Much has been written about our new quarterback, Alex Smith. I’d been planning for weeks to write a column about what the Chiefs need to do at quarterback. But now that the Chiefs have apparently acquired Smith, I’m going to try to come at this from a slightly different direction.
A friend asked me, “Is this trade worth it if Alex Smith takes the Chiefs to the playoffs and wins a playoff game?” As we all know, the Chiefs haven’t won a playoff game since Joe Montana took the Chiefs to the AFC Championship game following the 1993 season. It would be great to win a playoff game.
But the answer, is no. If you’re not trying to win a Super Bowl, you’re not trying. And Alex Smith will not win a Super Bowl.
I hope I’m wrong. I will be rooting for the Chiefs. I’ll be watching every game. But I have no illusions that Smith is the guy. And here’s why.
Elite Quarterbacks Win Super Bowls
I was admittedly late jumping on the whole “elite quarterback” thing. I’ve been an NFL junkie my whole life, and I remember plenty of decent, but not spectacular, quarterbacks leading good teams to Super Bowl victories. But I’m an analytical guy. What can change my mind on a subject? History and facts.
Let’s look at the last 21 Super Bowls — what I would consider the modern era of the NFL. Here’s the list of quarterbacks who have won: Troy Aikman, Steve Young, Brett Favre, John Elway, Kurt Warner, Trent Dilfer, Tom Brady, Brad Johnson, Ben Roethlisberger, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Eli Manning and Joe Flacco.
I would lump these quarterbacks into three categories:
1 – Elite Quarterbacks – Quarterbacks who consistently play at a high level, and are considered among the very best in the league year after year. For me, this includes: Aikman, Young, Favre, Elway, Brady, P. Manning, Brees and Rodgers.
2 – Almost Elite Quarterbacks – These are the guys capable of playing at a very high level for stretches at a time, but don’t do it consistently enough for me to consider them truly elite quarterbacks. For me, this includes: Warner, Roethlisberger, E. Manning and Flacco. (Before this season, it would have been impossible to put Flacco in this category, but he was amazing down the stretch.)
3 – Game Managers – Guys who can make a play here or there, but mostly are there to manage the game, and avoid mistakes. This includes: Dilfer and Johnson.
So out of the last 21 Super Bowls, 19 have been won by elite quarterbacks, or quarterbacks capable of playing at an elite level. And two have been won by game managers. By the numbers, that means that in the modern era of football, non-elite quarterbacks only win 9% of the Super Bowls. Basically one every ten years. Elite and almost elite quarterbacks win 91% of the Super Bowls — nine out of every ten.
How many elite quarterbacks are there in the game today? I probably grade harder than most, but I count four: Rodgers, P. Manning, Brady and Brees. (If you’re counting more than a few guys, then you misunderstand what the word elite means. It means the best of the best.)
How many almost elite quarterbacks are there in the game today? This is a bit harder, but I would include: Matt Ryan, Flacco, E. Manning and Roethlisberger. Cases could be made for a couple others.
And you’ve got a group of young quarterbacks trying to add their names to these lists, such as Robert Griffin III, Russell Wilson, Cam Newton, Andy Dalton and Andrew Luck. Not all of them will make it. Not all of them will become elite quarterbacks.
So going into any given season, how many elite or almost elite quarterbacks are there? I’d say maybe ten. So ten teams cumulatively have about a 90% chance to win the Super Bowl, and the other 22 teams cumulatively have about a 10% chance to win a Super Bowl.
Is Alex Smith an elite quarterback? No. Is he an almost elite quarterback? No. He doesn’t appear to be to me. So statistically, the Chiefs have virtually no chance to win a Super Bowl. They are lumped into the bottom 22 with a cumulative 10% chance to win it all (which breaks down to about a .5% chance per team each year).
Sound bleak? Let me add one more fly to the ointment. When Trent Dilfer won the Super Bowl, the Ravens didn’t have just a great defense, it’s widely been considered one of the best defenses EVER in the history of the NFL. And Brad Johnson? Yes, the Bucs also had a dominating defense the year they won the Super Bowl. Do the Chiefs have a dominating defense? Nope. And if recent history is any indication, it doesn’t appear that a game manager QB can win a Super Bowl without the help of a dominating defense.
Reasons To Be Optimistic About Alex Smith
Alex Smith is a good guy. He’s a leader. He’s athletic. He’s been in a bad situation for years in San Francisco. Multiple defensive-minded head coaches who weren’t very good. Yearly changes with offensive coordinators. Few quarterbacks could thrive under these conditions. But finally the 49ers have a good (maybe great) head coach in Jim Harbaugh, and Smith has played well for him. Alex has become a very good game manager on a team that runs the ball well, plays great defense, and has great coaching.
Andy Reid knows quarterbacks, and word has it that he likes Smith a lot. Alex is accurate on the short and medium range routes, which is vital to run Reid’s version of the West Coast Offense. Maybe it’s the perfect match, and maybe Reid can do what so few other coaches have been able to do in the modern era — win a Super Bowl with a game manager at quarterback. Or maybe Smith will excel and shed the description of game manager. Flacco did it this year.
Reasons To be Pessimistic About Alex Smith
I’m concerned that Smith is Matt Cassel. Their career stats are eerily similar. Cassel put up good numbers in 2008 in New England (good coaching and great organization), and again in 2010 under offensive coordinator Charlie Weis. Under the right coaching and the right surroundings, Cassel has proven to be an effective game manager. But with bad coaching and bad surroundings (the last two years in Kansas City), he’s proven that he’s not a good enough quarterback to elevate the team around him. Alex Smith has been at his best the last two seasons, and his numbers are still very comparable to Cassel’s number from ’08 and ’10.
And the coach who turned around Smith’s career and who knows him as well as anybody, Jim Harbaugh, benched him for a second year quarterback with no experience. Why? Because he wanted a quarterback capable of playing at an elite level.
Draft and Develop
Some have called the trade for Alex Smith “bold”. I don’t understand that at all. Though the Chiefs gave up quite a bit to get Smith, I think this move was incredibly safe. The Chiefs will be better next year with Reid and Smith. I would venture to guess that the Chiefs will make the playoffs in the next two to three years. They might even win a playoff game. I think Smith is likely to be an effective quarterback in Reid’s system.
Does that make this trade worth it? No. If you’re not trying to win a Super Bowl, you’re not trying.
The Chiefs have clearly decided that Smith is a better option than the quarterbacks available in this year’s draft. And in the short term, they’re probably right. But somewhere in this draft is a quarterback who will become an elite quarterback, or at least is capable of playing at an elite level. There is a quarterback in this draft who will become a better quarterback than Alex Smith. Who? I don’t know. Maybe Geno Smith. Maybe not. But the odds are a lot better on winning a Super Bowl with a quarterback with a high ceiling capable of playing at an elite level, than settling for another game manager.