A Game of Leverage: Kansas City versus Alex Smith

As training camp creeps up on the horizon, Chiefs fans are stuck in limbo, some waiting for what they believe is their white horse Alex Smith to sign a long-term deal and become a strong foothold for the quarterback-starved franchise looking to climb, while others are waiting for the other foot to drop right on their throats, as they believe that signing Smith for a ridiculous amount of money is the team’s way of showing that they don’t believe they can win without a “FRANCHISE QUARTERBACK” because that’s what everyone else is doing. I previously wrote about how this is a polarizing topic that is tearing Chiefs Nation apart at the seams, and with reports that there are still “significant differences between both sides” it looks like the line in the sand is being drawn very clearly. This will be a battle that goes down to the wire, but who has the leverage in this negotiation?

When deals are being negotiated, there is always one side with more chips than the other, if you understand the poker reference. In traditional labor negotiations, an abundance of capable replacements drives the chips towards the employer, and the talent pool shrinks as the potential employee becomes more skilled, because there are much less people in the world who possess the skills needed to replace that employee if they choose to go elsewhere. The tricky thing with football is that the statistics don’t tell you how skilled someone is, just what their output was. The more skilled players don’t always get the most passing attempts or most talented pass catchers, so the yards that are produced aren’t always a true indicator of how talented the passer is.

That’s the part where all of this gets tricky.

There is no more nuanced and complex position to evaluate in all of sports than the quarterback, and those who claim they know what they’re talking when it comes to evaluations about often do not. The job of the quarterback has the most variables clouding the truth about them, and those variables are most often used as excuses. If a quarterback doesn’t produce as well as another, there is always a scapegoat, whether it’s the offensive coordinator’s “bad play-calling”, the offensive line’s “struggles”, or wide receivers who just don’t “get open”, to name a few. Of course, when a quarterback is successful, as Smith was last season, those same variables are often cast aside and the credit is not distributed evenly to those involved. The argument of worth inherits all of those variables when millions of dollars are involved, and in this case, the identity of the team is being held hostage in the middle, because that’s really what this is all about.

The Smith camp wants the team to be a quarterback-driven offensive-minded scoring machine and the Chiefs, according to Terez’ tweet, want the team to be a defensive juggernaut, capable of disrupting the opponent’s gameplan week-in and week-out. Where the Chiefs gain the leverage in this situation is the amount of highly skilled players they have on their defense, many of whom coming up on their approaching paydays quickly, that could be the foundation of the franchise for many years to come. If you choose defense, your high draft picks are dedicated to getting top of the line prospects to turn positions of mediocrity to positions of dominance, and your later draft picks are used to get players who can contribute in a limited role to score just enough to win. You can replace draft picks with free agents and contract money, and the message is the same. You build a defense that forces turnovers and three-and-outs, giving your offense easier, shorter distances to get into scoring range and trust that they can deliver enough.

The Smith camp, whether it’s because of arrogance or the bloated quarterback market, don’t see things this way. They see the QB WINS and TEAM POINTS SCORED statistics at relative franchise highs and associate that with their guy, and want the paycheck to match those contributions. The team was 6th in the league in points per game and 5th in points allowed per game, so their argument is the team could go either way and move forward as an offensive team if they pay Alex. That’s part of the allure of this whole situation.

The arguments from both sides on the identity of the team going forward are strong enough to not budge from, leading to the stalemate we are in now. Neither side will gain leverage from this exclusively, but the front office ultimately decides the identity of the team.

“Alex Smith’s limited skillset shrinks his potential landing spots, giving the leverage to Kansas City in that scenario.”
It all comes back to this idea of need being created by there not being enough of a resource to go around. Demand is created at the quarterback position when there isn’t 32 quarterbacks better than you actively pursuing a career in football at the time. The amount of demand, and by association price, comes down to how high you are on the totem pole and what other teams would pay for you to be their quarterback, but here is where it gets even more interesting. Alex Smith’s limited skillset shrinks his potential landing spots, giving the leverage to Kansas City in that scenario.

If they stand firm on their ground and Smith’s camp decides to try and test the market this off-season, how big is this market and who is jumping up and down at the thought of offering him the major money he’s asking for? We haven’t seen this for an established, middle-of-the-pack quarterback in a very long time (I don’t count Peyton Manning, one of the 4 best QBs ever) if we ever have.

Cliff Avril turned down a three year, 30 million dollar contract by the Lions and ended up getting less on the open market years ago, but he was an edge player, not a quarterback who is 30 and has a ton of very bad football tape out there that’s not that old. My breh Jinx brought this up in a tweet on Friday, when he said “What would Alex Smith make as an FA, and who would sign him. How can you justify more than 3yrs/12 per?” and I stand with Jinx on this estimate.

If Michael Vick, one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever walk this Earth, only got 1 year and 5 million to be a back-up, and Smith is going to only be 3 years younger when he hits the market, how can any team justify grossly overpaying Smith or locking him up for a long time? I get that some people don’t like Michael Vick because they hate fun things, but even after he spent time in jail he was better quarterback than the majority of these scared checkdown artists. . . 

If you’re Kansas City, what sounds like a better option: Letting Justin Houston walk to build your offense around a 31 year old quarterback with a million dollar style and 64 thousand dollar arm, or paying the young superstar edge rusher and hoping that Alex Smith realizes that he needs you a whole lot more than you need him?

Senior contributor for Football Savages.

Jake Brydson

Senior contributor for Football Savages.