In the structure of the modern NFL, the most important decision a franchise can make is who plays quarterback. Two years ago, two franchises walked away from this decision on two very different paths.
The Chiefs played it safe, were largely criticized for it, then made the playoffs and have a chance to do it again this season. The Jets took the gamble that many in Kansas City had been screaming for, and are now 1-7 in what is a virtual certainty to be a fourth consecutive season without the playoffs.
They will play this weekend at Arrowhead Stadium in what for Chiefs fans could be fairly called The Upside of Boring.
Boring hardly ever plays well with sports fans, right? We want bold, we want daring. We want to toast those with enough guts to go for it all and laugh at the cowards who don’t.
But when it came time for the Chiefs’ new power structure to choose a quarterback, they did it with all of the flair of a ham sandwich.
They traded for a known commodity in Alex Smith, a man who had demonstrated what scouts often call “a high floor” but also “a low ceiling” which is often translated by fans and media as “weak sauce.” Then, when Smith performed well in their system and with their coaches, they signed him to a long-term extension for a higher salary than two-time Super Bowl champion Eli Manning, among others. Solid, logical, conservative thinking.
This has always been the Chiefs’ way. Trading for the 49ers’ backup quarterback is a time-honored tradition here.
One of the byproducts of this approach is a fan base that often clamors for bold, for daring, for, come to think of it, what the Jets sometimes do.
Two years ago, the same offseason when the Chiefs traded for Smith, the Jets were coming off 6-10 and also needed a quarterback. They’d drafted Mark Sanchez four years earlier with the fifth overall pick and watched him deteriorate from promising to an unplayable mess. They felt a compelling need to upgrade, to find the quarterback of their future.
Many around Kansas City wanted the Chiefs to draft Geno Smith, the three-year starter at West Virginia who completed 67 percent of his passes for 98 touchdowns and 21 interceptions.
Full disclosure, I was in that crowd, at least until hearing from league insiders who questioned his drive, personality and ability to read defenses, among other things. Every draft prospect is questioned, obviously, but there was something different about the tone and scope of the criticism of Smith. It’s one reason he fell into the second round, and surely one reason the Chiefs went with a different Smith at quarterback.
Coincidence or not, Geno Smith has been fairly terrible in his short time in the NFL. He’s thrown 19 touchdowns and 31 interceptions. By passer rating, Total Quarterback Rating, and the advanced metrics at Pro Football Focus and Football Outsiders, Smith is either the worst, second-worst, or third-worst quarterback this season.
He was benched this week. Michael Vick, who has completed 26 of 56 passes this season, will start instead.
Think the Jets would like that pick back?
Alex Smith was the top overall pick in the 2005 draft, but generally lacks the type of elite, obvious, natural ability that fans and scouts like in brand name quarterbacks.
The story about the Chiefs’ Smith is often the story about what he isn’t. He’s a good athlete with a great feel for the pocket, but can’t really be called elusive. He reads defenses well and is usually quite accurate, but has occasional lapses and doesn’t throw the best deep ball.
The Chiefs lost at the goal line as time expired in Denver, and with an interception on their final drive in San Francisco. The quarterback is the one who gets the most credit when things go well (like the two-minute drill that won a game in San Diego) and the one with the most blame when things fail. That’s part of the job description.
But in Smith’s case, it misses the point that the Chiefs are 11th in the league in scoring with a flimsy group of receivers and an offensive line that struggles in pass protection.
Jamaal Charles is the star of the offense, obviously, the one defenses plan for every week. But Smith makes enough good decisions, and is reliable enough with short and medium-range passes, to keep the offense moving and — through a season and a half in Kansas City — the Chiefs winning.
Now, clearly, the Chiefs would love to draft and develop their own quarterback. That has proven to be the most successful way to find a top passer and win Super Bowls.
But the Chiefs picked first overall the year after Andrew Luck. They went boring, and traded for a guy who led them to the playoffs. The Jets reached, and drafted a guy they just benched.
Boring is better, sometimes.