RICHMOND, Va. -- The scene happens repeatedly: Washington Redskins quarterback Alex Smith hits a receiver in stride. Or helps one avoid a collision by placing the ball away from danger. Or hits a target as he cuts -- one throw early in camp ended up in receiver Josh Doctson’s midsection the second he turned inside.
None of these throws would probably make a highlight reel. But that’s OK with the Redskins and their receivers. It’s what Smith does best: throw with trust, lead targets into more yards and generally help them avoid nasty collisions. In practice he has provided the occasional flash with a deep ball, but mostly it’s about accuracy and efficiency and moving the ball.
“I haven’t seen something he’s not really good at,” Redskins coach Jay Gruden said.
Clearly, that’s part of the honeymoon phase the Redskins and Smith are enjoying. But it’s also true that Washington’s staff likes what they’ve seen from Smith. He’s not a secret: Smith is entering his 14th season and has started 151 games. What you see is what you get.
There’s a lot of focus on whether or not he’ll continue to throw the deep ball after having success in Kansas City doing so last season. He led the NFL in passer rating on throws of 20 or more air yards, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. But Smith’s strength has been operating in a West Coast attack in which he excels at underneath throws.
He had the talent around him to lead an explosive attack in Kansas City last season. The Redskins, who open their preseason schedule Thursday night at New England, hope that’s the case this season with players such as tight end Jordan Reed, third-down back Chris Thompson and receivers Josh Doctson, Jamison Crowder and Paul Richardson.
“His shorter, intermediate game is phenomenal,” Kansas City coach Andy Reid said of Smith. “He’s point-on and he can do so many things at the line for you. Some of those throws take the place of the run game. He’s unbelievable with that and he gives guys an opportunity to make plays.”
Time and again during practice, receivers are led into more yards after the catch.
In San Francisco, Smith averaged only 6.56 yards per pass attempt, compared to 7.26 yards with the Chiefs. But that was a result of what he does best: Lead guys into yards. With the 49ers, Smith attempted longer passes. He averaged 7.61 air yards per attempt, according to ESPN Stats & Information. In Kansas City, it was only 6.48 yards.
Jim Hostler was the quarterbacks coach and then offensive coordinator with the 49ers, and he watched Smith play in both a West Coast scheme and a downfield attack under then-coordinator Norv Turner.
“Alex is a better West Coast quarterback,” Hostler said. “He can throw the ball down the field, but his body type, his release, are all better for throwing the ball in a West Coast system. He had success with Norv and had a really good second year, but when you look at his history, he’s more a control passing-game-type quarterback.”
“An easily catchable ball is what stands out,” Gruden said. “He doesn’t throw a ball high and hard for the backs where it’s hard to catch. The ball is easy to catch and in a location where those players can get up the field quickly.
“There is a lot of underestimated skill with ball location.”
It’s not as if he has never thrown an interception in practice. He does. But in his past seven seasons, he has thrown only a combined 43 interceptions in game action. He hasn’t thrown more than eight in a season since 2010. Kansas City had the second-fewest turnovers in the NFL during his five seasons.
“If it’s not there, he’s not throwing the ball,” Redskins corner Josh Norman said. “That’s the most frustrating thing for a defensive back. You’re in great position, you get there at the top of the route and you’re ready for your play to be made and it doesn’t come. But on the ones you’re a step behind on, you’re almost there to make it, and he throws it. Cat-and-mouse, man. It just sucks when you’re the mouse.”
Redskins quarterbacks coach/passing game coordinator Kevin O’Connell credits Smith’s pre-snap work. For example, before one snap in practice, he noticed tight end Vernon Davis had drawn press man coverage on the right side. Smith looked at him and tapped his helmet. But after Davis’ first step or two, he had not drawn an advantage. Smith, knowing the coverage on the other side, quickly turned and fired a strike down the left side to Richardson.
That same practice, Richardson broke on a deep out for an easy completion.
“They’re all catchable because of the timing,” Richardson said. “Once we come out of a break, the ball is right there.”
O’Connell said they talk often about what he termed opportunity throws or us-or-nobody throws. In other words, put the ball where only his man has a shot.
“Sometimes even throwing in-cuts where everyone says, ‘That’s a low throw,’ Alex does it on purpose because maybe [safety] D.J. Swearinger is coming on the throw,” O’Connell said.
The receivers clearly like that protection.
“That’s one thing he does really well -- ball placement,” Crowder said. “He can see where defenders are if I’m running a shallow cross and whether he puts it on my upfield shoulder or my back. He can protect me from defenders coming in that direction.”
But the Redskins need him to make plays like he did for the Chiefs last season.
“We’re trying to put in in situations to make a lot of those decisions and make them quick,” O’Connell said. “If he’s accurate with those throws, those guys have proven they can do some dynamic things with the ball in their hands after the catch.”