Somewhere in this collage of highlights O’Connell found himself watching Kansas City’s Alex Smith. O’Connell had seen a lot of Smith’s work over the years. They had known each other nearly two decades before, back when they were high school stars in the San Diego area, teenagers headed to the NFL. Last season, O’Connell spliced many of Smith’s plays into the weekly highlight films he made for his quarterbacks, showing other teams’ passers doing the right things.
But this time O’Connell was assessing Smith as a candidate, comparing the Chiefs quarterback to the other possibilities on his list. And while he noticed traits he expected to find, things such as accuracy, mobility and intelligence, there was something else that jumped from the screen.
“You can watch tape and see when [a quarterback] is not in control of everything or doesn’t have a great handle on what the team is trying to do offensively,” O’Connell says. “But with Alex you can see from the tape that he’s in complete control and command.”
What’s the price of stability in an organization that has been filled with chaos? The Redskins are paying Smith $94 million over the next four years to bring serenity. Of all the things he might do as the team’s quarterback, the most essential could be his ability to handle disaster as if it is nothing. How long has this team needed that?
“When Alex has a bad play, it won’t affect him for the next play,” Redskins Coach Jay Gruden says. “If he has a great game, it won’t affect him for the next game. He’s always going to be the same guy day in and day out — willing to work and be coached. He’s still learning a lot in his 14 years [in the NFL], even though he’s been through a lot.
“He’s that type of guy.”
Redefining 'game manager'
Play long enough in the NFL without going to the Super Bowl, and there are bound to be lots of criticisms. The biggest complaints about Smith are that he is just a “game manager” who is not aggressive enough, that he is too worried about not being intercepted and won’t push the ball down the field, that he can get a team to the postseason but can’t win the big playoff games.
But when you’re a franchise that has only played five postseason games in 18 years, as Washington has, winning big playoff games isn’t as essential as simply getting to them. As O’Connell says: “We’re all looking for the guy that’s accurate, that makes good decisions with the football and manages the chaos of an NFL game with the substitutions, formations and the offensive adjustments. If that’s a game manager, that’s what we’re looking for.”
It might not be exciting to say an asset of the Redskins quarterback is that he is the adult in the room. Certainly many around the league don’t expect much from Washington. Many preseason predictions have the Redskins finishing last in the NFC East. Reviews from outside about the impact Smith will have on his new team are tepid.
Former Dallas Cowboys quarterback and current CBS analyst Tony Romo: “They’ll do fine there.”
Ex-quarterback, now CBS analyst, Boomer Esiason: “I wish he was on Jacksonville. . . . If he was on Jacksonville, they’d have a chance.”
But with a strong if unspectacular offensive supporting cast, Washington needs someone who makes the players around him better. As O’Connell spent those January days watching tape of every possible quarterback who might be available, he wrote a report about Smith praising him as a player who won’t break.
“There are so many ebbs and flows to an NFL season — forget an NFL game,” O’Connell says. “In a season where Monday morning [after a loss] comes around, you need your foundation, you need your rock, your leadership, and if that’s your starting quarterback, you’re going to be in a much better spot than if it’s not.”
Ask around the Redskins’ locker room what Smith brings most to the team’s offense, and the answer is usually some form of: “He extends the play.”
Smith is not a runner like Robert Griffin III or Cam Newton, but he is quick enough, even at 34, to frequently evade the defense’s initial pass rush. A good play-extender not only creates opportunities where none initially existed, but he also wears down defenders who anticipate plays lasting a finite number of seconds. “He makes me run around a lot more than I want to,” said Washington linebacker Mason Foster, who spent much of training camp chasing plays Smith kept stretching until the defense collapsed.
Gruden hopes for three or four such plays each game, moments where all pass catchers are covered and Smith runs around until the defense loosens. He considers Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers to be the best at this. Seattle’s Russell Wilson is a close second. Smith, he believes, is third.
“In the red zone, if they’re going to blitz seven or eight guys or they’re dropping eight and only rushing three, you got to move around,” Gruden says, referring to the space inside the 20-yard line where Washington has struggled to score touchdowns in recent years. “The window’s not going to be there, so you got to buy some time. Or third and long, sometimes you got to avoid the rush and get outside the pocket. That is a critical part of the game. Those are difference-makers. Big time.”
Effective, if not exciting
Nobody in the Redskins facility disparages Cousins, who threw for more than 4,000 yards each of the past three seasons, but the way they talk about the calm Smith brings and the options he adds to their offense, there is an unspoken sense they believe they have upgraded. Smith’s reliance on short, quick throws, the fact he is rarely intercepted and his gift for turning broken plays into modest successes might not be exciting, but Washington isn’t necessarily looking for exciting. It’s looking for stable. It’s looking for a leader.
One of the things that impressed O’Connell in Smith’s Kansas City game film was how much the quarterback got the players in the right place to make a play work. The Chiefs, under the direction of Coach Andy Reid, dazzled the league last year by incorporating several run-pass option plays from the college ranks into their playbook en route to a 5-0 start and eventual AFC West championship.
While the Chiefs’ plays were dynamic on tape, O’Connell realized the reason the plays worked so effectively was because Smith constantly made the right calls. His brilliance came after leaving the huddle when he assessed his opponent’s defensive formation and changed the play accordingly.
“It may seem like a small thing, but you don’t get 90 plays a game like you do in college, so you can’t waste those downs,” O’Connell says. “You can’t waste critical downs in the red zone, four-minute, two-minute situational football. That’s how games are won in the NFL.”
Smith doesn’t talk much about himself in the way that some quarterbacks do. Gruden noticed early that he mingled as much with undrafted rookies as he did the team’s top players. His sessions with the media have been filled with long, thoughtful answers. He unduly throws blame on himself while praising others. He ducks from tricky queries asking him to compare teams and players. He is careful to not offend.
Perhaps the biggest window into how Smith views his role on the team came during minicamps, when he was asked about leadership.
“I know guys respect work ethic and they respect the guys that are invested and committed,” he said. “And for me, it’s really just doing that, right? Putting in the time, being myself, getting to know these guys.”
He likes to watch tape with the other offensive players and often will pick out little things — holes that can be exploited, variations of plays that make another player better. He is also open to suggestions from the other offensive players, some say. They discuss the possibilities of these ideas, and finally Smith says they should test them at the next practice.
“That’s chemistry,” wide receiver Paul Richardson Jr. says.
On a couch just outside the Redskins’ weight room, Gruden smiles. He jokes about not having coached Smith when things go wrong, and laughs as he conjures an image of his quarterback frazzled and heaving his helmet. Gruden is certain Smith will never do such a thing, and that thought makes him happy.
He and his coaches have discussed Smith a lot. They have seen on practice tape a tangible improvement in certain players, and they believe the growth is tied to their quarterback. They know there are going to be days when things don’t go right. If nothing else, the past four years have taught them to expect disaster. They love that when things break down, they have a quarterback who can navigate the carnage.
Like many, Gruden has heard the criticisms of Smith. He shakes his head.
“I think you can probably say there’s somebody who’s a better passer or a guy who’s more athletic,” Gruden says. “He’s not the most accurate, not the strongest arm. Is he the best at each individual category? Probably not. But put all those together, he’s pretty damn good. He’s probably top five in all of them. That’s pretty damn good.”
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