Since the day Alex Smith last threw an interception, the Royals went from a worrisome September to an unforgettable November parade.
City workers were cleaning up the Plaza Art Fair that September day, and now they are in their fourth week with the Plaza’s holiday lights on. We have gone from Columbus Day to Halloween to straight past Thanksgiving and are now approaching Christmas. The Chiefs have gone from hearing questions about head coach Andy Reid’s future to planning for the playoffs. The world moves fast.
A lot can be done in 76 days, which, come Sunday’s game against the Chargers, is how long it will have been since Smith dropped back in a lost effort against the Packers and executed a terrible idea badly by rolling to his left and trying to loft a ball over two defenders and into the hands of a 5-foot-8 receiver. The ball was intercepted, which is what that pass deserved.
That was one of the worst games Smith has played for the Chiefs. Perhaps the worst, and with a team that would lose its most dynamic offensive player and five straight games before the end of October, it sure seemed like Kansas Citians would be able to get a lot of yard work done on Sundays this fall.
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There are many reasons the Chiefs have saved their season with six straight wins. Their defense has forced 17 turnovers in those games, and scored or set up 68 points. Marcus Peters is a revelation. Derrick Johnson is, somehow, as quick as ever. The offensive line has played better than should be expected through injuries. Jeremy Maclin is playing as well as he has in his career.
Smith is part of that, too. In recent weeks, the broadcasts have talked more about what is now a streak of 305 passes without an interception, the third-longest in NFL history — only Tom Brady and Bernie Kosar have gone longer. He and the Chiefs are, week by week, growing into one of the great stories of this NFL season.
This week, through conversations with people inside the Chiefs organization and around the league, as well as by watching each of Smith’s 380 dropbacks since his last interception, I wanted to get a better idea for how, and how well, Smith is playing.
Two takeaways: First, he’s playing even better than you might think. Also, there remains plenty to doubt.
Let’s start with the good.
The average NFL quarterback throws an interception once every 41 attempts, meaning that since the beginning of October, Alex Smith has saved between seven and eight possessions by ball security alone. The Chiefs average 2.24 points per possession, which ranks seventh, theoretically meaning they’ve scored about 17 points on drives that would have been interceptions by an average quarterback.
This is not a streak generated from luck, either. A few passes after Smith’s interception against the Packers, Green Bay’s Casey Hayward made an aggressive move but was a split-second too late for the pick. On the first play of the second quarter against the Bills, Bacarri Rambo lunged for a pass that bounced off his hands. Other than that, no defender has been relatively close to an interception against the Chiefs. That’s rare in a sport decided on such thin margins.
A lot of this is because of the passes Smith is not throwing. This is, by definition, a hard thing to write about. His three interceptions this season were that dumb panic throw against the Packers, a predetermined and telegraphed hitch that Denver’s Aqib Talib jumped, and when Smith’s arm was hit while throwing against the Broncos. There’s not a lot a quarterback can do about that last one, but Smith has been diligent in making good decisions and staying unpredictable enough to keep defenders back.
Conversations about Smith this week highlighted four plays in particular where Smith made good, conservative decisions that allowed big plays to be made.
▪ On third and 10 from Detroit’s 12-yard line, the Chiefs sent two receivers, two tight ends and a running back on routes. Smith could have forced a throw to tight end Travis Kelce, who was running a flag route on the right side, and there was a flash where Maclin was open over the middle. But the hole closed quickly, and the form of the Lions’ pass rush made it a difficult angle. So Smith tucked and ran through a hole on the left side for a touchdown.
▪ On third and 9 from the Chiefs’ 30 against Buffalo, they sent out three receivers. With more protection, Smith allowed more time for the routes to develop. But Buffalo’s coverage was terrific, and even with seven men blocking, the pass rush forced Smith out of the pocket. He escaped to the right — he always tries to escape that way, so he can still throw — pumped, planted, felt too many defenders on that side of the field, and turned the other direction. He had probably run 25 yards before he crossed the line of scrimmage, sprinted upfield and held the ball forward to make the first down.
▪ On third and 11 from the Bills’ 34, Buffalo showed blitz but rushed only four. As the defenders fell back to cover, Smith noticed a miscommunication where a linebacker and cornerback both followed Jason Avant toward the right sideline. The linebacker’s absence opened a hole in the middle of the field, so Smith sprinted straight ahead. He was met by a defender four yards short of the first-down marker but leapt ahead — heels over helmet — his body momentum pushing a second defender back far enough to extend the drive.
▪ On second and goal from the Raiders’ 3, and once Oakland defensive back Charles Woodson drifted to the right side of the play, Smith knew crossing routes by Albert Wilson and Spencer Ware would drag former Kansas linebacker Ben Heeney far enough to open the middle of the field. Smith tucked, even though they never talked about this particular play ending up in a scramble, and scored untouched.
On those four plays alone, Smith scored or extended drives that resulted in two touchdowns and two field-goal attempts. On each of the plays, Smith could have forced throws into coverage, risking interceptions. That he ran on each of these plays was partly coincidence but also highlights one of Smith’s best strengths — only Cam Newton and Russell Wilson have run for more yards among quarterbacks, and Smith is averaging more yards per rush than either.
But it’s more than running the ball or protecting it. Smith is making plays with his arm, too. His no-interception streak has coincided, bizarrely, with more throws downfield than we’re used to seeing. He is unlikely to shake the Captain Checkdown nickname, but during this streak he ranks eighth in the league in yards per attempt (more than Tom Brady), sixth in passes of 25 or more yards (more than Andy Dalton), and fifth overall in passer rating (higher than Newton).
Smith is conservative by nature and relies on shorter passes turning into longer gains through timing and scheme. But his deep passes to Maclin, in particular, as well as shots to Albert Wilson (including one that was a bit overthrown in Oakland), show that he’s willing to take chances in the right context.
He’s throwing the ball deep more this season than the previous two but still not as often as most quarterbacks, so the major difference is in how effective he is with those plays. Using Pro Football Focus’ numbers, Smith has already completed more passes of 20 yards or more downfield than he did all of last season, and is just one shy of his 2013 total.
He is, in short, playing far better than at any point since he arrived in Kansas City three years ago. Whether that’s good enough for the Chiefs to advance deep into the playoffs is another issue.
And here is where we talk about some other plays.
The Broncos and Bills are the best teams the Chiefs have beaten during their six-game winning streak. There is no such thing as a bad win, but the Steelers started a third-string quarterback, the Lions had just fired their offensive coordinator and are the Lions, the Chargers are a bad team that played one of their worst games of the year, and the Raiders imploded.
But the Broncos and Bills are the quality of team the Chiefs will have to beat in the playoffs, assuming the Chiefs get there.
And this is where you can criticize Smith some.
In the fourth quarter against the Bills, Kelce ran down the middle of the field uncovered after the first five or so yards. Smith broke the pocket before he even completed his drop back, ostensibly because he saw Buffalo rusher IK Enemkpali get past Donald Stephenson’s block. But Enemkpali was off balance and still at least three steps away. Offensive lineman Laurent Duvernay-Tardif quickly came off his man and knocked Enemkpali to the ground, so if Smith had waited just another blink, he’d have had an easy touchdown over the middle.
Instead, he ran out of bounds for no gain. The Chiefs kicked a field goal on a drive where they should have scored a touchdown.
On a third down in the second quarter at Denver, Smith never took his eyes off Kelce on a crossing route over the middle of the field. If he had, he would have seen Maclin create about five yards of separation on a hitch route near the right sideline. Instead, Smith forced it to Kelce, came up a yard short of the first down, and the Chiefs settled for another field goal.
In the Denver game, that was a problem, with Cairo Santos attempting six field goals. To be fair, that was the day Peyton Manning’s body gave out, so the Chiefs led from the beginning and never needed more than field goals.
But Smith did not play well at Denver, and the pattern fits the justified criticisms of him as overly cautious and too often stuck on the script of the play, which means avoiding big mistakes but also missing on plays that could have been made.
Smith has been better about taking smart risks this year than his previous two with Kansas City. But even with the improvement of most of these last nine games, he will have to be better — against better teams on the road in the playoffs.
Smith’s mainstream standing would be different if the fabulous playoff game he played in Indianapolis was not remembered for the Chiefs’ remarkable defensive choke, but his reputation has been earned.
He is well-positioned to change that this year. He is a conservative man who’s maxing out on avoiding mistakes while still finding opportunities for big plays he’s missed in the past. The arithmetic will change in the playoffs, though, and that is where his reputation will either be further confirmed or finally challenged.
This is easier written by a sports columnist than done by a quarterback, but Smith needs to continue his remarkable run of avoiding mistakes while opening himself up to more of the big plays that tend to win playoff games.
This is the professional life Smith has earned for himself. Even when he plays well, he leaves a small margin for error. And even when he plays better than ever before for the Chiefs, there are still places to find doubt.