When Andy Reid and the Chiefs take on the Eagles tomorrow night, their opponent won’t be the only team with a mobile quarterback on the field. After being cast aside by the hyperathletic and uniquely mobile Colin Kaepernick last season, there’s a tendency to believe that Smith was the dull, safe quarterback while Kaepernick was the complete opposite: a dynamic game-changer that broached excellence and success in a way that Smith never did.
While this is certainly true in some senses, as Kaepernick is definitely a more explosive and effective playmaker than Smith, Smith is not a singularly talented quarterback that is incapable of having more than a neutral effect on games. There is no doubt that Smith is not in the upper echelon of quarterbacks, but in this golden age of signal callers, its not an insult to simply be considered ‘good’. And Smith is exactly that, a good quarterback that can take his team to the post-season so long as he’s complemented with a solid defense and a coach that believes in him.
We saw the effect that Jim Harbaugh had on Smith in relation to some of the previous coaches and coordinators that the 49ers rotated in-and-out around Smith during his first few years in the league, Smith compiling as many playbooks as I have textbooks around me right now. Harbaugh instilled confidence in him and Smith was having the best two seasons of his career up until an injury opened to the door for Kaepernick to steal the spotlight. But while Harbaugh’s effect on Smith was certainly positive, he also kept him on a leash, which exacerbated the gap between Smith (who was solely a game-manager for that team) and the naturally perilous Kaepernick.
There’s a reason that one of Andy Reid’s first decisions as the coach of the Chiefs was to trade what will likely end up being a second round pick for Smith. Smith proved in his last two seasons in San Fransisco that he was capable of being an efficient passer, more adept at handling pressure than his younger self, and also a threat with his legs. Ironically enough, Smith is a very good athlete and yet never had a chance to run the read-option elements of the 49ers’ offense on a consistent basis; only when Kaepernick was the full-time starter did that portion of the playbook become available on every down.
Through two games, it appears as if Reid is going to give Smith a chance to make plays with his arm and his legs. While Smith is still a bit tamed in that he isn’t going to try and fit the ball into tight windows too often, being impervious to potentially horrendous mistakes is not necessarily a bad thing so long as he makes the throws he should, as Smith has learned to do. And now, in addition to unscripted scrambles that Smith has become quite good at, Smith is finally getting a shot at running some of the read-option plays that he ran at Utah and that he didn’t get a chance to run a lot last year with the 49ers.
After being unseated from the dream job of quarterbacking a team with an overpowering run game and one of the two best defenses in football by Colin Kaepernick last season, who would have thought that Alex Smith’s career would benefit greatly by working with Chris Ault, the coach that prepared Kaepernick to be a difference maker and invented the Pistol formation when he was at Nevada? This ironic twist is just another interesting chapter in Smith’s saga, and it seems as if Ault is already diversifying Smith’s game after just two weeks. (If you’d like a stat to back that up, consider that Smith currently has more rushing yards than the Pittsburgh Steelers and New York Giants do as teams.)
I’ll admit that I overlooked the potential for Ault to infuse elements of the read-option to the Chiefs offense when they hired him as a consultant this off-season. When I first saw the news, I assumed Kansas City made this move in hopes of figuring out ways to stop the read-option, similar to how the Green Bay Packers sent some of their staff members to College Station this off-season to study the weaknesses in Johnny Football’s offense, but now we know that Ault is a dual-threat adviser in the same way that Smith is a dual-threat quarterback.
On Kansas City’s opening drive against the Cowboys this weekend, Smith had five carries for 40 yards. A couple of these plays were designed runs and the others were impromptu scrambles as the Cowboys went to man coverage. It was clearly an unexpected deviation from the general perception of the ‘Alex Smith gameplan’ and it’s a nice way for the Chiefs offense to throw different looks at the defense.
The very first play from scrimmage was this beautifully designed triple-option that featured the base pistol formation with Dexter McCluster motioning into the backfield to act as the pitch man. Here you can see Smith is reading the defensive end, who is being left unblocked so that Anthony Fasano can get to the next level. The defensive end crashes, which means Smith keeps it and attacks the edge, which has been sealed. With McCluster spacing it out, Smith’s next read is Brandon Carr, the cornerback on the outside who can choose to take the quarterback or the pitch man. Carr actually does a pretty good job of disguising his intention and not getting out of position, and stops the play from being a big gain, but throwing this look out of this formation can give a defense nightmares if one player takes a wrong step.
Smith is also adept of getting out of the pocket after going through his progressions and seeing nothing worthwhile. Though he once escaped the pocket too quickly, disregarding open receivers for futile gains, he’s become much better at diagnosing which situations best call for him to take off.
This play came on a 3rd and 15 at Dallas’ 35 yardline, so a failure to convert here would have changed the complexion of what ended up being a one-point game. The Chiefs went with four wide receivers and a tight end on this play and the Cowboys countered with Cover 1, which is man coverage (usually in the nickel) with one safety deep. The Cowboys did a great job on their coverage and although there were a couple of underneath routes developing on the left side of the field, those completions wouldn’t have netted a first down. So instead, with the pocket collapsing on his blindside, Smith escaped to a ton of green grass on the right side and made a crucial 17-yard play with his legs.
Later on the same drive, Smith finds a way to foil man coverage again.
The Cowboys dial up Cover 1 again on this play but have also seemingly spied Sean Lee, one of the best middle linebackers in football, to keep Smith from running on them. Amazingly, by simply shifting the pocket to the right a bit, Smith gets Lee to bite and step to the right before Smith tucks the ball and takes off through a gap in the line on the left side for a 13 yard gain. Interestingly enough, Smith is starting to make defenses pay in the same way that Kaepernick did on passing plays, killing teams for playing man-to-man coverages, which puts their defenders’ backs to the action and gives him some space to get free.
What was great about Kansas City’s gameplan against the Cowboys is that they came out with a couple of designed QB runs and had Smith pick up some yards with his legs on his own, which gave Dallas the sense that that was how they would play. Instead, the Chiefs incorporated spread elements and typical run formations throughout the game, offering up a diverse set of problems for the Dallas defense, only sprinkling in those read-options plays a few more times throughout the game.
In the second quarter we got another dose of the read-option from the Chiefs. This time there was no pitchman; instead, the Chiefs work out of the Pistol with Heavy or Tank personnel on the field (2 TE-2 RB-1 WR). The fullback is going to pull and help set the edge on the right side while the rest of the line (with the exception of the playside tight end), block left to help open rush lanes for Charles. As they did for most of the game, the unblocked defensive end crashes on Charles, freeing up Smith to get a positive eight yard gain on the play.
Smith has always been able to make plays with his legs and he racked up over 700 yards on the ground during his seven years with the 49ers. But his dual-threat ability has never been more pronounced than it is right now. With his very conservative approach to passing, being able to hurt the defense on the ground isn’t so much a luxury for Smith, but instead a necessity for his team to operate as efficiently as possible. It’s why Jim Harbuagh opted to stick with the more dynamic Kaepernick.
Eliminating the tendency to dink-and-dunk their way down the field by incorporating some read-option elements to an already strong running game gives the Chiefs the most dynamic offense that they’ve had in years. A season ago, it would have been hard to imagine Alex Smith’s implementation into an offense leading to a diversification in your offense’s options, but it goes to show that a little creativity in your scheme can go along way in furthering the effectiveness of its weapons.