Alex Smith is Benefiting From a Collegiate Spread Offense
Dissecting Alex Smith’s meteoric rise this season is tricky. Now in year thirteen, Smith has not suddenly revamped his game in a way that lends to better production. He is playing the best football of his career, but is not playing a different brand of football than before.
Smith is still a hyper-conservative quarterback. NFL’s Next Gen Stats records Smith’s “Average Intended Air Yards” as 7.7 yards so far this season, up only slightly from his 2016 mark of 7.5 yards. According to Football Outsiders’ ALEX stat, no quarterback threw short of the sticks on third down more than Smith through the first four games of the season. ALEX is only updated every four weeks, so it’s possible that Smith rose a spot or two after Week 5. That does not change the fact he is still very safe with the ball. And yes, the ALEX stat is named that for the exact reason you think it is.
Smith is mostly the same quarterback, he’s just a better version of it. Never in his career has Smith been this efficient, though. Since joining the Chiefs, Smith has never thrown more than eight touchdowns or fewer than two interceptions through the first five games of the season. Smith currently has 11 passing touchdowns and zero interceptions on the year. His completion percentage and adjusted net yards per attempt (ANY/A) are both tops in the league.
Perhaps the more intriguing aspect of the Chiefs offense is not that Smith is producing, but how it is happening. Andy Reid has tweaked the offense to look like a collegiate spread offense. The passing game is centered around quick passing out of shotgun, manipulating space with offset double and tight bunch formations, and run-pass options. On the ground, the Chiefs mostly lean on inside zone, outside zone, and option plays. The offense features many of the same principals in college offenses such as Clemson, Oregon, and Oklahoma State. NFL teams operating under center more than college teams does not necessarily make the concepts any different.
Reid’s explicit emphasis on various types of option plays has been the key to unlocking Smith. Be it run-pass options, true read-option rushing plays, or shovel-options, Reid has centered short-yardage plays around letting Smith key a defender and pitch or throw off of him. For the offense, run-pass options are some of the easiest concepts to run, but the most difficult for defenses to stop. Reid has done well to implement run-pass options into the offense effectively.
This run-pass option has two possible reads — one pre-snap (pass read), one post-snap (run read). The defensive back lined up over Travis Kelce (bottom) is the pre-snap read. Smith is reading whether the defensive back will be in position to play Kelce’s ‘out’ route appropriately. In this example, Smith believes the defender is too far away to make the play. Smith accordingly pulls the ball from the running back and throws to Kelce.
The other possibility on this play is that Smith reads the weak side defensive end on a read-option run. Had the defensive back been playing tighter to Kelce, Smith would have resorted to the run option. Smith would either hand the ball off to the running back or pull the ball to run himself, depending on whether the defensive end chases the running back or stays put to stifle Smith.
Only one defender needs to be keyed on this play. The middle linebacker, aligned over the right hash, is Smith’s run-pass determiner. If the linebacker stays put, Smith hands the ball off to the running back. Smith pulls the ball to throw the slant route if the linebacker plays the run.
On this play, Chargers linebacker Jatavis Brown makes a few steps toward defending the run action. His movement creates a passing window behind him. Smith pulls the ball once Brown is fully committed and throws a pass right to the vacated area.
Reid continues to put interesting spins on well known concepts. This is a form of triple-option, the same style of offense Georgia Tech and Navy run. Instead of a traditional triple-option, though, Reid combines two different run option plays into one: power-read and shovel-option.
Power-read (a.k.a. inverted veer) was a core concept of Cam Newton’s Auburn team, and it is still used throughout college football. Shovel-option is like an inverted or double speed-option, where the quarterback is running behind a pitch player and has the option to shovel it forward to him. Pitt and Clemson have been notorious for this concept at the college level recently. Urban Meyer used the shovel-option when he coached Alex Smith at Utah, later on with Tim Tebow at Florida, and now with J.T. Barrett at Ohio State. Shovel-option has found its way to the NFL, resurfacing heavily last season and continuing to surge this season.
In example above, Smith is initially reading if the motion brings a defender into the box. It does not, so Smith knows the shovel player should have room to work with. Once the ball is live, Smith is reading the edge defender. The edge defender widens out with the hand-off player, leaving room for Smith to power it through himself or pitch to the wide receiver who motioned in, Albert Wilson. Knowing pre-snap that the box would be soft for Wilson, Smith shovels the ball to Wilson for an easy touchdown. (For a deeper dive into this particular concept and related option concepts, read Charles McDonald’s explanation on Football Outsiders.)
Part of the mystery with Smith’s production is plays like those. Smith has recorded a few “passing” touchdowns this season off of that shovel-option, even though it is basically a run play. That is not to say Smith’s numbers are entirely fraudulent, but they are somewhat padded via the luxury of having Reid scheme “passes” to a very talented skill group.
Where Smith has played his part in orchestrating a career-year is being slightly more willing to throw deep than before. As stated earlier on, Smith’s numbers do not suggest he is much more aggressive this year than last year, but the handful of plays where he is more aggressive have made a noticeable difference.
Smith hates making this throw. He has the talent to make it regularly. For most of his career, though, he has opted not to. That is still largely true this year, but Smith has been willing to take one or two shots a game. By his standards, that is refreshing.
A previous incarnation of Alex Smith would have stared at the deep route for a second, twitched his arm to suggest he might try it, then checked down instead. Not this Alex Smith. Not every time, at least. Smith is still throwing deep less than most quarterbacks, but he’s made a stride.
Smith has also proven more confident out of the pocket. Previously, Smith was erratic and skittish outside of the pocket. In some instances, he still is, but he has been more poised this year. He has flashed the ability to make difficult plays when the structured play fizzles out.
Smith made this heroic play in the final minutes of Kansas City’s prime time battle versus Washington. Based on his track record, it would have been fair to assume Smith would throw this way. That Smith could keep his eyes up while moving and show the confidence to make that throw is, again, refreshing. The Chiefs have been waiting for that play from Smith for years and they finally got it.
The improvements Smith have made on himself are minor, but they are enough to build upon the offense’s efficiency. Smith does not have to be a superstar quarterback all the time. Nobody was asking Smith to turn into Jameis Winston or Andrew Luck. Reid just needed Smith to have a couple of more big plays per game, and he has done that. The entire offense has benefited as a result.
Alex Smith’s dominance this season is less about his personal improvements, rather than what his minor improvements mean in the context of an overall more efficient offense. The increased threat of throwing deep has helped open the run game and quick passing game. In turn, Kansas City’s punishing rushing attack and highly efficient quick passing game take advantage of fearful defenses. The offense is operating in a perfect symbiotic relationship, carried by supreme talent at the skill positions and pushed along by a functional quarterback.
How far this formula takes the Chiefs is to be seen. They look like the best team in football right now and, barring injury, there is little reason to believe their offense slows down anytime soon. Smith is at a defining moment in his career and he can be the one to keep this offense running at a league-best level. Hopefully this version of Alex Smith remains.