Chiefs' Fisher is playing hurt, but he needs to be pushed -- or replaced
Kansas City quarterback Alex Smith can only be as good as his offensive line allows him -- which is why the Chiefs need to know with 100-percent certainty that former No. 1 overall pick Eric Fisher is healthy enough to protect his blind side.
Eric Fisher is still working his way back from two offseason surgeries.
Todd Weddle / AP
By Sean Keeler
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- A rushed Alex Smith is a bad Alex Smith. Actually, let's clarify that a little: A rushed Alex Smith is a mediocre Alex Smith.
Since 2011, when the Kansas City Chiefs' quarterback turned the corner for the better in his NFL career, Smith's completion percentages while "pressured," according to Pro Football Focus, are as follows: 41.7 ('11), 51.2 ('12), 47.8 ('13). From his overall completion percentages of 61.3, 70.2 and 60.6, that's an average drop of a whopping 17.3 percentage points, while rushed, per season.
No quarterback is as effective while forced to throw on the run, and No. 11 is no exception. In fact, he's kind of the rule. Of the 37 NFL signal-callers, per year, who appeared in at least 25 percent of their team's snaps from 2011 through 2013, Smith ranked 18th in terms of completion percentage while pressured.
Which is a roundabout and statsy way of saying getting the blind side of the offensive side fixed -- or at least stable -- figures to be fairly critical to the narrative if the Chiefs don't want to look like the Chiefs who turned up Saturday night at Arrowhead Stadium against Minnesota. Which also sort of brings us back to second-year left tackle Eric Fisher, the franchise gatekeeper whose play has been likened, as of late, to the turnstiles at Oceans of Fun.
The scouts at PFF have graded Fisher at -2.5 overall in three preseason appearances, -2.2 on pass protection. They've credited him with one sack allowed, one hit and three hurries surrendered in 102 snaps. And that's actually a slight improvement over his rookie preseason last summer at right tackle, where in 83 preseason snaps the No. 1 overall pick in 2013 was charged with a sack and five hurries and graded out at -4.8 overall.
Of the 66 NFL tackles to appear on at least 50 percent of their team's preseason snaps, Fisher's overall PFF grade is tied for 45th -- and, coincidentally, tied with the man selected right after him in the 2013 draft, Jacksonville's Luke Joeckel.
"Coming off my two surgeries, it's taken a little bit (of time)," said Fisher, who sat out most of the spring and early summer practice sessions recovering from procedures designed to address his shoulder and a sports hernia. "But I think I'm right at the tail end there and ready for the season. I just need to recover a little bit right now and I'm really excited for the coming season."
Time's a-wastin'. The final dry run is Thursday night in Green Bay, and the Chiefs' pieces along the offensive front are still a jumbled mess. Through three preseason contests, The Andy Gang has allowed 14 sacks -- five of them against the Vikings in a 30-12 cringeworthy loss, all while rushing at a clip of just 3.8 yards per carry. With arguably the team's best tackle in Donald Stephenson out for the first four games of the regular season because of a PED-related suspension, coach Andy Reid was forced to mix-and-match under fire, moving left guard Jeff Allen over to Stephenson's old spot at right tackle and inserting Jeff Linkenbach -- who would later rotate with Ricky Henry -- at left guard.
Rookie right guard Zach Fulton has the raw tools, but the longer the month has gone, the more his youth, and the cracks, start to show. PFF rated the sixth-rounder out of Tennessee at a -3.8 versus Minnesota and a -4.6 at Carolina before that. Among the eight offensive linemen to receive at least 75 preseason snaps through three games, only center Eric Kush (+5.2) and swing tackle Ryan Harris (+4.8) have gotten cumulative positive grades from the site.
With the season opener 11 days away, it's a patchwork job on the fly, and those are the toughest kind. In the meantime, 1 Arrowhead Drive is the new Ellis Island for wayward offensive linemen: Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to block Von Miller. Guard Mike McGlynn, 29, was the newest import, agreeing to a deal Wednesday after five seasons and 48 NFL starts, 30 of which came with the Colts from 2012 through 2013. He's now the oldest member of a line group in which the average age of the starters during Week 1 of the preseason was just 24.
And then there's Fisher, 23, the poster child of the lot. With Branden Albert expected to walk after 2013, Fisher was drafted out of Central Michigan to be the franchise left tackle, one of the anchors for the future. In 811 regular-season snaps last fall at right tackle, a less familiar spot, Big 72 was charged with 35 hurries, five hits and seven sacks as a rookie, grading out with PFF at a -3.8 on run blocking, -17.2 on pass blocking and -21.5 overall.
When Albert took his talents, as expected, to Miami, the move back to the left side was supposed to speed up Fisher's NFL acclimation process. But the surgeries have made it appear as if Fisher is trying to protect Smith's blind side with only one good arm -- a recipe that has, no shock, led to three of the deadliest sins in the passing game: penalties, hurried throws and turnovers. With no Albert or Geoff Schwartz around, there's a dearth of proven veteran voices, a scarcity of calming influences when the roof starts to cave in.
"Oh, it's not a burden at all," Fisher said. "If anything, we look at it as such an opportunity for us: To be such a young offensive line and do great things. And that's what we're striving for."
Fisher missed Tuesday's practice with a "sore throat," Reid said, and -- as with most of the projected starters -- probably won't play Thursday night in Wisconsin, as per usual preseason protocol. The coach wants to use the final exhibition to gauge the bottom half of the roster, which is standard operating procedure.
Given his upper-body discomfort, the best thing for Fisher right now might very well be an extended rest. And given the importance of keeping Smith upright, the best thing for the Chiefs right now might be searching for a viable, short-term, veteran stopgap to push or supplant him. The shopping continues.
"Fish is a warrior, and I have no doubts (that) he's out there working his ass off and I'm sure he's going to continue to do that," Linkenbach said of his young teammate. "He didn't get the OTAs down or the reps down, but he's not one to make excuses.
"And there's no excuses in this league, period. So we, as a unit, need to do better. It's not just on Fish. It's not just on any one player."
It is if that one player is at left tackle, often the only thing on the perimeter that's keeping your quarterback from worrying about becoming a turf sandwich. You can try to protect the blind side with one arm tied behind your back. But you're tying the arm of your entire offense in the process.