is only part of what he wants his life to be. He is a husband, a father of three, and the head of a model philanthropy that helps foster kids. Friends have told him he’d be great in politics.
A season laid out to be the best of Smith’s career is instead laying out like his worst in Kansas City. You can convince yourself that the biggest problem is a self-protectionism that conflicts with perhaps his greatest asset — an asset that has been amplified by a scary loss of balance after his head twice slammed off the Indianapolis turf.
So, that was the plan for this column: watch all of Smith’s drop backs since the Colts game, and compare them to his drop backs before. I ended up leaving the Steelers game out, because that was an unmitigated disaster by everyone involved.
There are well over a hundred drop backs to sort through here — from games against the Saints, Raiders and Jets before the head trauma, and the Panthers, Bucs and Broncos after — and more than enough moments to stick with the original premise.
But, like many things in life, the deeper this got the more complicated the answer appeared.
The new theory: there are elements of Smith being skittish after Indianapolis, but a lot of other factors we should acknowledge, too.
Alex Smith threw the ball a moment before contact, the 308-pound defensive lineman finishing the tackle into the turf, so the quarterback may not have even seen his best throw of the season until later.
This was third and 17, in the fourth quarter against the Saints. Smith moved off his first read just in time to see Nick Fairley beat Laurent Duvernay-Tardif with a swim move. Receiver Chris Conley had just broken toward the sideline. The window for a completion was over the linebackers and in front of the defensive back, and probably 40 yards away.
Perfect. Eighteen yard completion. First down.
It’s the kind of throw many say Smith is incapable of making. For those of us who believe Smith needs the right context to be a good quarterback, it’s the kind of throw we suspect he’s less likely to make when preoccupied with his safety.
And it’s not just that he’s wearing a different helmet now, and is trying to no longer slide feet first on scrambles. We can find plays to back up the theory, too. Throughout the Panthers game — his first back — he appeared to break the pocket early, his eyes dropping from his receivers to the pass rushers at the first hint of trouble.
He missed Travis Kelce, wide open in the end zone, the ball coming out perhaps a moment too soon and definitely a few feet too high as Carolina linebacker Luke Kuechly broke through.
There was another moment in that game when Smith broke the pocket early and didn’t keep his eyes up as he scrambled, diving for a short gain while receiver Albert Wilson was wide open in front of him. Against the Broncos, Smith broke the pocket the wrong way, turning back into the pass rush and throwing the ball away instead of running forward into open space.
So you can ride the spooked theory if you want.
But in the Denver game, you see one of the best five or so throws he’s made all year — fourth and 10, 20 seconds left, a do-or-die snap with Von Miller coming through unblocked. Smith looked off his first read, turned to his left, and threw a perfect pass across the field before Tyreek Hill had made the move. Eleven yards. First down. The next play was a touchdown, then the tying two-point conversion.
Actually, in some ways, Smith has been better against pressure since his return. According to Pro Football Focus, he was 23 of 49 for 219 yards against pressure in the three games we’re looking at before the injury, and 14 of 24 for 155 yards since.
His completion percentage and yards per play against pressure have each improved.
The spooked theory doesn’t really work.
So what’s the problem?
After the Broncos game, coach Andy Reid said “things haven’t gone as smooth as they were” for Smith before the Indianapolis game. That’s as close to concern as Reid is likely to express about his handpicked quarterback.
Smith, for his part, says he feels “totally the same,” and cited tougher defenses in the last three games. He has a point, particularly against Denver — on the road, against perhaps the best defense in the NFL, off a bye week, and fully healthy.
But that’s only part of it — and it’s an irrelevant part, because the expectations have always been to advance in the playoffs, when the Chiefs will face better defenses.
Smith has faced more pressure in the last three games — an average of 12 snaps after the injury, compared with nine before. Some of that is facing better defenses, some is those defenses blitzing more often, and some is an offensive line that needs to be better (and, in Mitchell Schwartz’s case, healthier).
Jeremy Maclin’s absence is more of this than is widely being acknowledged. He was injured on the second snap of the Jacksonville game and hasn’t played since. Even when healthy, Maclin was having one of the least productive seasons of his career.
But he is still a pro, still dangerous, and there is a discernible difference between how teams defend the Chiefs without him. It means a lower caliber of receivers are going against coverage more focused on them.
None of this is meant to say Smith is playing well. He’s not, and probably wouldn’t make that case himself. Most obviously, he needs to either get back to running more, or make defenses pay for defending against it.
But he is, with the notable exception of the horrendous end zone interception against the Bucs, mostly maintaining his subtle strength of avoiding major mistakes. He was ineffective for three and four-fifths quarters against the Broncos, but he did eliminate the game-changing turnovers Denver often wins with.
The new theory, then, is that Smith merely needs what he’s always needed: more help.
Because the thing that stuck out more than anything in watching these snaps wasn’t what he did against pressure, but what the offense did to avoid pressure.
This is an offense based on timing, and rhythm. They are at their best when the schemes are working — when Reid’s jungle-gym mind is getting his best guys in space. And that’s not happening as much.
One measurement: the Chiefs had 18 plays of more than 15 yards in the three reviewed games before Indianapolis, and just 11 in the three games since.
The vast majority of those plays work because of scheme and execution — receivers and backs being the right place, and Smith getting them the ball at the right moment. That has nothing to do with Smith’s handling of his own safety. That’s about timing, and coaching.
One thing the Chiefs can and should do is more three-receiver sets, and more plays without huddling. This will be easier and more effectively done when Maclin is healthy, but even now, it is clearly how the offense is most comfortable.
Even accounting for the different ways Denver generally defended the Chiefs’ hurry-up on Sunday — more coverage, less blitzing — this is a way for the Chiefs to slow pass rushes and allow Smith’s brain and his teammates’ familiarity to be used to their advantage.
This is the Chiefs’ best path to improving a slow offense, which would be the best boost to their Super Bowl hopes. Smith can play better. And has to.
But he’s always needed help, and that’s what he needs now — to get over the subtle adjustments to life after the Colts game, but also to get past the more relevant obstacles he and his teammates are now facing.