When the Washington Redskins traded for quarterback Alex Smith in late January, the people who run the organization were thrilled. Many said he was the player they wanted most to replace Kirk Cousins but fretted that he might not be available. When the deal with Kansas City was finalized in March, the sense at team headquarters was that the steady and composed Smith might be an upgrade over the more emotional and sometimes impulsive Cousins.
Smith quickly won over his fellow players by pushing for first downs at offseason workouts and proving himself a part of the group away from the field. The coaches loved the options his mobility gave them in designing plays. And the team’s owner, Daniel Snyder, was so excited this summer that he gushed, unprompted, “We have a breath of fresh air at quarterback.”
But four games into his Redskins career, the offense has not taken off the way everyone around the team had dreamed. Statistically, Smith has been solid — perhaps better than many think — with numbers that are similar to those he had in San Francisco and Kansas City. His 92.9 passer rating and 65.9 completion percentage are within career norms. His 1,042 passing yards put him on pace for 4,168 — more than the 4,042 he had last year, in what was widely considered his best season.
And yet, heading into Sunday’s game against the Carolina Panthers, a lot feels off. Many of those passing yards came in Washington’s two losses, when the Redskins trailed by at least two scores and abandoned their running game in a desperate effort to catch up. Smith hasn’t appeared to build a complete bond with any of his receivers beyond running back Chris Thompson, who is intended to be a complementary playmaker.
In Monday night’s 43-19 loss at New Orleans, Smith admittedly missed several passes to open receivers that could have made the game significantly closer. For a player often celebrated for his accuracy, it was a surprise. In the days since, words such as “communication” and phrases such as “get him comfortable” were used several times by Smith and his coaches when talking about his play.
When asked Monday what constituted getting Smith “comfortable,” Redskins Coach Jay Gruden said, “We got to do a lot better job of getting our quarterback comfortable with plays that we can handle, obviously.”
It was not a swipe at Smith, who the coaches believe is able to make any throw required. The coach went on to add that he should have “quickened up the passing game a little bit” and called more third-down plays that “were a little more conducive to [Smith’s] liking.”
The phrases sounded vague, and neither Smith nor Gruden said anything in the following days that clarified those comments.
On Tuesday, Gruden said the offense had become “too one-dimensional” against the Saints, with plays that called for Smith to drop straight back. A lot of Smith’s success has come when he is moving side to side, running out of the pocket. The next day, Smith talked about making sure his “mind-set and thought process, eyes and feet and all that stuff [were] marrying up.” He also mentioned “not seeing things” in some plays. All of this seems to suggest Smith is still trying to adjust to the Redskins' system, and the Redskins are still getting used to him.
Back in the summer, Gruden joked about his relationship with Smith, likening it almost to a forced marriage of quarterback and coach. The two had little time to get to acquainted once Smith officially joined the team in March; they had to shove everything together and move quickly.
In the first weeks of the season, Kevin O’Connell, the team’s passing game coordinator, has worked a lot with Smith during practice, helping to speed the transition from the way the quarterback moved in his old offense in Kansas City to his new one in Washington. Each practice, when the Redskins break from team scrimmages to individual position drills, O’Connell and Smith talk about what worked and what didn’t in the previous session and then focus on the way Smith moves his feet and balances his body on those plays.
The work isn’t unique. All quarterbacks do this at times in practice, yet there seems to be more of an emphasis on doing it now with Smith as he tries to make playing in a new system feel natural.
“It’s just constantly trying to get him comfortable both in the pocket through his progressions and then, if stuff does break down, what is his reaction going to be?” O’Connell said.
Nearly every coach who has worked with Smith has considered him brilliant. Washington’s coaches are no exception. Gruden said Smith can “handle” all of the team’s plays. Their work now seems to be trying to get Smith to a point where he isn’t thinking about his feet or his balance and the plays flow as smooth as they did for him when he went 88-62-1 as a starter in San Francisco and Kansas City.
Gruden and others on his staff continue to believe they have the right offensive players to win big, despite the fact that Pro Football Focus ranks the Redskins' wide receivers 30th in the NFL with an average of 2.68 yards per route. One thing Gruden does wonder is whether Smith had enough time with the team’s playmakers this summer to build connections.
Injuries limited all three starting wide receivers — Josh Doctson, Paul Richardson and Jamison Crowder — in training camp, as well as tight end Jordan Reed and Thompson. Both were recovering from offseason surgeries. Rookie running back Derrius Guice, who was expected to be a big part of the offense, tore up his knee in the first preseason game, and Gruden decided he didn’t want to risk an injury to Smith or any other key offensive player with extended action in exhibition games, so he was cautious at the expense of building timing in actual games. Guice’s replacement, Adrian Peterson, didn’t arrive until late August and, while he has been effective running the ball, he has never played in a system like Gruden’s. He’s rushing to learn wide runs and pass routes that are not natural to him.
“I think only time will tell,” O’Connell said when asked whether Smith has worked enough with his playmakers. “There are some things during the week when guys are fully practicing and everybody’s going where you get a lot of reps on things. And I think maybe there is something to be said for the offseason. But the good thing about our playmakers is we’ve got a lot of them. We’ve got guys we rely on and trust and, if the coverage presents [itself], we have a lot of confidence those guys will make the play and Alex is going to get them the ball.”
“Shoot, the last time I checked, we felt pretty good coming out of [a 31-17 victory over Green Bay] a couple weeks ago,” he added. “We got to get back to feeling like that.”
Accounting for a year lost to a shoulder injury, Smith is in his 14th NFL season. Gruden likes to say there is little the quarterback hasn’t seen. The coach, like others around the team, figure Smith will be able to get passes in the right spots to players who can make big plays. They expect him to get into a rhythm the way he has in the past.
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