The NFC East is the Washington Redskins’ division to lose, considering they are 6-3 with a two-game lead over the Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles.
Included in those six wins and three losses is a remarkable stat:the Redskins have yet to experience a lead change in any game. In some ways, it is the most Alex Smith statistic ever. Smith — often labeled a game-managing quarterback — has been able to steer the team to victory after it gains a lead but has been unable to take a lead when the Redskins have fallen behind.
That statistic maintains the perception of Smith as a quarterback — and his level of play this season is a reason to doubt Washington’s ability to win a playoff game, if the Redskins qualify for the postseason.
Being a game manager is not necessarily a bad thing, even if it does get thrown around as a pejorative term, but it necessitates the rest of the team being good enough to put him in the position where all that is required is to manage the game. The Redskins’ three losses have come against the Indianapolis Colts, New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons — three teams with proven quarterbacks.
The NFL in 2018 is littered with prolific offenses and high-level quarterback play. The leaguewide passer rating average has jumped more than seven points from a year ago — from 87.3 to 94.5. This year’s number is two points higher than Joe Montana’s career passer rating. The league is experiencing an offensive explosion, and to this point, the Redskins and Smith haven’t been able to keep pace, even while taking the division lead.
Smith’s performance grade, according to Pro Football Focus, has dropped more than 10 points from a year ago, when he had a career season with the Kansas City Chiefs, going from 79.6 to 68.8. He ranks 24th among quarterbacks, one spot below Jacksonville’s Blake Bortles. Of the possible playoff opponents the Redskins could realistically face in the NFC — a talented group that includes quarterbacks who rank in the top 10 of PFF grades in Drew Brees, Jared Goff, Kirk Cousins, Aaron Rodgers and Carson Wentz — only one has a quarterback with a lower grade than Smith. That’s Mitchell Trubisky of the Chicago Bears, who ranks 30th but is coming off a 355-yard, three-touchdown performance in a win over the Detroit Lions.
Smith is likely to face a playoff opponent with a very good quarterback, and even though Washington has collected wins over teams led by Rodgers and Cam Newton, his inability to keep pace with the likes of Brees and Matt Ryan has to be a concern for Redskins fans.
Perhaps the biggest difference in Smith’s game this year from a season ago is his performance on deep throws. He didn’t become the league’s most aggressive deep passer during his career year of 2017 — ranking just 14th in deep-pass frequency (12.3 percent) — but when he did attack downfield, he had a passer rating of 131.4.
That is an absurdly high figure, one that was inevitably going to decline, but the drop-off in performance this year is enormous. He has dialed back his aggressiveness just a little, throwing deep on 10.6 percent of all pass attempts, but his passer rating has plummeted to 77.7 on deep throws. He has completed just 10 of 32 deep attempts for two touchdowns.
Coinciding with Smith’s decline is an increase on deep attempts by many of the league’s passers. Only three qualifying quarterbacks have a lower deep passer rating than Smith — Case Keenum, Joe Flacco and Sam Darnold — while six passers have a deep passer rating of more than 120, including the aforementioned Brees, Cousins and Rodgers.
Ultimately, that tells the story of Smith and the problem facing the Redskins as they look ahead to the possibility of playing postseason football. Smith has regressed back to the quarterback he was before his 2017 career year, in the midst of a season in which quarterback play and passing offenses are exploding. In previous years, a game manager might have been enough to guide this Washington team further. In 2018, it sticks out as a potential liability.
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