The last thing the Kansas City Chiefs need as they try to build on last season's impressive rebound is a problem with their quarterback's long-term contract, but that's exactly what they have. Alex Smith, the former 49er who put up several career highs in 2013 after he was traded from San Francisco to Kansas City last March, was a natural fit in head coach Andy Reid's offense, which has given ample opportunities to several physically limited quarterbacks through the years (Just ask Kevin Kolb about that).
And before he was usurped by Colin Kaepernick halfway through the 49ers' Super Bowl season of 2012, Smith did his level best under Jim Harbaugh, who accentuated his abilities and managed his liabilities to an admirable degree. It was a far cry from Smith's first half-decade of disasters, which started when he was over-drafted as the first overall pick in 2005, had very little around him, and had a new offensive coordinator every year.
Now, fresh off a season in which he completed 308 passes in 508 attempts for 3,313 yards and 23 touchdowns, Smith reportedly wants a contract that would pay him somewhere above the seven-year, $126.7 million deal Chicago's Jay Cutler received in January. This would seem to be an overpayment for a player who has thrown for more than 3,000 yards just twice, and more than 20 touchdowns once, in nine NFL seasons. Still, Smith and Chiefs are trying to talk it out.
"Well, there's open communication between both parties," Reid told the NFL Network this week. "Now, I'm not in that business anymore — that's [General Manager] John Dorsey's side of it — but there's been open communication. I can't put a time frame on that, but I'm sure something will get done."
But if Smith is really looking for that kind of cash, the Chiefs would be easily forgiven for balking at that idea. For several reasons, Smith is a quarterback who needs a system to succeed, and he should be priced accordingly.
Quarterbacks like Cutler (and Tom Brady and Joe Flacco and Aaron Rodgers — the top-tier guys in the league) have an array of mechanical advantages Smith simply doesn't. Reid and Harbaugh put Smith in situations where he had clearly defined reads, could roll out if he was in trouble, didn't have to make stick throws downfield against converging defenders and was directed to throw the ball away if he didn't like what he saw. The last coaching point is why Smith's interception ratio has been so good over the last three years (1.1 percent in 2011, 2.3 in 2012, and 1.4 in 2013). It's not because Smith has the accuracy and velocity to hit his target with trouble all around him. It's because he's more cautious.
Now, it's not pejorative to call a quarterback a system player — every quarterback must work within a system — and some are better for each individual quarterback than others. Mike Martz's offenses have required quarterbacks to have an excellent deep ball, but Martz's lack of protection in formations means that his best quarterbacks — Kurt Warner is the optimal example — get the ball out quickly in three- and five-step drops. Put Cutler or Flacco in a Martz offense, as Cutler was in for the 2010 and 2011 seasons, and you're going to get a gun-shy thrower who will either have to shorten his steps or get his brains beaten in. Similarly, those offensive coordinators who need the vertical game to work would not necessarily want a quarterback like Smith, who has a limited arm and works best with multiple options in a quick-draw offense. Whether in Greg Roman's power-based passing game in San Francisco, or Reid's zone-derivative West Coast Offense in Kansas City, Smith has been buttressed by his system, and by those around him, more than you'd want from the truly elite.
So, how do we define the best quarterbacks? We could start with deep-ball efficiency. After all, Reid's offense may be West Coast in nature, but he works best with one deep target. In 2013, per Pro Football Focus, Smith threw the ball over 20 yards in the air on 8.1 percent of his attempts. Only Atlanta's Matt Ryan and Jacksonville's Chad Henne had lower percentages. He completed 13 of 41 attempts for 420 yards on those deep attempts, and recorded four touchdowns and no interceptions. Pretty good numbers, but a very low sample size. In 2011, his last season as a full-year starter in San Francisco, Smith threw deep on 9.7 percent of his attempts, fourth-fewest in the league. He completed 17 of 43 attempts for 556 yards, four touchdowns and two picks. Again, good numbers ... but again, small sample size. And it was clear that the 49ers weren't reining Smith in because that's what they preferred. In 2012, Kaepernick threw deep on 15.1 percent of his passes, seventh-most in the NFL. That rate stayed up with 13.7 percent in 2013. It's pretty clear that Smith's coaches understand that he's not a good deep thrower and they adjust accordingly.
We could also define a truly great quarterback by how he operates under pressure. In 2013, Smith was pressured on 34.7 percent of his dropbacks, and he completed 46.1 percent of those passes under pressure. Both numbers are middle of the pack, which is not surprising, since Smith has been good throwing on the run since he played in Urban Meyer's option offense at Utah. But his four touchdowns under pressure pale in comparison to Russell Wilson, Ben Roethlisberger and Drew Brees, each of whom threw 10 touchdowns last season under pressure. When the bullets are flying, so to speak, Smith is a drive extender. He's smart, he understands his limitations, and he doesn't make an abnormal number of mistakes. And that's all good, but it doesn't put him in a higher stratosphere.
So, where is Smith in the economic structure of quarterbacks? The horrible deals given to quarterbacks like Kolb (six years, $63 million with the Cardinals) and Ryan Fitzpatrick (six years, $59 million with the Bills) a few years back scared teams away from giving huge dollars to quarterbacks who need a lot of help, and rightfully so. When the Seahawks signed former Packers backup Matt Flynn to a $26 million deal with $10 million guaranteed in 2012, they were relatively protected when Wilson came in as a rookie and took the starting job away. The Flynn deal was still a bad one, but not the kind of contractual albatross that gets people fired.
And that's what the Chiefs have to balance now. They're going into the 2014 season with a lot of expectations and a tougher schedule than they had last year. They may see Smith as their franchise quarterback of the future, but it's just as possible that Smith is seen by Reid and Dorsey as a stopgap until they can draft the guy they want in that chair for the next half-decade. If the latter is the case (and that would be in line with Smith's career accomplishments), a deal somewhere between Flynn's, and the onerous contracts given to Kolb and Fitzpatrick, would be fair. It's pretty simple, really. Alex Smith has never played like a top-five quarterback long enough to be paid like one. And this long into his career, the NFL is going to want him to prove that things can be different in the future.