The term “game manager” gets thrown around the NFL as a disparaging description for quarterbacks who aren’t blessed with being Aaron Rodgers or Tom Brady. However, there are many examples of the qualities possessed by QBs given that label — taking care of the football, putting more emphasis on shorter passes than deep ones — being a blueprint for success. After a season-opening win over the Cardinals, this appears to be the case for Alex Smith and the Redskins.
Smith has always been one of the most conservative passers in the league, but the benefit of that is that he puts the ball in harm’s way less often than almost any other quarterback, which gives you a great platform to win games if the rest of the roster is up to the task.
Since he came into the league, Smith owns the lowest average depth of target of any quarterback with at least two full seasons worth of play. His average pass travels just 7.7 yards downfield — that’s more than three full yards per pass closer to the line of scrimmage than the most aggressive QBs over that time span.
Against Arizona on Sunday, we saw an even more extreme type of conservatism from Smith. His average depth of target was just 3.5 yards downfield, and his lone deep shot was negated by a penalty. In terms of plays that actually counted, he didn’t have a pass travel further than 12 yards past the line of scrimmage.
But, most importantly for Washington, it worked.
Smith was accurate on 81 percent of those attempts, after adjusting for drops and passes thrown away, and he didn’t throw an interception or a turnover-worthy pass all game, meaning the offense simply had to keep ticking to put the pressure on an Arizona team that struggled.
Over Smith’s career, he has thrown an interception on just 1.97 percent of his pass attempts, and a turnover-worthy pass on 2.40 percent of them. If every turnover-worthy pass Smith has ever put in the air during his career had actually been picked off by the defense, he would still have the 13th-best interception rate in NFL history. Being careful with the football is a positive trait, even if it can create a cap on your offense, especially if the rest of the team is sound in other areas.
The good news for Redskins fans is that the 2018 edition of the roster appears to be the best Washington has deployed in a number of years. Two of their top offensive weapons, tight end Jordan Reed and running back Chris Thompson, have started out the year healthy, and their ability to haul in underneath targets and produce after the catch makes them a great match for Smith’s skill set. The duo combined for 10 catches on 11 targets for 111 yards and two touchdowns, earning the top two receiving grades on the team. In all, 13 of Smith’s 21 completions and 190 of his 255 yards came off passes to backs and tight ends, with the rest from passes to wide receivers.
The team’s offensive line was ranked in the top half of the league by Pro Football Focus before the season kicked off, and while that isn’t as formidable as some other teams, offensive line play is less about how good you are overall and more about how bad the weakest link can be. Washington’s offensive line doesn’t have a glaring weakness and is more than solid enough to provide a capable platform for both Smith and the run game. The unit allowed just eight pressures of Smith over the course of the game against Arizona, with Smith being responsible for two of the three sacks he took while trying to buy time behind the line of scrimmage. The line also helped pave the way for new running back Adrian Peterson to have a big day, with 96 rushing yards to go along with another 65 from Thompson as Smith himself was deployed as part of the running game with some speed-option wrinkles.
On the defensive side of the ball, Washington’s defensive front looks formidable. They have a stable of young pass rushers that sustained pressure on Arizona quarterback Sam Bradford in Week 1. Matt Ioannidis notched four pressures, as did Ryan Kerrigan and Pernell McPhee, while Jonathan Allen and Preston Smith chipped in with multiple hurries of their own. Rookie first-round pick Daron Payne had only one pressure, but graded well overall, and as a group, they had seven other decisive wins in pass-rushing situations that didn’t get a chance to result in a pressure.
If there’s one area of concern for the team on paper it’s in the youth-filled secondary, but that concern was absent, at least in Week 1. Josh Norman allowed just one reception for four yards, while Quinton Dunbar was one of the best players in the game, with an interception and two pass breakups from five targets. Given the volume of sustained pressure the secondary can hope to rely on up front, the Redskins should have an imposing defense to pair with that Smith-led offense.
Which of course brings us back to the player responsible for tying everything together. Smith won’t ever be an aggressive quarterback, nor will he be Brady or Rodgers. But he is a good quarterback, and very effective at the style of play he has evolved into over the years. His overall PFF grade since the beginning of the 2016 season is 85.4 (on a 0-100 scale), which ranks seventh in the league, but he has been exposed at times when the task of victory presented to him was simply too much to manage on his own.
As long as Smith isn’t asked to carry his team to victory, he can be a part of a good, winning football team. That’s why he’s the perfect quarterback for this 2018 Redskins team, which after one week appears to be very strong.
Sam Monson is the lead NFL analyst for Pro Football Focus.
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