What’s wrong with Washington’s Alex Smith? Well, here’s the sobering answer: nothing, really. He will get more comfortable in his new offense. He can be more accurate and efficient. Accessorize the quarterback with better weapons, and he will look snazzier. Still, even in a season that is starting to adhere to Murphy’s Law, Alex Smith is basically Alex Smith right now.
He’s halfway through a season that makes many miss Kirk Cousins and others — desperate, extreme others — call for backup Colt McCoy. But in the context of his career, Smith is as ordinary as usual. Despite leading a passing game that ranks 24th of 32 NFL teams, Smith is on pace to throw for 3,734 yards, which would be the second-highest total of his 13 pro seasons. He is completing 63.5 percent of his passes, and that is lower than his accuracy rate during five seasons in Kansas City but a hair higher than his career percentage. With just three interceptions, he is on pace to throw fewer than 10 picks for a remarkable eighth consecutive year, but he also could finish with fewer than 20 touchdown passes for the ninth time in 13 seasons.
Consider his track record. Consider that this is one of his more successful transitions to a new coach or new team. And then consider how unimpressive it all seems in the moment. Smith, 34, is under contract for four more seasons after this one, with a contract extension about to kick in that will guarantee him $71 million. Washington didn’t purchase a savior, and it understood that at the time. It bought the most expensive base layer of clothing in the NFL.
Get used to it. With offensive starters succumbing to injury all over the place, the inclination is to think Smith needs to step up if his team is to repeat its 5-3 record in the season’s second half and make the playoffs. But there is no step up in Smith, not in the way that some people are thinking. He’s just going to try to stay steady and manage the game. He can help the offense control a game with good decisions and by protecting the football, but it’s not enough that Smith will win games. If Washington has playoff talent, he can reflect that. If Washington is a one-dimensional squad that can’t sustain its early success, Smith won’t be able to stop the downfall.
This was the alternative to making a big money offer that Cousins probably wouldn’t have accepted. It should be evident now just how much more dynamic of a passer Cousins is, but Washington was willing to sacrifice that for certainty and for a quarterback who wanted to take somewhat reasonable money to be here. Smith’s $94 million extension averages to $23.5 million per season, if he can earn all the non-guaranteed parts of the deal. That ranks ninth among quarterbacks in the NFL. Smith is not a great player, but he’s not making the $84 million fully guaranteed that Cousins received from Minnesota. He’s not a quarterback you build around; instead, you build on top of him. Washington believes it can do this over time.
But right now, it looks ugly. The wide receiving corps lacks sufficient talent, and now the group is injured. The running back position is dramatically different than planned, and the team is heavily dependent on 33-year-old Adrian Peterson. And, oh, the offensive line is in shambles because of injuries. When the offense was healthier, Smith wasn’t thriving. Now he’s in a fight to survive.
Coach Jay Gruden insists Smith has improved, but he failed to reach 200 yards in three of the past four games. And even though he threw for 306 yards Sunday against Atlanta, the performance was mediocre, and those stats were inflated because the team was playing from behind for most of the game.
“He’s getting closer probably, and nobody is going to be perfect at that position,” Gruden said of Smith. “But he’s learning. . . . I think, from a system standpoint, he’s feeling more comfortable with the plays and the concepts that we’re running and the getting the ball out of his hands and scrambling when he has to scramble. He had a big scramble in the game last week, so I think he’s getting to where we want him.”
Smith is the ultimate test of this franchise’s team-building acumen. It seems as if the front office has gradually improved in this area during Gruden’s five seasons. It seems as if the team finally has an imposing defensive front, and when healthy, the offensive line has been solid. But as I keep harping on, the focus on that weakness has come at the expense of retaining playmakers or finding new ones. So this has gone from a pass-happy team full of offensive toys to a tougher, more physical outfit that must find some new toys.
The good news is that the franchise is set up, from a roster standpoint, to focus heavily on improving the offense moving forward. But here’s the problem: It could lose a chance at the playoffs in the meantime. And if this team doesn’t make the playoffs, there are many other issues to consider, including the futures of Gruden and Bruce Allen, the team president.
Yes, team building is a fluid thing. There is always a hole somewhere. Every team must defer addressing certain issues. But Washington isn’t in the first year of a rebuild. There has been plenty of time to have both an improved defense and a stable offense. The imbalance is the result of some mismanagement as well as bad luck.
And here stands Smith, the new face of the predicament. He’s just playing his game, really. You can’t like what you’ve seen, but again, he’s just supposed to be a base layer. Where’s the rest of this offense? He will be fine if Washington makes the situation fine. But now you should understand why, for all the victories his teams have amassed, San Francisco and Kansas City both moved on to younger quarterbacks with higher upsides.
Washington traded for Smith and extended him after he was coming off a career year. But as Patrick Mahomes has shown in Kansas City this season, there’s even more that a quarterback can do with all the offensive talent the Chiefs have. Smith contributed to his old team becoming an offensive juggernaut. The difference, however, is that Mahomes can accentuate all of Kansas City’s strengths.
With his new team, Smith inches toward better.
“I do think definitely from looking back to the start of the season, where we are, just the things we’ve been through situationally, I think that we have grown a ton in a good way,” he said. “But like I said, week to week the highs and lows are so big. . . . Try to come in even-keeled — go about your business every day — continue working for that end goal obviously with the focus weekly on winning.”
That’s the best thing about Smith. He won’t give up. He will get better. He won’t turn great, however. But if Washington builds properly, there’s a chance he could manage a great team.
The Redskins are on the clock to accessorize his stability and show why a basic, dependable quarterback was worth the expense.