17 Jul 2013
As we pointed out in the Chiefs chapter of Football Outsiders Almanac 2013 (available now!), Kansas City had one of just 16 seasons since 1991 with a turnover differential of minus-20 or worse. Partially in an attempt to rectify that problem, and partially in an attempt to plug in a quarterback of some actual skill on to the roster, Kansas City's new coach and general manager combination of John Dorsey and Andy Reid opted to trade for Alex Smith. The price was a second-round pick in 2013 and a third-round pick in 2014 that could escalate to a second-rounder if the Chiefs win eight or more games.
The move was, if not lauded, generally accepted. CBS' Mike Freeman called it a win-win, saying you can poke holes ... but you'd be pushing it." Dan Pompei said "it also is fair to wonder why Smith cannot continue to perform under Andy Reid as he did under Jim Harbaugh." Chris Brown, while admitting he has some misgivings about the match, offered that "on the surface, at least ... it has the potential for sustained success."
My initial thoughts on the value of the trade were that Andy Reid just sold Kevin Kolb for two high picks and found Michael Vick on the scrapheap – why give up the picks for someone who hasn't been considered a franchise quarterback since his rookie season? But Mike Tanier wrote that piece and wrote it good. He does that a lot.
But, expanding on this a bit more, the main reason I disliked this trade when it happened was that the Chiefs were giving up on the easiest way a franchise has of finding a real difference-making quarterback: having a high draft pick. It used to be that the Winner's Curse, which I explored a bit in the Lions chapter of FOA 2013, made tanking for a draft pick a bad idea in the NFL. Teams were forced to lock themselves in to contracts that paid rookies like established stars before they even knew how good they were. Like, say, Alex Smith's six-year, $49 million contract that he signed prior to the 2005 season.
The owners were able to get a rookie wage scale in place following the lockout, meaning that the value of the young star quarterback increased exponentially. Instead of Andrew Luck getting an untenable Matthew Stafford-esque contract right away, the Colts walked in to this offseason flush with salary cap space. Okay, so theoretically that has a lot more value in a thought experiment than it does when you use it to bring in Gosder Cherilus, still, that doesn't take away from the fact that Seattle and San Francisco were able to finance offseason acquisitions like Anquan Boldin, Cliff Avril, and Michael Bennett with the salary cap figures their similarly talented young quarterbacks are currently playing for.
One of the bigger takeaways I had from the old Baseball Prospectus series was the idea of a team having a window to contend in. To pick on my favorite squadron, it didn't really make a lot of sense when the Mets forked over four years and $42.5 million to get an aging Tom Glavine to join a 75-win team following the 2002 season. Glavine would eventually pitch in the playoffs with New York in 2006 -– after the Mets developed David Wright and Jose Reyes and spent oodles of dollars on Carlos Beltran, Pedro Martinez, and Carlos Delgado –- but at the time the move didn't really seem to fit the window.
I don't think football windows are quite the same, because in football everything is a year-to-year proposition. But I do believe a quarterback actually can control the size of that window all by himself. Employ a Tom Brady or Peyton Manning and your window in any given season is pretty big –- you can overcome some injuries, misfortune, or other team weaknesses. Employ Joe Flacco and your window is still open, but you need some breaks. Like Jacoby Jones suddenly deciding that this was the year to not forget how to catch a football in the playoffs.
For the sake of keeping things simple, let's assume that Alex Smith can be roughly the same quarterback in Kansas City that he was in San Francisco. I don't actually believe that's true, because Reid is no Jim Harbaugh, but let's run with it. Just how big of a window does Alex Smith give your franchise? I think even if we don't agree on exactly how good he is, we can agree that he's hardly top-of-the-line and that he needs to be managed, right?
So while the NFL isn't a sport where you can completely bank on the future, or where you're likely to see tanking contests like you would in the NBA, I think that the CBA change has incentivized teams to shy away from players like Alex Smith. In a very NBA way, being "in the middle" at the quarterback position is no longer enviable. Once you reach the border of Flacco and, if he didn't crater at the end of the season, maybe Matt Schaub, teams are facing some very unenviable decisions over guys that haven't taken the next leap, have stagnated, or have started to watch their play decline. Guys like Philip Rivers, Jay Cutler, Josh Freeman, Andy Dalton, and Sam Bradford. How small does the window have to get before you try to get a new quarterback? At what point does surrounding the quarterback with the best of all possible options you can find become less enviable than just trying to find a new driver?
And with the new CBA, you really aren't in much of a hole if you miss on a quarterback. The Jaguars could have easily moved on from Blaine Gabbert with little financial loss this offseason, but once they decided the quarterbacks in the draft weren't up to their standards, they decided to sit on their hands. They didn't deal from their assets to bring in, say, Matt Flynn for a slight run at the AFC South crown. They embraced the fact that the possibility of being bad might offer an opportunity now that the humongous rookie contracts are gone.
That's why I was so against this trade for the Chiefs. Even setting the cost in draft picks aside –- and they gave up a lot -– it gives them more of a porthole than a window. I'm not saying that it was necessarily a bad move, because I think it depends on just how important the fact that the window is open at all is worth to you. Reasonable people can look at the fact that less-than-stellar regular season teams have gotten hot in the playoffs recently and conclude that all you have to do is get there. I don't subscribe to that premise. I think it's more important to maximize your chance at winning a Super Bowl. And, in that hypothetical, I will take the not-easily-quantifiable chance of plucking a new quarterback in the next few drafts over the steady contributions of an Alex Smith.
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