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Deconstructing the Myth of Winning with Alex Smith in DC

Was high percentage passing the key to victory?

NFL: Washington Football Team at Dallas Cowboys Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Introduction by MattInBrisVegas

When Ryan Fitzpatrick takes the field in the season opener on September 12, he will become the 23rd quarterback to start for the Redskins/Washington Football Team franchise since Dan Snyder took over as principal owner in 1999. As we move toward the next chapter in the team’s seemingly endless search for a franchise quarterback, it is time to reflect on and bring closure to the last one.

Alex Smith’s acquisition was one of the more polarizing signings of the post-Cerrato era. The franchise, under Bruce Allen’s brilliant leadership, had just accomplished something that few teams have managed to do in the salary cap era, by failing to extend an above average starting quarterback following his rookie contact. The front office was facing the prospect of deep embarrassment and the pressure was on to find a solution under center.

That 2018 offseason was around the time when I started commenting regularly on Hogs Haven. That was not really so much because my lifelong passion for Washington Football was finally yearning for an avenue of expression in the isolation of suburban Brisbane, Australia. It was more because my son had taken up cricket, and I found myself with four hours with absolutely nothing to do while baking in the Queensland sun every Saturday morning.

Fortunately for Hogs Haven readers, I only began commenting regularly in the wake of the Alex Smith signing, so those of you who were around at the time were spared my initial reaction. My friends and family, however, got an ear full.

I had been following the discussion for a while. Anyone who has read my comments and articles would know that I am a build through the draft hardliner, but even I recognized the team would have to sign a veteran to at least bridge them over until they could find a long-term solution. I had hoped they would sign a cheap free agent. The guy I liked was Teddy Bridgewater, but I could see the logic of pursuing Case Keenum after his breakout 2017 season in Minnesota. OK, so I’m not Nostradamus in the QB scouting department.

But there was one name I feared. And it kept coming up again and again. Alex Smith was coming off a Pro Bowl (alternate) season with the stacked Kansas City Chiefs, but had been supplanted by 2017 draft pick Patrick Mahomes. There were three reasons I hated the idea. A trade was not likely to be cheap, making it just the kind of deal I knew would excite Dan Snyder, and Smith was 34 years old at the time. But most importantly, I had seen Alex Smith play and his conservative brand of game management QB play was about as exciting as watching paint dry.

The first news that broke was that the Redskins had traded Kendall Fuller for Alex Smith, with Fuller learning about it in the news media (remember what a class act Bruce Allen was?). My initial reaction was to think that trading the league’s top-ranked slot corner on a rookie deal for an ageing QB, who would probably be available in free agency, was a bit of an overpay. When the shock subsided, I began to get comfortable with the idea that even a mediocre starting quarterback is more valuable than a star at most other positions.

Then the news emerged that Bruce Allen also traded away a third-round draft pick and signed the 34-year old Smith to a four-year extension at $23.5 million a year ($55M guaranteed at signing and $71M in injury guarantees), starting QB money at the time. That is when my family and friends who follow American football got to hear about it; I have never been right with that deal to this day. Neither has James, for that matter.

Many of the more well-adjusted among us are happy to let bygones be bygones. The Alex Smith deal may have been great and it may have been terrible, but it’s over now so it’s time to move on. Water under the bridge. Well, I am not one of those people. Some of my ancestors came from Romania, and Romanians know that if you don’t drive the stake through a vampire’s heart, he’s going to hang around and cause trouble. With that thought in mind, I would like to take aim at one particular vampire which continues to haunt Hogs Haven. That is the myth that Alex Smith’s ultra-conservative style of QB play led the team to victory during his time in DC.


Washington Redskins and the Houston Texans Photo by John McDonnell/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Winning with Alex Smith

The myth of winning with Alex took root in the 2018 season, when Smith suffered a horrendous spiral fracture in the week 11 loss to Houston, ending his season and beginning one of the great comebacks from injury in NFL history. Heading into that game, the Redskins were leading the division at 6-3. But following Smith’s loss, they finished the season going 1-5 in the remaining games. It seems pretty clear that Smith’s loss dealt a huge blow to the team’s performance.

On the face of it, the numbers seem to make a compelling case. During the 16 games that Alex Smith started, the Redskins/Football Team had a win-loss record of 11-5. The same teams, led by a parade of starters including Colt McCoy, Josh Johnson, Mark Sanchez, Dwayne Haskins and Kyle Allen, finished 3-13 in the 2018 and 2020 regular seasons. Clearly Alex Smith’s conservative brand of checkdown football was key to winning, right?

I would be the first to tell you that numbers don’t lie. But the story that the win loss-record tells seems to defy what I saw with my eyes when I watched Alex Smith leading the Washington offense. Could that dink and dunk style of play, overlooking open receivers down field, actually somehow be helping the team win? Perhaps, but could there be any other explanation for why the team could only seem to win consistently when Alex Smith started?

Well, there are two. First, Alex Smith got extremely lucky with the slate of opponents he faced during his tenure in DC. During the legendary, division-leading 6-3 start to the 2018 season, Washington only faced three teams that finished the season with winning records (Indianapolis, New Orleans, Dallas), and lost to two of them by double digits and scored the lone win by a margin of just three points. The rest of the wins came against teams with losing records. Overall, in the 16 games Smith started in DC, he faced five opponents that finished the season with winning records and 11 opponents with losing records.

The other quarterbacks who started during Smith’s two seasons playing in DC were not so lucky. Altogether, they faced eight season winners, seven losers, and one 8-8 team.

The 5-11 strength of schedule that Smith faced in DC would be an incredible advantage to any quarterback. It is also interesting, because it is the inverse of Smith’s 11-5 win-loss record as a starter in DC. That bears further exploration.

Oddsmakers use a wide variety of sophisticated numerical methods to project teams’ win-loss records. The very simplest method would be to just assume that an average team will lose against teams with winning records and win against teams with losing records. In other words, if a team brings exactly nothing to the table, its win-loss record should just reflect the quality of its opponents from week to week. Therefore, if a team does nothing to increase or decrease its chance of winning against a lineup of five winning teams and 11 losing teams, the base expectation is that it will win 11 games and lose 5 games. Which is precisely the result that Alex Smith achieved.

The strength of schedule advantage that Alex Smith lucked into in DC is so enormous that it is at least plausible that his lackluster play did little to nothing to increase the team’s chance of winning. The more layers of the onion we peel back, the more that appears to be the case.

Only two of his 11 wins in DC came against teams with winning records: 10-6 Cowboys in 2018, 12-4 Steelers in 2020. In fact, the average number of wins posted by the 11 teams he beat was just 6.27 (median of 6), and the combined winning percentage of those squads was a lowly mark of just .394. Five of his dubs came against opponents with five or fewer wins, and eight of his 11 victories came over teams with six or fewer wins.

A second factor contributing to Alex Smith’s success as a starter in DC was the help he received from the Football Team’s defense. It’s not particularly difficult to rack up solid numbers in the W column when you don’t have to put many points on the board to do so. The Football Team never allowed more than 17 points in any of the 11 games that Smith won as a starter, surrendered 17 points as many times as they held their opponents to single digits (three each), gave up an average of just 13.1 points in those 11 matchups, and held the opposition to 14 or fewer in five of them.

By the way, roughly 14 points is the average number allowed by Smith’s teams in his 99 career wins (13.93 to be exact with a median of 14). Those numbers are considerably lower than the ones attached to several other contemporaries at the position who are considered game managers. Teams quarterbacked by Andy Dalton, Kirk Cousins, Tony Romo and Ryan Tannehill have given up an average of between 16.8 and 18.8 points allowed per game (medians between 17 and 20 points) in the starts won by those players.

It sure is nice to be quarterback of a team with a great defense, which is a luxury that is not at all foreign to Smith. Roughly two thirds of his career wins (65) were accumulated in seasons in which he enjoyed a top-five defense on the other side of the ball. We are defining a top five defense as one that ranked fifth or better in three of the five following metrics: DVOA, points/drive, yards/drive, expected points added and PFF grade. Over a third of his wins (35), were tallied when his defense finished fifth or better in every one of those categories.

Perhaps Alex Smith’s personal stats will tell a different tale, though. Maybe they will show that, despite not winning in the most daunting of situations, he actually did perform well as Washington’s quarterback.


Washington Football Team v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Mr. Smith’s Stats Go to Washington

Let’s start with the basics by checking out the raw numbers. However, it’s not quite fair to compare either of Smith’s seasons in the nation’s capital to another individual year in that time frame because they were both cut short by his injury, and it’s also not very equitable to look at his totals and compare them to those put up by other signal callers in the three-year span since he only started 16 total games dating back to 2018.

Instead, it’s probably best to just look at Smith’s time in Washington as just one big season. Granted, he did play 1,110 snaps and attempt 580 passes while he was here, which would rank seventh and 19th among all seasons by a QB since 2018, but maybe those playing-time numbers will just give him a slight boost.

Or, on the other hand, maybe they will actually make him look even worse. In that span, his 3,762 yards and 180 first downs passing would both rank 47th and his 16 touchdowns through the air would place him in 74th. It’s more of the same for Smith as a runner, where his 171 yards and single TD on the ground are good for only 46th and 64th at the position, respectively (3 rushing yards and literally zero first downs in 2020). His 13 interceptions and 44 sacks, however, would’ve both been the 17th most for any player season since 2018.

Things don’t look any rosier for Smith when we look at his efficiency and advanced stats rankings, which we can now compare on a season-by-season basis. In both his 2018 and 2020 campaigns, he failed to rank higher than 23rd in any of the following 16 metrics (minimum 200 attempts): yards per attempt, yards per completion, adjusted net yards per attempt, QB rating, first down percentage, touchdown percentage, sack percentage, DYAR, DVOA, overall PFF grade, approximate value, QBR, total points earned, success rate, completion percentage over expected and expected points added per play.

So, that’s bad, but 23rd doesn’t necessarily mean he was one of the stone worst quarterbacks in those seasons. That’s true, but when you hear that out of 32 instances over these 16 stats (16 x 2 seasons) he finished bottom three ten times and bottom five in half of them (16), then yeah, it kind of does mean that.

Just to erase any shadow of a doubt that you might have about how poorly he played for the WFT, let’s take a quick peak at how his two seasons in Washington, and time here as a whole, fare when compared to all of the player seasons with over 200 passing attempts since 2005, Alex’s first season in the league. This sample provides us with over 500 players seasons to compare to, so to put things in better context we’ll look at things from a percentile rank perspective. The adjusted net yards per attempt and QB rating metrics were adjusted for era.

Let’s summarize those numbers this way: he was below average across the board in 2018, was historically horrible in 2020 and was just plain awful overall while manning the controls for Washington at the most important position in all of sports.

These results are not the product of a handful of outlier performances for the Football team, either; Smith was consistent if nothing else. Below is a rapid fire list of lowlights about Alex Smith’s individual games in Washington that show this was the norm and not just the exception. He did the following things:

  • Failed to gain 200 total yards of offense in 10 of 18 games played (55.6%)
  • Didn’t eclipse 10 total first downs in seven of 16 starts (43.8%)
  • Did not score more than one touchdown in 12 of 16 starts (75%)
  • Was unable to score a TD of any kind in four of 16 starts (25%)
  • Never scored more than two touchdowns in any game (100%)
  • Turned the ball over multiple times in four of 18 total appearances (22%)
  • Led only one game-winning drive and fourth-quarter comeback, both in the same game (6%)
  • Earned either a Passer Rating > 93.0 OR a QBR > 40.0 in just six of 18 games (33%)

NFL: JAN 03 Washington Football Team at Eagles Photo by Andy Lewis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Alex Didn’t Lose Games for Washington

The statistics presented thus far make it pretty difficult to argue that Alex did any of those things that we normally think of winning quarterbacks doing to help their teams win games, like gaining significant yardage, picking up first downs, scoring touchdowns, leading comebacks and game winning drives. But, to be fair, that’s not really what proponents of the Winning with Alex Myth claim.

Rather, the argument goes, he helped the team win by making high percentage passes and avoiding turnovers while efficiently distributing the ball to his playmakers and gaining yards on the ground by scrambling when plays broke down. By avoiding dangerous passes downfield, which might lead to turnovers, he didn’t cost the team any games, and did just enough to allow the defense and his offensive playmakers to win games.

Thus, we are told, that the hallmarks of the winning game manager approach that Alex Smith brought to DC were a high completion rate, achieved by avoiding dangerous passes, and low interception rate, combined with the mobility to gain yardage from busted plays.

But was it really? Because it didn’t look like it to us watching his games on Sundays. Is it possible that those statistics might have been padded in some way to make the numbers look better than what the game tape seems to show? To get a bit of a broader perspective on that one, we had a look back through Alex Smith’s entire career to see how he compared to his peers.

There were 57 other quarterbacks that attempted at least 1,500 passes between 2005 and 2020, Alex Smith’s tenure in the NFL. Of those 57, 27 of them posted better passer rating, ANY/A, EPA/play and AV/game numbers than Smith did. That’s 27 guys, who played at the same time Smith did and beat him out in all four statistics, which places him about middle of the pack compared to his contemporaries.

A similar picture emerges if we go all the way back and compare him to every one of the qualifying QBs in league history. Alex Smith ranks below the 50th percentile (below average) in every career adjusted-for-era statistic on Pro Football Reference, except for completion percentage (58th percentile) and interception percentage (86th percentile). So, yes, he was pretty good at both completing passes and avoiding interceptions. Smith was also a plus-runner at the quarterback position, as he posted top-ten rankings five or more times in rushing yards and rushing yards per attempt among all QBs.

Overall, the picture is emerging that Alex Smith was average to below average in most of the traditional metrics that we use to judge QB performance. But he was better than average to very good at playing it safe. Is it possible that his risk-averse playing style helped his team win against 11 mostly losing teams?

Maybe not. There is a fairly simple explanation for how he was able to juice his numbers in these areas. Alex completed a lot of passes and avoided interceptions because he dinked and dunked the ball more than any of his peers, took a ton of sacks and scrambled very frequently.

  • Smith ranks dead last (68 of 68) in air yards average per throw since 2006 (min 1,100 att). He posted the 40th lowest average out of the 42 passers with 500 attempts since 2018.
  • His average yearly sack percentage ranking was 25th (16th percentile adjusted for era). Since joining the Football Team his 7.1% sack rate ranks 32nd among the aforementioned 42 qualifiers.
  • He finished inside the top ten in scrambles among all qualified passers in half of his seasons. Smith ranked seventh in the league in scrambles through his 11 healthy weeks as the starting QB in 2018. When he lost that ability to scramble in 2020 (two scrambles all season), we saw his interception rate skyrocket (33rd).

It’s not extremely hard for an NFL QB to complete a higher percentage of his passes and to not throw picks if he rarely pushes the ball down field and chooses to scramble or take a sack over throwing anything remotely resembling a dangerous pass. What is hard is making an argument that those contributions in some way contributed to his team’s win total.


Washington Redskins v Tampa Bay Buccaneers Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Conclusions

Enough is enough, the results are in, stop the torture. Not only is there is little indication that Alex Smith’s play on the field didn’t add to Washington’s chances of winning football games, there is more than enough evidence here to suggest that he may very well have held the rest of the offense back. Smith just simply wasn’t a quality starting-level NFL quarterback in Washington relative to his peers.

While a superficial look at the winning percentage with and without Alex Smith under center might suggest that his high percentage passing style was the key to winning during his tenure in DC, a deeper dive reveals a more compelling alternative explanation. The team tended to win games when he was the starter because they just happened to face much easier opponents than when other QBs were at the helm, and the defense stepped up in a major way so that Alex didn’t have to put many points on the board to win games.

While it’s true that Alex Smith achieved better than average completion percentages and interception rates compared to other NFL QBs, the dink and dunk playing style, and his tendency to avoid throwing altogether by scrambling and taking sacks, which drove those statistics, almost certainly held his playmakers back, rather than putting them in positions to succeed.

There are fears among some in the fanbase that Ryan Fitzpatrick’s gunslinger approach might give away some opportunities that a more conservative signal caller could win. In fact, Fitzpatrick has improved significantly over the past few years and is no longer the erratic player that he was in his youth. But no matter what he does in DC, based on the numbers we have presented, it would be nearly impossible for him to do any worse than the quarterback he is replacing. Unless he suffers a significant regression from last season, which is always possible at 38, the odds are that the WFT’s offense will be much improved in 2021.


Poll

The WFT scored 335 pts in the 2020 regular season, ranking 25th in the NFL. Miami scored 404 pts to rank 15th. Where will the WFT rank in points scored in 2021?

This poll is closed

  • 0%
    Top 3
    (5 votes)
  • 11%
    Top 10
    (64 votes)
  • 77%
    11th to 20th
    (419 votes)
  • 9%
    21st to 30th
    (50 votes)
  • 1%
    Regressing for Rattler!
    (6 votes)
544 votes total Vote Now

Poll

How do you feel about Alex Smith’s contribution to the Football Team’s W-L record?

This poll is closed

  • 6%
    Significantly hindered the team and cost them wins
    (31 votes)
  • 18%
    Hurt their ability to win in more ways than not
    (95 votes)
  • 26%
    Was average, so no material effect
    (134 votes)
  • 28%
    Made some contributions, but their effect was minimal
    (144 votes)
  • 19%
    Helped the WFT win significantly more games
    (100 votes)
504 votes total Vote Now