The Washington Redskins decided to move on from a quarterback who prepares well, is capable of good games and whose play invites debate as to its effectiveness. And they found a duplicate. In turning from Kirk Cousins to Alex Smith -- once the trade with the Kansas City Chiefs is made official on March 14 -- the Redskins go from one hotly debated quarterback to another.
Both are considered hard working and smart, have overcome adversity and have had to work on becoming more vocal leaders. In fact, early in Smith’s career coaches in San Francisco wanted him to be louder in the huddle. Smith, though, will be much cheaper.
What, exactly, will the Redskins be getting and how might they be different with Smith? Multiple coaches, executives and scouts provided some insight:
He’s not Donovan McNabb, 2.0. Andy Reid traded both quarterbacks to the Redskins, sending McNabb to Washington in 2010 at the age of 33 -- the same age as Smith. The feeling by some coaches when McNabb arrived in Washington was that his body had absorbed so many hits that it impacted his game. Other players at the time bemoaned McNabb’s approach and work habits. That has not been the case with Smith. “It’s not like you’re getting a guy coming off his worst season,” one coach said. “He’s excellent in the quick passing game. ... He threw the ball accurately outside the numbers down the field on go balls; five-step, one-hitch timing throws. They pushed the ball down the field as well as any and a lot was predicated on his ability to throw the go ball. It has good trajectory; it’s catchable.”
Cousins gets rid of the ball quicker. That’s not surprising given that Smith throws with an elongated motion, which drives some offensive coaches nuts. “He’s not a natural thrower. It’s not clean,” one offensive coach said of Smith. “[But] he’s extremely intelligent and that’s what saves him and Andy does as good a job as anyone with quarterbacks. ... I don’t see the arm talent like I do in Cousins. [Smith’s] greatest asset is his ability to create, pull down and go. That scares a defense. He seems to be a smart guy, too.”
Smith hasn’t won much in the playoffs. It’s not just about a won-loss record in the playoffs -- that’s on an entire team, not one position. During Smith’s tenure, the Chiefs were 1-4 in the postseason and he’s 2-5 overall. They lost two games by one point and another by two. And in two of those games, Kansas City had the ball needing only a field goal or touchdown to win (both drives started with at least four minutes remaining). On those drives, Smith completed a combined 5 of 10 passes for 66 yards -- and no points. However, in one of those games, he threw for 378 yards and four touchdowns (a 45-44 loss to Indianapolis). For what it's worth, Smith's teams have gone 69-31 since 2011 when he starts (50-26 in Kansas City) and 88-62 overall. The Chiefs had a top-seven defense in points allowed in four of his five years.
Smith might be more consistent but One NFC scout said Cousins can take over games in a way Smith hasn’t done. The scout said that while Smith won’t “win you a game, he also won’t lose you a game.” The scout felt Smith was more consistent, but Cousins had flashes and “when he gets hot, he gets hot.” But he also pointed to Cousins’ lows. However, the scout liked Washington’s passing game and coach Jay Gruden’s playcalling, saying Smith would be a good fit. The Redskins have routes on one side of the field to beat man -- or a zone with man principles -- and the routes on the other side are designed to beat various zones. The quarterbacks here have always said: There’s an answer for everything. That helps any quarterback.
Smith doesn’t turn it over as much. He did not throw the ball as much as Cousins did, but in five years with the Chiefs, Smith threw a combined 33 interceptions -- with a high of eight. Cousins threw 36 interceptions in three seasons as a starter; he also threw 81 touchdown passes (20 more than Smith in those three years).
Gruden’s system has a lot of checkdowns. Cousins operated well with those and Smith has as well in previous stops. Both quarterbacks have been knocked for passing up possible bigger gains and instead throwing short. The Redskins felt Cousins did that too much this past season; they might still gain 10 yards on a play but coaches felt 20 was available. Gruden even said he wanted Cousins to take more chances in practice. Smith has not been known as an aggressive downfield thrower.
Though some wondered how well the system fit Smith, others did not. Smith played for Reid, who comes from the same coaching tree as Jon Gruden, who is, of course, the brother of Jay Gruden. The point: There are similarities between Reid’s system and Gruden’s. “The system fits him,” one talent evaluator said. “I guarantee that’s one reason why they did this; Jay knows what he wants.”
He can change the launch point. Smith might not be considered a natural thrower like Cousins, but because of his better mobility, he can change the launch angle on his throws. One coach liked that Cousins’ ability to throw quicker could be the difference in gaining yards after the catch by receivers. In the past three seasons, however, Smith’s receivers averaged 4.76 yards after the catch (eighth in the NFL) compared to 4.41 yards for Cousins’ wideouts (21st). Almost the entire difference stemmed from Smith leading the NFL in that category in 2017.
Gruden will have to use more bootlegs. The book on Gruden is that he likes pocket passers, mainly because that’s what he has had in the NFL with Andy Dalton and Cousins. But don’t forget: Gruden does like Colt McCoy a lot, who is adept on the move. And when he had Robert Griffin III, Gruden could have lived with his issues in the pocket -- if he felt he made better decisions on the move. Gruden has wanted more off-schedule plays, which Smith can provide. In Kansas City, Smith had 13 gains of 20 yards or more. In the past three years, he rushed for 664 more yards than Cousins. Of course, Cousins threw for 2,146 more yards -- in 225 more attempts.
The bottom line: Neither quarterback will carry an offense. The Redskins are well aware they need to add more on offense to provide Smith the best opportunity. "You can win with him," the evaluator said. "But you won't win with him throwing 35 times a game." One note to that: The Chiefs went 8-5 the past two years when Smith attempted 35 or more passes.