To most, new Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith is seen as a placeholder player -- a bridge guy who can keep the passing offense relatively mistake-free while head coach Andy Reid and new general manager John Dorsey fill in the personnel holes in a roster that produced a 2-14 season in 2012 despite several Pro Bowl-level performances on defense. That's not a knock on Smith; simply a recognition of his physical limitations. The first overall pick in 2005 floundered around in San Francisco until Jim Harbaugh became the 49ers' coach in 2011 and directed Smith to maximize his attributes and eliminate his liabilities.
Basically, Harbaugh wanted Smith to throw away every pass that wasn't a sure thing, and it worked. The 49ers went 13-3 in 2011, and Smith had the NFL's best passer rating when he suffered a concussion against the St. Louis Rams on November 11. Harbaugh replaced Smith with second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick and saw a serious uptick in his offense with Kaepernick's rushing ability and consistent deep-ball acumen. Smith was the odd man out, so the Chiefs got him in a February trade.
Now, with Reid running his offense, one would assume that Smith will once again be directed to keep it vanilla and mistake-free. But during the team's recent string of practices, Reid said that he wants Smith to test the waters and see what he can get away with downfield.
“If it ends up being an interception, OK, it’s an interception," Reid told the Kansas City Star. You learn from it. These are smart guys so they learn from it and once they get into the season, they’re not experimenting with it on game day and they know what they can get away with and know what they can’t.
“It’s a new offense. I would tell any quarterback that comes in new that that’s what you need to do. I’ve told them all that. Go ahead and take your shots and see what you can get away with, within reason. But if it’s a close throw, there are going to be a few of those in the National Football League on game day, so you need to know what you can get away with on each route.”
Reid is frequently thought to be a West Coast Offense-or-bust guy from his days with LaVell Edwards at BYU and Mike Holmgren in Green Bay and on his own in Philadelphia, and he does subscribe to many of those theories. But while the WCO is generally marked by a higher percentage of short and intermediate managed timing throws, Reid has liked his quarterbacks to sling it deep -- especially in the last few seasons, when he had DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin to test pass defenses at a higher level with the Eagles. In that regard, Smith has some work to do.
“You want to stay aggressive,” Smith said. “But in the end I’m always trying to make the right read and throw where the defense is telling me to throw. You don’t come out here and predetermine anything, like ‘Oh, I’m going to chuck it deep on this play.’ I’m constantly trying to just trust my eyes and what I’m seeing out there, trust my reads and what I’ve prepared for and then come out here and throw good balls.”
In 2012, Smith threw the ball 21 or more yards downfield 17 times in 218 total attempts. He completed eight of those passes for 273 yards, three touchdowns, and one interception. By comparison, Nick Foles, who started six games for Reid' Eagles after Michael Vick was hurt, attempted 27 passes of 21 yards or more in 265 attempts, and Vick threw it deep 42 times in 351 attempts.
Smith has the hypothetical ability to get the ball downfield -- anyone playing in the NFL can throw it at a basic level. But it's rare that he's been able to make long stick throws into tight windows; the kinds of plays than define the best signal-callers in the game.
“Everybody is all on board,” Reid said of his new quarterback. “He’s a good football player. He’s showing that good leadership. I’m asking him to do a ton of things. He’s handling it. We’ve had an interception here or there, but that’s all part of this thing. You’ve got to find out about the offense and you can’t do it with your hands in your pocket. You’ve got to go out and try things and experiment. That’s what he’s doing now.
“It’s just good stuff. He’s staying aggressive with the ball, and I appreciate that.”
We'll see how that appreciation manifests itself on game day -- and in the 2014 NFL draft.