If you would have told fans of the Kansas City Chiefs that they would hold Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell to no touchdowns, forcing them to kick six field goals instead, most would have taken that.
Unfortunately for those fans, 18 points was enough for the Pittsburgh Steelers to topple a Kansas City side which was largely pedestrian on offense at Arrowhead Stadium on Sunday night. It marks back-to-back years in which the Chiefs have lost a close one in the Divisional round of the playoffs.
Last year’s seven-point loss against the New England Patriots in Foxborough sparked more optimism than dark days with many believing Andy Reid was just one or two pieces away from being a legitimate Super Bowl contender.
Now, the question is not about the rest of the team – it’s about Alex Smith. The last two playoffs games have shown that while a competent quarterback who does not make many mistakes, the 12th year passer simply does not make enough plays to go toe-to-toe with the AFC powerhouses in Tom Brady and Big Ben.
Not all the blame can be placed at Smith’s door for the ineptitude against the Steelers. Running back Spencer Ware has not been as effective as he was in the early part of the season and his eight carries for 35 yards is evidence of that. Splash playmaker Tyreek Hill, the player many talked up as the ultimate X-Factor in the game, had just 45 yards from scrimmage and was unable to make any impact in the return game in which he has become synonymous with this season. Even tight end Travis Kelce, who had been a beneficiary of the Chiefs’ recent big play offense, failed to make any difference on a swarming Steelers defense.
As stagnant at the offensive playmakers were Smith was the biggest culprit. Passing for just 172 yards the former number one overall pick left roughly another 172 on the field with overthrows and misplacement of the ball. Not being able to hit a wide-open Jeremy Maclin the pick of the bunch when the speedy receiver got clear separation.
While Kansas City are an obviously well coached, well drilled team their lack of being able to hit the big plays in the playoffs has plagued them for two straight years. If these playoffs have highlighted anything it is while consistent solid football can get you into the tournament you will need a franchise quarterback to make big plays.
Smith only threw for over 300 yards once in the regular season – a week one shootout victory over the team formerly known as the San Diego Chargers – and failed to pass for over 200 yards four times. The Chiefs went 2-2 in those four games. Consistency in the regular season will get a good team like the Chiefs 10 to 12 wins.
Alex Smith is a consistent signal caller who makes few mistakes but he also makes few plays that make a real difference in the big games when compared to Brady and Roethlisberger.
The quarterback position is dangerously fragile in today’s NFL with many Head Coaches and offensive coordinators forced to build around a middle of the road starter and blanket them as the difference between an average starting quarterback and a bad quarterback is a much bigger gap than that between an average starter to a true franchise QB.
In Kelce, Maclin, Hill, Ware and even role players in the shape of Albert Wilson and Chris Conley the Chiefs have enough tools to make big plays outside the numbers. Kansas City showed signs of evolution down the stretch with some big chunk plays on offense however it means now the team is starting to outgrow Smith, a signal caller who looks uncomfortable when asked to throw the ball further than 20 yards down the field.
Should Smith lead another playoff march in 2017 then he may face a make or break scenario as the Chiefs starting quarterback. Should he go head to head with Brady, Big Ben or a healthy Derek Carr and fail to produce plays once more, then he may have to find himself a new home.