Let me say, first off, that many Alex Smith fans will not like what I have to say here. To be clear, Smith is having the best season of his career, I’m not trying to take that away from him. I am, however, attempting to understand how a veteran QB, who’s been in the league for 12 years, could suddenly have a huge leap in production. That’s not the kind of improvement you typically see, this late in someone’s career. For the sake of my own curiosity, I had to figure out how and why Smith changed, or perhaps, more correctly, if he changed.
#1. Pass Attempts: Over his career in KC, Smith has averaged 487.2 passing attempts per year. This year, Smith has thrown the ball 505 times, or about 18 more attempts than average. There are likely reasons for this: the Chiefs poor defense meant they spend less time trying to run out the clock, also, their poor run-blocking meant the Chiefs had to completely abandon the run at times. Regardless of the cause, to get a true picture of Smith’s performance, we need to adjust for targets. If Smith had thrown the ball the average number of times, and maintained the same YPA (yards per attempt) he would have thrown for 3,898 yards, this season.
#2. Tyreek The Freak: Chiefs fans know that Hill is really good, I think most still don’t fully comprehend just how good he is. I think there’s a serious argument to be made that Hill is the best WR in the NFL. This season, in 105 targets, Hill had a 71.4% catch rate, and an, absolutely insane, 15.8 YPR (yards per reception). That YPR and catch rate, in over 100 targets, haven’t been matched, or bested, by a WR since 1992, that’s over two and one-half decades.
So, how would Smith’s yard totals be affected if he was throwing to a WR who was merely one of the best in the NFL? If you average together the stats of Antonio Brown, Keenan Allen, Julio Jones, and Adam Thielen (widely accepted to be among the most productive WRs in the NFL), you come up with a 62.2% catch rate, and 14.85 YPR. Note that this is nearly 10% worse than Hill in catch rate, and over a yard less per reception. That’s how much better Hill is than the league’s best. Assuming Hill simply matched the output of elite WRs, he would, in his 105 targets, have produced 965 yards, rather than the 1183 yards he actually produced. This would reduce Smith’s yard total, for the year, by 218 yards.
Running Yard Total: 3,898 – 218 = 3680
#3. Kelce and Hunt: I went through the same process with Kelce and Hunt as I did with Hill, but Hill’s production was by far the most impressive. If Kelce had produced on average, like Gronk, Hunter Henry, Jordan Reed, Delanie Walker and Jimmie Graham, he would have produced 97 less yards than he did. If Hunt had produced on par with Devonta Freeman, Le’Veon Bell, Ezekiel Elliot, and LeSean McCoy, he would have produced 41 less yards receiving. The total between those two, comes to 138.
Final Yard Total: 3680 – 138 = 3542
Conclusion: Smith has done a good job with the pieces he has. Even with adjustment, this is his best year, statistically of his career. Has he improved? Undeniably. Is he a completely different player, on par with the Brady’s and the Roethlesburger’s of the world? No. Smith is a good QB who makes quality use of the best TE, WR and RB in the NFL, but, with merely elite players, he’d be producing only 2.7 more yards per game than he did last year. A lot of fans are nervous to let Smith go, after his best year ever. The stats provide important context for those numbers. Chiefs have the talent to make any QB look good. If the Chiefs keep Smith, that’s fine, he’ll continue to produce well, given his supporting cast. If they decide to let Smith go, we might just discover that Mahomes can thrive in this system, with these players, as well.
Bonus Thought: Some will, no doubt, point out that the QB plays a role in catch rate, and Smith deserves credit for throwing accurate passes. This is true, but, to my eyes, Smith is pretty much the same QB, accuracy wise, that he’s been. That’s born out, to a degree in the numbers. In 2016, Smith completed 67.1% of his passes and, this season, has completed 67.5%. Alex Smith has benefited the most, this year, from Hill’s league leading ability to track the deep ball and make special adjustments, on less than perfect throws.
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