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Kansas City’s Quarterback Conundrum

All signs point to Alex Smith being the man in Kansas City through 2015 and beyond. But is that the right move for the Chiefs?

(Jamie Squire/Getty Images North America)

ONE contract dispute that no one seems to be talking about this offseason is the one going on in Kansas City, despite it involving the most important position in all of organized sports.

Jimmy Graham, Ndamukong Suh, and even the league’s cheerleaders are getting more press for their salary disagreements, but there is a very real debate happening concerning the future of the quarterback position for a team that went 11-5 in 2013 and skated comfortably into the playoffs. The Chiefs were 2-14 a year ago and saw an astounding nine win improvement after trading for a new single-caller in the offseason, and he promptly passed for the third-most passing touchdowns in a season of any non-Len Dawson or Trent Green quarterback.

So what’s the holdup in re-signing Alex Smith?

Let’s run through a few reasons that are giving general manager John Dorsey pause at the negotiation table. Most of the logic is probably universally accepted, while one bullet point in particular may be controversial.

1. Smith is due to make at least twice as much money on his next deal. After the trade with San Francisco, Kansas City signed him to a three-year, $25.25 million deal that extended him through the 2014 season and locked him in as the starter. That’s mere pennies for the guy at the top of the depth chart these days in a league where Jay Cutler, Joe Flacco, and Matthew Stafford are either signing nine-figure contracts or boasting an annual average value (AAV) in the high teens, and you would have to post some pretty lackluster numbers to not live up to that deal as a veteran passer. But speculation abounds that Smith’s AAV in his next contract will check in at around $15 million, double that of the bargain $7.5 million salary he will play for this season. The cap is rising, giving more flexibility to teams that are facing difficult decisions on non-elite quarterbacks like Smith (and it almost certainly factored into GM Phil Emery’s decision to hand Cutler a $126.7 million deal), but that remains a lot of dough to fork over, especially when …

2. Smith isn’t the only big-name Chief due for a raise. Eric Berry, Tamba Hali, and Justin Houston — the core of Kansas City’s top-five defense — are up for extensions before 2016, and while it seems consensus that the aging Hali will be the odd man out in the near future, a raise for Smith could result in one of Berry or Houston jumping ship. Berry, who finished 37th in the 2013 PFF 101 rankings, and Houston (No. 21) are cornerstone talents that are set to be among the highest paid at their respective positions; so at this point for Dorsey, every dollar counts.

3. Smith isn’t young. Smith turned 30 this month, officially putting him on the wrong side of the quarterback age curve. Chase Stuart of Football Perspective found that the average passer starts declining after his age 29 season, and while Smith can certainly prove to be an outlier (his career debunks a lot of historical trends as it is), the safe bet is that his best years are soon behind him … or perhaps already so. It’s worth mentioning that his body has taken a toll over the years from the 235 sacks he’s absorbed (more on this in a minute), which is good enough for 21st all-time through a quarterback’s first eight seasons*.

4. The Chiefs are very high on Aaron Murray. Or at least they appear to be. Dorsey’s gushing praise of the former Georgia Bulldog after the draft may have simply been GM-speak for an unusually high profile fifth-round draft pick; it may have been carefully calculated words to use as ammo at the negotiation table with Smith and his agent; it may have also been sincere. We don’t know if Murray is merely a future Chase Daniel replacement or if he is seriously in Kansas City’s plans as a possible face of the franchise. It’s clear that he would have been selected at least a round or two earlier if he hadn’t torn his ACL near the end of his final season in Athens, but that injury did happen. And lastly …

5. Smith wasn’t that good in 2013.

This is where it may get controversial.

Due to a fantastically low Interception Percentage in 2013 (third in the league among qualified passers), Smith salvaged a respectable passer rating (14th). Once widely panned as a bust in the pre-Jim Harbaugh days, he has revamped his reputation as an accurate game-manager (10th among all passers in completions over the last three years) that “just wins games” (30-9 in the span).

But despite a shiny 23:7 touchdown-to-interception ratio, his rate stats were paltry in his first season as a Chief. Here’s where he fell among his peers on a throw-by-throw basis that in metrics are more consistently conducive to success than completion percentage:

Metric Y/A AY/A Y/C Sack % NY/A ANY/A
League Ranking 30 17 30 23 29 17

(An explanation for any unfamiliar statistical acronym can be found here.)

Smith naturally fares better in interception-adjusted metrics like Adjusted Yards per Attempt and Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt, but even there he still falls right around the median of the 38 qualified quarterbacks in 2013**.

When examining Smith’s statistical portfolio, the two simple answers to “What holds back his numbers?” is that one, he throws too short too often, and two, he takes a lot of sacks. PFF’s Average Depth of Target (aDOT) measurement has Smith tied for last with Matt Ryan among all quarterbacks in the length of his throws, confirming both his conservative play style and a propensity for getting the ball into Jamaal Charles’ hands in any way possible. And while Smith has mostly been great at avoiding interceptions in his career, having posted a well above-average INT% since 2007, a lot of this is due to that tendency to avoid deeper throws and take a sack instead.

I’ll probably lose a lot of people here. A sack is always better than an interception, right? But while a sack is much less likely to result in a turnover, they can frequently be drive-killers as well … and they happen more frequently. For a guy like Smith, they come a lot more often than the average quarterback.

Stuart penned a very interesting piece at the height of Smith’s 2012 revival about his rare combination of a miniscule interception rate and a bloated sack percentage, and he found that Smith compared most closely to Neil Lomax, Ken O’Brien, and — not so coincidentally, I imagine — Jim Harbaugh. Like Smith, all three posted high completion percentages for the majority of their careers and were known as having below-average arm strength, which probably factored into their decisions to play so conservative. Unlike the former Utah Ute, though, every member of that trio sports a lifetime winning percentage below .500; other than Harbaugh’s Cinderalla 1995 Colts team, none of those guys experienced a deep postseason run in their tenures as starters. Their game-managing credentials*** would have probably been bolstered by playing with the defenses of the 2011 49ers or 2013 Chiefs.

So while Smith avoided outright handing the ball to the other team, he had a problem moving it for his own. Kansas City finished 10th in points-per-drive this season, but I would venture to guess that had more to do with Charles’ 1,980 all-purpose yards than Smith’s 30th-ranked Yards per Attempt figure.

His 2013 performance does deserve some context, though. Smith was sensational against the Colts in the playoffs, appearing ready to cap off another masterpiece like his 2012 divisional round game against the Saints until Andrew Luck ascended to deity status, and one can only gawk at any quarterback putting up 44 points on a day where Charles registered three carries. There is no denying that Smith wasn’t given much to work with in the receiving corps, either — a unit of Donnie Avery, Dwayne Bowe, Anthony Fasano, Dexter McCluster, and Sean McGrath inevitably led to Charles leading the team in catches.

But I believe Smith is closer to the middling numbers he logged in 2013 than the sparklingly efficient performances that Harbaugh wrung out of him, and if you do as well, then why pay him $15 million and cost yourself one of Berry or Houston? Do his supporters honestly believe that the Chiefs can’t find another veteran who can put up a similar statistical profile alongside a dynamic talent like Charles? And what if Murray gets rave reviews in camp? That money could be spent building an NFL-worthy receiving corps.

For full disclosure, I’m not and have never been a Smith fan; however, I can admit that Dorsey doesn’t have an easy play here. It’s an unenviable position for a GM — pay out the ass for a 31-year-old with a Jekyll-and-Hyde resume, or let him walk and play Russian roulette with a new face at the game’s most important position when you have a roster in place that is a viable playoff contender. If Smith leaves town and the defense regresses in 2015, his replacement probably won’t have a chance to duplicate that performance against Indianapolis. And things could sour fast if Murray (or someone else) is taking sacks and throwing picks left and right.

I see this exercise as purely hypothetical, though. Dorsey will throw the necessary money at Smith because GMs all around the league have demonstrated that comfort is key with quarterbacks, even if they are several tiers below the elite passers. If you have a guy that you think you can win playoff games with, you keep him. It seems to be as simple as that these days.

Kansas City’s resurgence has a lot more to do with Charles, Andy Reid, a stocked cupboard on defense, and several more reasons than what Alex Smith has provided … but only time will tell if securing him as your quarterback into his mid-30s is the best course of action.

* Amazingly, Smith has less passing attempts than all but four players among the 20 quarterbacks that rank above him in sacks — Steve Bartkowski, David Carr, Randall Cunningham, and Archie Manning.

** Qualifying in Pro Football Reference’s data base means attempting a minimum of 14 passes per game by season’s end, or 224 in total.

*** In which “game manager” has become lazy media shorthand for “mediocre quarterback with mediocre physical tools who happens to pilot a great defense”.

Brandon (@BrandonMagner) is a recent graduate of the University of Kentucky and will begin attending the Gatton College of Business and Economics in June.

About Brandon Magner (27 Articles)
(@BrandonMagner) is a recent graduate of the one-year MBA program at the Gatton College of Business and Economics. He is now enrolled in the University of Kentucky College of Law.

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