Relying on Uncertainty
By Eric Paolini
Every NFL team has flaws, or at least most do. It is hard to point to anything the Seattle Seahawks or Denver Broncos are doing right now as flawed. The best teams find a way to hide their weaknesses and minimize them. They push games into a direction that better suits them. In the career revitalization of Alex Smith the past few years, the quarterback has operated in such a way to put his teams in better positions to win.
In San Francisco, Smith made sure not to put his defense in difficult situations. While no quarterback desires to put his defense in tricky spots, not every one can actually do that. Brett Favre's Packers defenses were put in difficult spots frequently by former NFL MVP's risky passes. But those teams could live with that because of the rewards some of those risky passes produced. Smith doesn't have that ability, the ability to make impossible bullet passes across his body and down the field between multiple defenders. Instead, Smith limits the possible risk. While the quarterback for Jim Harbaugh, Smith cut down on his already low interception rate and increased his completion percentage and became more of an efficient passer.
Smith has tried to do the same in his first year in Kansas City. He played it safe, avoided turnovers, mistakes, and risks, while a really good defense beat up on below-average competition. Unfortunately, the results haven't been the same. Sure, the Chiefs were winning, but Smith's low statistical production (along with the entirety of the offense not named Jamaal Charles) worried some when the competition would pick up.
When the Chiefs defense faltered in the first matchup against the Denver Broncos, Andy Reid realized that the ultra conservative offense he was running wouldn't be conducive toward winning. The following week, the offense began attacking down the field some. Make no mistake, this offense will never be confused with the aerial attacks employed by the likes of Denver and the New Orleans Saints. But Kansas City did look down the field more than it had before. While the approach didn't lead to victory over San Diego, the Chiefs smartly did not abandon it in the Denver rematch.
But this leads to (one of) the problems facing the Chiefs for the remainder of their season: Who will catch these passes thrown down the field? Smith attempted aggressive (for him) passes to a host of Chiefs wide receivers to come up empty amid a flurry of dropped passes. Most disappointing was Donnie Avery.
Avery has been the one receiver (actual receiver; not Charles out of the backfield) who can be viewed as a weapon. Dwayne Bowe has been in a funk all season long, and Smith doesn't particularly care to throw that way. Bowe is second in targets among Chiefs players trailing his team's running back. Compared across the entire league, Bowe is outside of the top 30 in targets. That's not what you would expect from a team's No. 1 target. Bowe is the most talented receiver on the team. His production has been better than Avery's in terms of overall numbers. He has 11 more receptions on 23 more targets and twice as many touchdowns. But when Avery gets the ball he actually does something with it. Avery averages almost four more yards per reception than Bowe.
After three fourths of the season, the possibility that Bowe will become an actual No. 1 receiver this season is all but over. Now he's just mixed in among the other stable of possible pass catchers. But can Avery be that player?
In brief flashes this year he has shown some ability to get open downfield and be a weapon this team needs. But he's not it. Against Denver last week, he showed that he can't be relied upon. When A.J. Jenkins and Dexter McCluster's numbers weren't being called (after they dropped passes), Avery was dropping his opportunities. Avery isn't a reliable, every down, throughout the game option. He can fit in a rotation (along with Jenkins and McCluster) to play opposite Bowe, but he isn't someone Smith can rely on.
Smith has Charles out of the backfield, which is fine, great even. But what happens when it's third and 12? In those situations Smith will turn to his receivers. He won't avoid Bowe, he won't avoid Avery, or any of the others. But none of them is a sure thing. We've known that about Bowe all season long. But I wondered briefly if Avery might be able to do it. When the opponents got tougher, could Avery step up? Last week we learned that the answer was no.
Alex Smith will still operate the same way he has been all season long. He'll be aggressive as long as the risk isn't too great. He's shown in recent weeks that he doesn't have to check down time and time again, that he'll look down the field a bit. But whether or not he'll be effective and efficient isn't up to him.