Play­offs be­gin tonight

NC, Colonel, C-SD all in ac­tion

The Star Democrat - - FRONT PAGE -

(WPNS) — What’s wrong with Alex Smith? Well, here’s the sober­ing an­swer: Noth­ing, re­ally. He will get more com­for ta­ble 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 his 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 so far, 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, so far, 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 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 now the team is heav­ily de­pen­dent on 33-yearold Adrian Peter­son. And, oh, the of­fen­sive line is in sham­bles be­cause of in­jury. 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 last Sun­day against At­lanta, the per­for­mance was medi­ocre, and those stats were in­flated be­cause the team was play­ing from be­hind for most of the game.

“Oh yeah, I mean, 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 felling 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 team­build­ing acu­men. It seems like the front of­fice has grad­u­ally im­proved in this area dur­ing Gru­den’s five sea­sons. It seems like 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 now 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 now, the new face of the predica­ment. He’s just play­ing his game, re­ally. You can’t like what you’ve seen thus far, but again, he’s just sup­posed to be a base layer. Where’s the rest of this of­fense? He’ll 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. I think you do the best you can­not to ride that roller coaster so to speak, try not to. 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.


Red­skins quar­ter­back Alex Smith looks for an open­ing to pass dur­ing the first half of Sun­day’s game against the Fal­cons.

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