When it comes to Chiefs QB Alex Smith, is it better to be sorry than safe?
Alex Smith plays smart, low-risk football, that's no secret. But is it time for him to let loose?
By SEAN KEELERFS Kansas City
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The book says the Alex Smith passing tree hits every direction along the compass, and with surgical precision, save for one fairly big one: North. An upgrade, he is. "The Mad Bomber," he ain't.
Statistically, Smith is the anti-Lamonica: accurate, smart, low-risk, right-of-Rush conservative, a pilot with an excellent safety record but pretty dull flight plans. Before his trade to the
Kansas City Chiefs, the nicer San Francisco fans called him "efficient," the jerks called him "Checkdown Charlie," and ne'er the twain.
Smith currently ranks 25th among active quarterbacks in terms of yards per pass attempt in his career (6.6) and ranks 28th in yards per completion (11.1). With the bulk of his heavy preseason lifting done, the early numbers with the Chiefs certainly fall in line with the rest of the NFL dossier: 6 yards per attempt; 9.29 yards per completion.
In fact, among the 11 signal-callers who've attempted at least 47 throws this month, only young'uns Ryan Mallett of New England (5.5) and Brock Osweiler of Denver (5.5) have managed less yards per attempt than Smith. And only Osweiler has a lower yards-per-completion number (8.39).
Break down Smith's 31 preseason completions, and the numbers are even more telling:
+ Catches by wideouts: 15
+ Catches by tight ends: 7
+ Catches by backs: 9
+ Catches that were gains of 11 yards or more: 9
+ Catches that were gains of 7 yards or less: 12
No completion went for more than 30 yards (Smith's longest play from scrimmage, actually, was with his feet -- a 38-yard scramble last Saturday at Pittsburgh). No picks. Five sacks.
"First of all, he's a tough guy," coach Andy Reid said during a conference call earlier this week. "And his efficiency -- he does the right thing with the ball and gives his receivers an opportunity to run after the catch. He orchestrates, if a play comes in or we give him an option, according to a coverage or a front. He's very accurate with those things. He manages a game well. You're not calling a lot of timeouts because he's not able to distribute the plays to the team. He just handles all of those things very well."
With Smith, it's safety first. But can a passing game with that much bubble wrap get anywhere in a hurry, if the situation dictates?
Smith's cool hand in the 2-minute drill that ended the first half against the Steelers would seem to say so: Six completions, four first downs converted, 60 yards traversed in a span of 60 seconds.
Give his receivers a 5-yard cushion, and Smith will go Ginsu on your secondary all day, carving up the yardage, one dink at a time. But the biggest question coming into the preseason with Smith is still one of the biggies coming out of it -- namely, does the new Chiefs quarterback have the trigger to make defenders respect the deep ball?
History says no. And August, so far, has been inconclusive. But Donnie Avery can run only so many crossing routes before some slap-happy outside linebacker decides to clean his cuckoo clock. Vertical threats at tight end can open up some space, but with rookie Travis Kelce on the mend and veteran Tony Moeaki officially sidelined again, this time with a fractured shoulder, the position at present amounts to Anthony Fasano and a roll of the dice.
Every once in a while, it's better to be sorry than safe. A diet of short throws -- jab after jab after jab -- isn't the end of the world, but in the NFL, now more than ever, conversions downfield separate the men from the boys. Since 2008, of the 25 clubs that wound up among the top five in yards per attempt, 17 of them -- 68 percent, more than two-thirds -- made the postseason. But check out what happens on the other end of the spectrum: Of the 25 teams among the bottom five in yards per attempt since 2008, 23 of them -- 92 percent -- missed the playoffs entirely.
The box can become a very, very crowded place once defenses feel comfortable enough to camp out inside of it. For a quarterback, it can become a very, very lonely place, too.
You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @seankeeler or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org