Alex Smith is among the NFL’s most efficient postseason quarterbacks, and you are either laughing or shocked at those words so let’s put it in context here:
In NFL history, three quarterbacks have a higher career passer rating than Smith (with at least 150 attempts). They are Bart Starr, Kurt Warner and Drew Brees.
That is the entire list.
The quarterbacks just below him on that list include Joe Montana, Troy Aikman and Steve Young.
It’s worth noting that Smith has actually been more effective in the postseason (99.1 rating) than the regular season (85.3). That’s rare. Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson have all won Super Bowls but each has lower postseason passer ratings than in the regular season. Eli Manning is the only other quarterback on the list in this year’s playoffs who’s been more effective this time of year.
A few caveats: Passer rating is an imperfect stat, and nobody is saying Smith is a better quarterback than Brady, Rodgers or Ben Roethlisberger.
But even if you ignore the headline of this list — Alex Smith Has Higher Postseason Passer Rating Than Every Super Bowl Winner Since Drew Brees (and once beat Brees in a playoff shootout) — the subtext is interesting, too:
Smith, at least in terms of individual performance, has actually been better against the best competition and under the most pressure.
There are various theories for this. His playoff coaches have been Jim Harbaugh and Andy Reid, which helps. Smith is exceptionally smart and disciplined — not just in a football context, but in a human context — and some believe those traits become more important in the playoffs.
What’s often left unsaid is that this is more important now than ever, not just for the Chiefs’ chances of making the Super Bowl but for Smith’s future in Kansas City.
Alex Smith isn’t ready to judge his season. It’s not over yet.
“That’s an offseason project,” he said.
That doesn’t mean the rest of us can’t judge his season. Generally, he hasn’t been what he should, but it’s worth noting that Smith looks at things differently than you or me. Where we might see a receiver with a step on a post route, Smith might see an earlier progression that popped open first.
Where we might see a perfectly fine 8-yard completion, Smith might see a missed opportunity because he threw the ball to the wrong shoulder, or the receiver lined up 2 yards too wide.
“There’s weeks where I’m extremely happy,” he said. “And there’s weeks where I’m disgusted, for sure.”
A generally rotten start has made it easy to miss that he’s been much better the last month or so. The improvement is enough that, at least statistically, he’s not far off from a strong 2015.
He threw for more yards, more yards per game and a higher completion percentage this season than any other he has spent in Kansas City. His touchdowns were down, his interceptions steady, but fewer sacks — the offensive line deserves some of the credit here, obviously — mean his net yards per attempt were the highest since he arrived in 2013.
Inside the building at One Arrowhead Drive, they talk a lot about winning 41 of 61 games with Smith the last four years. Only Brady and Wilson have won more. But they also talk about tight end Travis Kelce becoming a star, and Tyreek Hill’s advancement as a receiver, and argue these things are at least in part a reflection of the quarterback. Most of us see it the other way around, but it’s an interesting thought to keep in mind.
More than anything else, two negatives held Smith back. The first is a pair of killer interceptions in the end zone against the Titans and Bucs. They were both telegraphed, predetermined throws that hit defensive backs in the hands. Against the Bucs, it cost the Chiefs a victory. Against the Titans, it was one of five plays the Chiefs could’ve made to win.
The Chiefs’ playoff position would be exactly the same with those wins — the Patriots would’ve taken the top seed on a tiebreaker — but the public perception of the team and quarterback would be significantly different.
The second negative this year has been Smith’s lack of running. That was perhaps his best weapon in 2015, a critical part of the Chiefs’ 11-game win streak. A year ago, he ran for 30 first downs, more than every other quarterback but Cam Newton and Russell Wilson. He converted on more than one in three attempts. This year, he made just nine first downs on the ground, converting on fewer than one in five attempts.
But if you believe in trends, Smith has been much closer to his 2015 self recently. In his first 12 games, he ran 34 times for 56 yards, two touchdowns and four first downs (touchdowns count as first downs). In his last three games, he ran 14 times for 78 yards, three touchdowns and five first downs.
Speaking privately, Smith, Reid and others in the building all said this is more serendipity than plan. Smith said he is not trying to run more, and Reid said he is not encouraging Smith to run more. One theory is that he trusts his receivers more than ever, which combined with the best pass-blocking he’s had in Kansas City means he can be more judicious about when to run, and more effective when he does.
“It’s not anything conscious,” Smith said. “I wish I could tell you. That stuff just happens fast and you just go.”
Whether he’s able to keep running, and winning, has never been more important. All those wins, and Smith is only two away from the Super Bowl. He turns 33 in May. You never know how many chances like this you get.
For Smith, there is at least the possibility that this could be his last in Kansas City.
The Chiefs aren’t ready to judge Smith’s season, or determine his future. The season isn’t over yet, and his future isn’t here yet.
But this organization is fiercely loyal to Smith. You can see that whenever Reid perceives a question is coming with a negative slant on Smith. That’s not just public bluster. This quarterback is a beloved figure in the organization, both for the way he treats people and a general consensus that he takes more criticism than he deserves.
But football is also among this country’s most ruthless businesses, and this offseason will be the first time the Chiefs can realistically cut Smith and save nearly $10 million in salary cap space.
Some interesting prospects lurk in the draft, including Clemson’s Deshaun Watson and Texas Tech’s Patrick Mahomes. Both have the tools to flourish in Reid’s system. It will be a decision worth at least considering.
Smith is surrounded by believers, none stronger than Reid and general manager John Dorsey, who will make the decision about his future in Kansas City. Nobody is ready to go there, yet, and when they do they will tend to err on the side of keeping Smith.
So Smith will have a friendly jury. But his closing argument comes now, a historically efficient postseason quarterback needing more than ever to be at his best.