The most consistent characteristic (read: insult) people have attributed to quarterback Alex Smith over his career has been "game manager," a slight that implies he rarely takes risks down the field and is far happier throwing shorter, high percentage passes.
But you couldn't say that last year, in Smith's final season with the Chiefs, and now there's statistical evidence to prove it.
With the help of Next Gen Stats, NFL.com found that Smith was the best passer in the NFL in 2017 when it came to throwing deep-balls -- in other words, passes travelling at least 20 yards in the air. He beat out Matthew Stafford, Josh McCown and Deshaun Watson, to name a few.
Attempting 4.2 deep passes per game (10th highest in the league and a considerable increase form his 2.9 the year before), Smith ranked at the top when it came to passer rating (134.7), completion rate (54.2 percent), and percentage of yards (30 percent), while finishing second in touchdown rate (18.6 percent).
It should be noted that Smith didn't rank higher than 20th in any of these categories in 2016, an indication that it helped to have the best deep threat, wide receiver Tyreek Hill, in his arsenal. At 5-foot-10, 185 pounds, Hill broke out last season with 1,183 yards, catching seven of 13 tight window targets for 25.7 yards per reception.
As Smith takes over a new team in Washington, naturally the question regarding this severe uptick in deep throws will be questioned. Is Smith taking more steps as a quarterback or was last year's elevation an outlier, one characterized by having one of the fastest and dynamic wide receivers? When asked about this at his introductory press conference last week, Smith gave a cordial, generalized response.
"I think as a quarterback, my job [is] to run the offense and within that, there's a lot, whatever the defense is going to give you, right? If it dictates throwing the ball down the field, certainly you want to be able take advantage and make them pay," Smith said. "But, yeah, you want to spread the ball around, right, and certainly be efficient. You want to be good in all areas, right? When you take shots downfield, you want to be good at them. Certainly when you're possession throwing, you want to be good at that too. So I think you want to be well-rounded and all you can do, all of us this time of year, this is an opportunity to look at where do we need to improve? Where do I need to improve? This is the time of year for me to try to get into that. So, certainly, yeah, whatever it be, throwing downfield, running, moving, movement within the pocket, ball security, accuracy, those are certainly things that you continually will always work on and I will always work on."
The reason for optimism might just be the addition of wide receiver Paul Richardson Jr., who stands at 6-foot and 183 pounds and boasts all kinds of speed. He represents the return of a player within the Redskins' offense that, along with Josh Doctson, can speed down the field, track the deep ball well and come down with 50-50 catch opportunities.
If Smith continues to make strides with shots down the field, and ones that give his receivers the best chance to make plays, Washington's offense has a great chance of eclipsing its recent heights.
"I'm continually trying to get better in every area," Smith said. "There is certainly no area where I'm good enough here. That's just not the case. So, you're constantly trying to work on all of it. And I think I can improve in all those areas."