The Chiefs stink and their quarterback stinks and at this point it’s hard to separate where one ends and the other begins. More and more, the quarterback is claiming more of the stink.
Andy Reid has been an NFL head coach since most of his players were in grade school. He is fond of saying they all have a piece in it, good and bad, and that’s true but so is this: some pieces are bigger than others.
Seven weeks ago, actual humans had actual conversations about Alex Smith being the frontrunner for NFL MVP, and the bat-spit craziest part — it was true.
Today, we live in a world in which the Chiefs lost 16-10 at home to the Bills, a team that gave up 101 points the last two games, so we could have a reasonable debate about whether this was worse than losing to the Giants last week. But here’s a point that’s beyond dispute:
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Right now, Smith is the Chiefs’ worst player, and a season that was so promising not that long ago is freefalling until that changes.
“Certainly frustrated, for sure,” he said. “And a little shocked there, no doubt.”
He was talking more generally about the team, with five losses in their last six games and what should’ve been rock bottom last week followed immediately by more incompetence this week.
But he could’ve been talking about himself, too. Whatever order you want to put them in, Smith has played his four worst games of the season in the Chiefs’ last four games.
Through seven weeks: 72.4 completion percentage, 8.7 yards per attempt, 283 yards per game, 15 touchdowns, zero interceptions and a 120.5 passer rating. That’s higher than any quarterback in the league since 2011.
Last four games: 63.1 completion percentage, 6.3 yards per attempt, 224 yards per game, four touchdowns, four interceptions and a 78.7 passer rating. That’s basically Matt Cassel’s passer rating with the Chiefs (77.5).
What in the world.
“It wasn’t anything we haven’t seen or haven’t been successful against,” Reid said. “We were off. We’ve got to get through this, and get it turned around.”
The only way through this is for the quarterback to be better. That’s often an incomplete analysis, and it’s true that Smith is far from the only one playing poorly right now, but it’s impossible to watch this team and not be convinced his “piece of it” is disproportionally big and important.
He is missing basic throws, against no pressure, often in crucial spots. Once, a drive stalled after Smith threw an uncatchable pass to a wide-open Demarcus Robinson. Another drive ended when Robinson was again open, but Smith instead decided to run for it, eventually taking a shot to the spleen short of the sticks.
Travis Kelce was open for a potential touchdown — a truly nice call by Reid, to beat zone coverage — but Smith instead threw incomplete to Albert Wilson, who was covered, short of the first down.
This is just a sampling. Smith appears to have no confidence in his offensive line, sometimes dropping way too far back, which ruins his blockers’ angles. On other plays he breaks the pocket far too early, occasionally even when a simple step up would create more time and protection.
“Especially these last few weeks there’s been some plays you’d love to have back,” Smith said. “That’s football, though.”
The Chiefs were once the best team in football, and for more than a month now they’ve been one of the worst. This is a complicated sport, layered with adjustment on top of scheme on top of sight-read on top of human imperfection, but the most obvious difference between the awesome 2017 Chiefs and the horrendous 2017 Chiefs appears to be a lack of respect for their passing game.
Defenses are stacking toward the line of scrimmage, and moving aggressively and freely toward the backfield once there. It’s aggression beating aggression, because when the line is overwhelmed with defenders, some of the Chiefs’ downfield talent — particularly Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce — is negated.
This is, essentially, a bet that defenses are making that Smith can’t make the right adjustments in time to beat them.
That’s been a winning bet, over and over and over again.
Smith is extraordinarily intelligent. Not just “athlete” intelligent, either. He earned an economics degree in 2 1/2 years, and runs what’s been called a model charity. But there are times it appears he struggles to make blink-quick decisions. When he makes the right diagnosis before the snap, it works. When he’s surprised, it doesn’t.
Far too often over the last month, he’s been surprised.
Opposing defensive coordinators saw the Chiefs’ first five games and seem to have collectively resolved to stop the run and force Smith to beat them with quick decisions and downfield throws. He has been fundamentally unable to do this, and as long as that remains true the Chiefs aren’t getting any better.
You might be angry that it took me this long to mention Patrick Mahomes. Many of you want him in, and Smith benched. Reid addressed that after Sunday’s game, quickly dismissing the suggestion that he’s even considering a switch.
For what it’s worth, I don’t think Smith should be benched, even now. We’ve seen him be effective as recently as this season. Mahomes is less than four years removed from his high school prom. He was drafted as a raw prospect, thought by most to need at least a year to learn.
Mahomes is taking no snaps with the starters during practice. A switch from Smith to Mahomes would require major practice adjustments, which would signal the switch to a locker room that has always been reverential toward Smith.
There is a point when this could become a real thing. But there is no indication that at this point Mahomes is anything more than an option for 2018. If Smith keeps at this pace, and Mahomes does enough in practice to convince coaches and teammates, maybe this conversation changes. You can’t fool the guys in the room. But we’re not there yet.
The bigger problem for the Chiefs is that this whole thing was built around Smith, to bring out his best, and we’re going on a month of seeing his worst. The reasons for staying with him are more about the backup not being ready, which is a bad enough sign.
The worse sign is that the only ways out of this include Smith playing a lot better. Reid is right. They all have a piece in it. But the defense has consistently done its part, the line can only do so much, and the receivers aren’t being given much of a chance.
This is what a free-fall looks like. Smith is the one man best positioned to stop it. He was a crucial part of their success early, and he’s an undeniable part of their failures lately. At this point, believing anything will change is based more on faith and hope than logic and reason.
Of all the ways the Chiefs have let their fans down over the years, this one is new, at least.