It’s not often that the NFL headlines during Super Bowl week aren’t dominated by the two participants in the big game.
But just 5 days before the New England Patriots were to take the field as 4.5-point favorites over the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl 52, the Kansas City Chiefs and Washington Redskins seized the national football media spotlight by swinging one of the most significant trades in recent NFL history.
The Chiefs, coming off yet another disappointing early exit from the playoffs, dealt 5-year starting QB Alex Smith to the Redskins on Tuesday in exchange for cornerback Kendall Fuller and a third-round pick in the 2018 draft. Washington also announced that it has inked Smith to a 4-year extension worth nearly $100 million, committing to the veteran QB in a way the Skins weren’t willing to do with former starter Kirk Cousins.
Even though the 2018 NFL season doesn’t kick off for 7 more months, many betting sites already have Super Bowl 53 betting odds posted for next year. That means it isn’t too early to start assessing whether or not the acquisition of Smith can turn the Redskins into legitimate Super Bowl threats, as well as what’s next for perennial darkhorse contender Kansas City.
How Good Is Alex Smith?
Smith’s status among NFL quarterbacks is still something that gets widely debated despite the fact that he’s 88-62 as a starter in his career, has thrown for more than 30,000 yards and has thrown approximately 3 times more touchdowns than interceptions since 2011.
He lost his starting gig in San Francisco to Colin Kaepernick in 2012 even though he went 13-3 the previous year and had opened the 2012 campaign with a 6-2-1 mark. Now, not only is he being dumped by Kansas City after going 50-26 as a starter in red and gold, Chiefs fans actually seem pretty giddy about his departure.
The biggest knock on Smith is that he plays too conservatively, always looking for the short and safe pass rather than stretching the field with riskier throws into coverage. The 26 touchdowns he threw in 2017 was the highest single-season total in his 12-year career, and just the third time he’s reached the 20-touchdown plateau. Meanwhile, before ranking second in the league with 8.6 yards per pass attempt this past season, he’d routinely been towards the bottom of the league in that category.
The other black eye on Smith’s NFL resume is a lack of post-season success. He’s won just 2 of his 7 playoff appearances, averaging less than 7 yards per attempt and throwing for less than 250 yards per game. However, he has also thrown 14 touchdowns to just 2 interceptions in playoff action, and he directed the 49ers to a fourth-quarter comeback with a game-winning drive in the 2011 playoffs.
There are lots of other things to like about Smith as well.
He’s also notorious for his accuracy, having completed at least 65% of his passes in 5 of his last 6 campaigns.
Does Smith Make The Redskins Better?
Smith obviously brings a lot to the table for Washington, but is he really a significant upgrade over former starter Kirk Cousins? That’s something that even oddsmakers seem to be wondering. A day after the trade, Sportsbook.ag had cut the Redskins’ Super Bowl 53 odds from +7500 to +5000. Meanwhile, 5Dimes kept Washington’s odds at +7000, tied with the Giants and Dolphins at fifth-worst in the league.
Cousins’ win-loss record in D.C. won’t blow you away (24-23-1 over the past 3 years, 26-30-1 all-time), but the guy has put up some impressive numbers in many other categories. He’s finished in the top 10 of the league in passing yards each of the past 3 seasons, including a second-place showing in 2016 when he threw for nearly 5,000 yards. Cousins also threw for at least 25 touchdowns in all of those years, directed 11 game-winning drives and completed better than 65% of his passes during that time span. All of those stats suggest he’s better than Smith.
If Smith has been too conservative in the past, you could argue that Cousins has been too reckless, averaging 12 interceptions per season as the Redskins’ starter. And though Cousins does have the ability to move around the pocket and extend plays, his career rushing average (3.1 yards) is barely half of what Smith averaged per run in 2 of his last 3 years in Kansas City. Those deficiencies in Cousins’ game may be why Washington continued to slap the franchise tag on him in recent years, rather than commit to him with a long-term deal.
Smith showed flashes of brilliance when he was more aggressive in the early part of 2017, especially in the season opener at New England when he went 28-for-35 for 368 yards, 4 touchdowns and 0 interceptions. Now that he’s been freed from the shackles of ultra-conservative head coach Andy Reid in K.C., maybe Smith can show more of that form with a more wide-open attack under offensive-minded coach Jay Gruden.
What’s Next For The Chiefs?
The other big question from this blockbuster trade is what it means for the Chiefs.
Smith led Kansas City to AFC West championships in each of the past 2 years and playoff appearances in 4 of the last 5 seasons. Now the reins to the offense are being handed to Patrick Mahomes, the Chiefs’ first-round draft pick in 2017 whose only NFL experience is starting KC’s meaningless season finale against Denver.
However, Mahomes showed plenty of potential in that 27-24 win over a solid and proud Broncos defense, going 22 of 35 for 284 yards and leading a game-winning drive in the fourth quarter. That was obviously enough to convince management to cut bait with Smith and make way for the 22-year-old sophomore to take over the starting gig in 2018. Oddsmakers at Sportsbook.ag actually improved KC’s Super Bowl 53 odds from +3000 to +2700 following the deal, but those odds are still more generous than the +2300 odds at which KC started the 2017 campaign.
The Chiefs will probably turn the ball over a lot more with Mahomes at the helm, but they’ll also be a more explosive and dynamic offense capable of playing from behind. That was an area in which KC lacked under Smith, with Kansas City Star writer Sam Mellinger noting that 6 of the Chiefs’ 7 losses last year could have been avoided if KC had scored on its final possession.
Let’s not overlook the other benefits Kansas City enjoyed from this deal as well. Bleacher Report recently rated Fuller as the best slot defender in the NFL in 2017, and the second-year defensive back will be a solid addition to a KC secondary that already features an elite corner in Marcus Peters. The Chiefs also cleared around $16 million in salary cap space that they can use to improve other areas of their roster.
Kansas City was one of the more balanced offenses in the NFL this past season, ranking in the top 10 of the league in both passing and rushing. There may be some early-season hiccups next season, but with talent like Kareem Hunt, Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce surrounding Mahomes, I expect the Chiefs’ attack to be just fine in 2018.
It’s debatable whether or not the addition of Alex Smith immediately makes the Redskins a lot better on paper. Although Smith brings athleticism and a running threat that former Skins starting quarterback Kirk Cousins did not possess, Cousins has put up some impressive numbers through the air in recent years that Smith will be challenged to match.
But the big thing that Washington did do here was commit long-term to its starting quarterback and put an end to the Cousins saga that has lingered over the franchise for years. Cousins acknowledged earlier this year that “you can only… go year-to-year for so long”, and Gruden said in a radio interview that he wanted the team to resolve the Cousins contract issue as well.
Smith may have his flaws, but the guy has proven to be a consistent winner, at least when it comes to regular-season play. I’m not sure that he makes the Redskins a top Super Bowl threat, but I do think he’s enough to turn a Washington team that went 7-9 this past season into a contender for the NFC East title in 2018. The Eagles may look invincible right now, but we thought the same thing about Dallas a year ago, and the NFC East hasn’t had a repeat champion since 2004.
The recent success of rookies like Dak Prescott and Deshaun Watson (before the latter got injured) have shown that you don’t need an experienced QB to win in the NFL, the Chiefs still have plenty of talent surrounding Mahomes, they’ve improved their defense and they’ve got increased cap space. Like Washington, I’m not sure KC should be mentioned among the top threats to win Super Bowl 53, but I do like their chances of returning to post-season play once again next year.