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The Real Problem(s) for Alex Smith & Redskins?

February 16, 2018
There’s been a lot of praise along with  criticism and concern over the last two weeks for how Alex Smith will work out for the Redskins, not only in 2018 but 2019, 2020 and maybe beyond.

Some of that concern and skepticism is more than fair. It’s legitimate. Especially considering the cost of doing business in the quarterback market. 

The Redskins might not think it is, but when have they ever been on the same wavelength with the rest of the NFL community and most of their customers?

As we profiled in our last post, Smith has his supporters too, especially compared to Kirk Cousins and from one of the greatest quarterbacks of all-time, Aaron Rodgers.

Don’t you know opinions are like ….…..well, you know what the saying is.

So here we are: Many think the Redskins have a slight upgrade at quarterback. Many think they have taken a step back and nobody knows the real answer. It’s all speculation and much of it is useless because every system is different, and every supporting cast is different as well.

Also, every season is different. There’s no way that the Redskins can or should think that they are going to get almost similar production this upcoming year as Smith provided the Chiefs.

Smith’s 67.5% completion rate was the second best of his career, only surpassed by his partial year in 2012 at 70.2%.

Smith’s 4,042 yards was easily a career high as was his 26 touchdown passes. The new Redskins quarterback tied a career low in interceptions with five, something he had done two other times including that injury shortened 2012 season.

The Redskins are going to celebrate and point to these achievements when they issue a fancy press release on March 14th. I don't care about press releases and glorified statistics. Neither should you. While reason for hope and optimism obviously should exist, there's a couple of things that should be and are very real concerns that not many, if any, are discussing.

Andy Benoit watches and analyzes every NFL game for the MMQB under the Peter King umbrella. There’s no doubt his opinion and analysis are legitimate. Is he always right? No. Does he know more than a coach would? Probably not. Should we take what he says and keep it in the front of our mind? Absolutely.

Earlier this week he was on 106.7 The FAN with Chad Dukes, and, if he’s right, he pretty much crushed the hopes and dreams of Alex Smith being better than Kirk Cousins and the Redskins being considered smart.

The money quote from Monday’s radio appearance for Benoit? “I think this is going to go very badly.” Not what any Redskins fan wants to hear.

The analysis that jumped out to me most from Benoit is how Smith struggled in his view when opposing defenses went from primary man coverage to more zone defense.

“When teams shifted back into zone coverage,” Benoit said as transcribed by Chris Lingebach “and now you’re reading multiple defenders and trying to isolate windows and throw-on schedule, Alex Smith reverted back into a lot of his old tendencies.”

That was during 2017. Before the season, Benoit did a top-400 best player list in the NFL and Smith was on it. However, he finished # 372 and was the lowest ranked quarterback that made the list.  (Cousins was # 261). 

Benoit went on to mention that the Chiefs offense “dried up for a while,” which it did, and that’s a huge reason why Kansas City drafted Patrick Mahomes and traded up for the young gunslinger because – “Alex Smith has had these issue throughout his career.”

Well, that’s not good, is it? To me, this is the most important thing that has been said about Alex Smith in the couple of weeks since word of the trade leaked.

Usually, NFL defensive coordinators play a heavy dose of zone coverage against younger, less disciplined quarterbacks even if they are more of a base man-to-man defense. Of course, some teams are primary zone coverage units and there are perfectly good reasons for that.

The overall issue is this: If Benoit recognizes this and is correct (I have no reason to think that he’s not) – so will every defensive coordinator. Does that mean Smith can’t beat zone coverage? Of course not. Does that mean he won’t have success? No. However, Benoit pointing out what is a weakness in Smith’s career must be a concern, especially considering that he’s not a young quarterback anymore.

One issue that I have tried to drive home, that I am concerned about and that I am desperately hoping changes is how the Redskins run their offense before the snap. Jay Gruden is widely considered as creative and smart as anyone, when it comes to pass route concepts and design.

That’s very important but you must have the correct weapons to truly make it special. The Redskins did not have that last year.

One element that I strongly believe the Redskins lack creativity in is exactly what the Chiefs (Andy Reid) and Eagles (Doug Pederson, formerly with Chiefs) MAJOR in. Pre-snap design.

If you watched any Chiefs games over the last few years or certainly any Eagles contests on their way to a Super Bowl win, you know EXACTLY what I mean.

I’ll detail it more in another post, but all you need to do is read this piece by Peter King on the Eagles go-ahead touchdown to Zach Ertz for one small example of how these two offenses differ from what the Redskins do. The Redskins are terrific conceptually post-snap while the offense Alex Smith comes from is mind-numbing (in a good way) before the ball is snapped.

I reached out to Benoit after his interview with Dukes on 106.7 The FAN Monday, to ask him about this subtle but critical difference, because it was important to make sure I wasn’t pleading for something that others saw differently. “I think [Andy} Reid is very good in [the] pre-snap phase and that did help Smith. The sooner the read is defined for him, the better,” Benoit said. That last point also goes back to Benoit’s overall main criticism, which is that Smith has historically struggled against zone concepts.

Benoit continued, “[Jay] Gruden is solid in pre-snap creativity, but he may want to consider expanding it.”

Essentially that means that Gruden is going to have to build in more motion and shifts, more alignments and packages that are designed to force teams into man coverage or into a tough predicament in zone, and just as important, provides the opponent with what many NFL analysts call “eye-candy.”

The Redskins need to run more jet sweeps, run-pass options (RPO’s) and swing fakes (among other concepts) to not only try and figure out coverage but to slow down the opposing defense and their reaction time. Think about the read-option pull and what that does to an opposing defenses if executed properly. It’s almost impossible to stop.

How about that concept with a tight jet sweep or a looping jet sweep built in? That's extremely tough to figure out and react properly.

The other big concern that not many are talking about (in my eyes) is the huge criticism that Smith faced for the first seven or eight years of his career and that was the instability at offensive coordinator and scheme on a year-to-year basis.

Smith had seven different offensive coordinators in his first eight years of his career and then joined Reid and Pederson in Kansas City. Clearly, as time went on and as the Chiefs surrounded Smith with better talent, Smith’s production became better and better.

The Redskins have better talent than what the Chiefs had five years ago, but it’s certainly not great at this point. The more important point is that Smith will have to learn Gruden’s scheme and terminology in one short off-season and training camp.

Will he be fine? Probably. Will he be comfortable? I can’t see it. Will that affect the Redskins bottom-line success. For sure.

Chris Russell has covered the Washington Redskins for eight seasons for multiple media outlets and was a part of the Redskins Radio Network broadcast team for five years. He covers the Redskins, Washington Valor and Baltimore Brigade for Monumental Sports Network (  Listen to Chris on Washington D.C.'s # 1 sports radio station, 106.7 The FAN