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The 5 O’Clock Club: Where do we go next with Alex Smith?

It’s 5 o’clock somewhere…

Indianapolis Colts v Washington Redskins Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

The 5 o’clock club is published Wednesday to Saturday during the season, and aims to provide a forum for reader-driven discussion at a time of day when there isn’t much NFL news being published. Feel free to introduce topics that interest you in the comments below.

Alex Smith, starting quarterback for the Redskins

We’re four games into the Alex Smith era.

He’s had two good games, each pretty barren of 2nd half scoring, one bad game against the Colts, and one absolute stinker on Monday night in New Orleans.

Sub-par performance for the first quarter of the season

This is not what the franchise was supposed to be getting in trade from Kansas City. The Redskins were supposed to get a quarterback who was the NFL’s leading passer in 2017, and who spent much of last season in the discussion for league MVP.

Why do I think so? Because Jay Gruden said so:

That’s why we wanted to get a veteran quarterback here that can adjust to different schemes and alert on the fly. We are not in here to build the team around him; the team is built and he has to lead it, like, right now.

“He’s the smartest person I’ve been around, without a doubt. He’ll get the most of his receivers and offensive line because they’re going to want to play for him and they’re going to feel confident that he’s going to make something happen in a positive way.

This isn’t what we’ve seen from Alex Smith in the first quarter of the 2018 season. He hasn’t really looked comfortable on the field, and the offense has regressed significantly since last year.

Should the front office plan to take action at the end of the season?

If half of his games are gonna look like the Colts and the Saints, and Alex Smith isn’t able to lead the team to victory “like, right now”, then is it worth having Alex and his 5-year, $111,000,000 contract in DC?

I mean, you pay a guy premium money to be a difference-maker. So far Alex hasn’t made any positive difference.

Maybe Alex Smith should be gone at the end of this season.

I mean, if the Redskins aren’t gonna be in the playoffs anyway, would it be any worse to roll out a budget QB like Colt McCoy for a year? Other teams have successfully relied on short-term placeholders like Ryan Fitzpatrick or Josh McCown for a few games or a season.

The Redskins could draft a rookie QB this offseason, and by 2020 the Redskins could look like the 2018 Bears or Browns, playing exciting ball behind a young signal caller with his entire career in front of him!

Yes, I know... the contract and the guaranteed money

I can hear you shouting at me already...

“It’s not possible!” you just yelled out loud as you spilled your morning coffee onto your computer keyboard.

“Alex Smith has $71m guaranteed. The Redskins are stuck with him for 3 years — maybe even 5 years. We can’t cut him.”

Well... yes and no.

Alex Smith isn’t yet guaranteed $71m

Alex Smith wasn’t guaranteed $71m at signing his contract.

His initial guarantee is for $55m over the first two seasons (‘18 and ‘19). The next $16m — his 2020 salary — becomes guaranteed on or around 18 March, 2019 if Alex Smith is still on the Redskins roster.

So, there’s an opportunity to do what the Dolphins did with Ndamukong Suh a couple of years ago — to simply eat a bad contract early, take the dead cap hit, and move on.

While this would be expensive, unless Alex Smith can play a lot better than he’s played in the first quarter of the season, it might be worth it.

Yes, really.

How much would it cost exactly?

Cutting Alex Smith at the end of this season would mean that the Redskins paid him exactly $55m to play for one season and never return.

In terms of cap hits, here’s how the accounting would work for that $55m:

  • 2018 Cap Number: $18.4m
  • Dead Cap Hit: $36.6m

Don’t get hung up on the dead cap number — that’s not what’s important. What’s important is having a quarterback who can win, and who can lead the team to playoff victories. If the Redskins can’t make the playoffs, the amount of salary cap spent is irrelevant.

This would be an expensive move, but it would be like ripping off a bandage in one quick pull. The pain would be over quickly, and the team could move on.

Honestly, I think the Redskins can afford it. The structure of the contract makes me think that this was always the “break glass in case of emergency” ejection plan if the Smith deal blew up, and I think it’s part of the reason why the team re-signed Colt McCoy as the backup.

Here’s how the scenario would play out

The team would release Alex Smith ahead of free agency in 2019. They would pay him a total of $55m and the Smith era in Washington would come to an end.

The current estimated cap space for 2019 would drop by $16m from the current estimate of $24m to only $8m. That $16m isn’t “lost” though — the total available cap space across the three following years (‘20, ‘21 and ‘22) would increase by the same $16m.

The Redskins could draft a QB in April and let him learn behind Colt McCoy until he is ready to start.

Wait, did you say the ‘Skins would only have $8m in cap space next year?

To restore a bit of cap space, the Redskins could part ways with one or all of the following players:

  • Josh Norman = 2019 cap savings of $8.5m
  • Jordan Reed = 2019 cap savings of $6.1m
  • Vernon Davis = 2019 cap savings of $5m

Parting with all three players would add $19.6m to the available cap space, meaning that the Redskins would have an estimated $27.6m in cap space available in 2019.

This would increase available cap space in future years too

In the years beyond 2019, cutting Reed would add back an additional $17m to the salary cap, for a total 3-year savings of $23.1m, while Josh Norman’s release would add an additional $12.5m to the salary cap in 2020, meaning a total cap savings of $21m over two seasons.

In all, the release of Norman, Reed and Davis at the end of the 2018 season would make $49.1m in cap space available between 2019 and 2021. That could pay for a bit of replacement talent.

The front office would have to act decisively

There is only a short window to make this move. The front office would have to release Smith in January or February, ahead of 18 March when his 2020 salary becomes guaranteed. Once that salary becomes guaranteed, Smith’s dead cap hit rises to $52.6m, and the Redskins have every financial motivation to keep him on the roster for at least another two years.

The real question here isn’t whether the Redskins should try to avoid a large dead cap hit, but whether the Redskins can win with Alex Smith at quarterback for the next two to four seasons.

If Smith can’t win and succeed in the playoffs, there’s no reason for him to be here, and it will be better for the franchise to act decisively in January or February than to simply tread water for several seasons because of a bad personnel decision.

If the front office pulled the trigger on this, what would it mean for 2019?

The 2019 Redskins would go into the season with Colt McCoy at QB, a rookie draft pick as the backup, and Sprinkle as the only veteran tight end on the team, but the available salary cap for 2019 would allow the team to extend key players and make one or two key veteran free agent signings next off-season.

Next season, 2019, would be a ‘rebuild’ year for the Redskins, but if all we can expect from Alex Smith is 2-4 years of .500 seasons, is it worth sticking to the current plan? Wouldn’t the team be better off just accepting the financial hit on a bad decision and moving on?

Before anyone starts to type “So, another 5 year plan??!!” in the headline of a comment box, let me refer to a recent OverTheCap article to explain what I mean when I say that 2019 would be “a rebuild year” for the Redskins (note that I didn’t say it would be “the beginning of a rebuild”).

I think my definition and expectation of a rebuild is different than others.

[The wrong vision of a rebuild is to] hoard salary cap dollars for the future because you couldn’t win now. Add a billion draft picks for the future because you couldn’t win now. The essence is there is no point in trying to win if you don’t have a team to win a championship.

This should never be the definition of rebuilding. In the NFL you have this short window of time to make the most of a roster and to just build up from scratch is pretty difficult.

When we talk about rebuilding what should be talking about is identifying a significant deficiency or deficiencies on a team that are not going to be improved by adding new parts to the team and can’t be fixed in free agency. These deficiencies are large enough that the ability to compete for the playoffs short and long term is severely compromised. Quarterback is the one position that by itself should trigger a rebuilding strategy.

Just because the deficiency exists does not mean that you sell the entire roster. Maybe in the past that has happened because often a bad salary cap situation goes along with a rebuilding effort which causes teams to release players, but that should only be a consideration for a handful of teams in todays NFL which sees far superior cap management than in the past.

For all the talk of how teams that rebuild are facing a long road ahead that simply isn’t the case. The Eagles and Rams both drafted QBs in 2016 and both were among the best teams in the NFL just one year later.

The problem for many teams facing a QB focused rebuilding situation is that they are not necessarily in a position to find one. They may have traded assets away a season or two before that wound up costing them a top draft pick. Many teams linger in purgatory between 6 and 9 wins a year which doesn’t put them in a position to draft a QB. The Cardinals and Texans are teams that were in that zone and required trades to get a QB. That’s also the right play to avoid a disaster that can go on for years as they search for a Case Keenum type to get hot for one season.

If you are doing things right the longest it should take to rework the team is two seasons and really most of the time you should only be somewhat sacrificing a season. Draft in 2018 you should be competitive by 2019. If you are still struggling after that point in time it means you are not doing something right.

This is the model that the Redskins should rely on if they believe that Alex Smith can only keep them “in purgatory between 6 and 9 wins a year” for the next few seasons.

If the front office ripped the bandage off in February by sending Alex Smith packing and then aggressively going after a talented QB in the draft, for 2020 and beyond the Redskins would have a young quarterback to build around and plenty of cap space to work with.

The only thing that needs to happen is for the Redskins to ‘pull the trigger’ on releasing Alex Smith before 18 March.

Alex Smith contract details per OverTheCap:

Alex Smith was traded to the Redskins on March 14, 2018. Smith signed a four year contract extension with the Redskins on March 16, 2018 worth $94 million in new money. Per Albert Breer, Smith will receive a $27 million signing bonus and $55 million is guaranteed at signing. If on the roster on the 5th day of the 2019 league year, Smith’s 2020 $16 million salary will also become fully guaranteed.


If the Alex Smith and the Redskins play the rest of the season in the same inconsistent fashion that they played in the first four games against the Cards, Colts, Packers and Saints, what should the Redskins do about Smith?

This poll is closed

  • 26%
    Stay the course; he’s our QB for the next 3-5 years no matter what
    (113 votes)
  • 13%
    Rip off the bandage - Gruden should cut him, take the cap hit, and move on
    (59 votes)
  • 19%
    Keep Smith; fire the coaching staff
    (84 votes)
  • 39%
    Ignore the advice from OverTheCap. Shit, burn it down — cut Alex, fire the coaches, dump Bruce Allen and start all over
    (169 votes)
425 votes total Vote Now