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The question trailed him a long time, until he finally proved that, yes, he could throw the ball downfield. Quite well, actually. And that leads to another question on new Washington Redskins quarterback Alex Smith: Will he duplicate that success here?

In 2017, Smith was one of the NFL’s best Men’s Washington Redskins Alex Smith NFL Pro Line Burgundy Team Color Jersey downfield throwers. Before last season, Smith did not throw down the field with as much regularity as other quarterbacks. That’s not Redskins coach Jay Gruden’s concern.

“He went downfield a lot last year,” Gruden said earlier this month. “Before that, they had issues at receiver. But I’m not too concerned. … We’ll coach up the progression the way we want to. He’s been through a lot of them and he’ll make the decisions. I’m sure he’ll be all right.”

The Redskins want more big plays from their receivers and signed speedy Paul Richardson on the first day of free agency. But Gruden made it clear after the trade that it wasn’t just about deep balls. He’s just as happy having Smith throw Richardson a shallow crosser and watching him run 50 yards after the catch.

“Taking a shallow cross, where a quarterback doesn’t have to wait for you and throw it 65 yards down the field and hope a safety doesn’t get there … is appealing to me,” Gruden said after Richardson signed. “The deep balls are great and we’ll take as many shots as we can. But coverage usually dictates where the ball goes on a deep ball.”

Smith topped the charts

In Kansas City last season, that meant throwing the ball down the field more. Smith was tied for 10th in passing attempts of 20 yards or more (59, the same as former Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins). But Smith was tied for first with New Orleans’ Drew Brees in completion percentage on such throws, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Smith completed 52.5 percent of such passes (Cousins completed 33.8 percent).

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“As a quarterback, you are a reflection of a lot of guys around you, and for me, excited about what that means here and going out there and being the facilitator,” Smith said.

And, in a reflection of the talent around him, Smith completed 21 of 36 passes to his receivers on such throws last season. He had ultra-fast Tyreek Hill and Albert Wilson.

The Redskins would like to give Josh Doctson more chances downfield, feeling some were missed last season — and also because they like his ability to make contested catches. Richardson brings that quality as well. It won’t just be the receivers; last season Smith led all quarterbacks with 21 throws of 20-plus yards to tight ends.

History of short throws

But the narrative about Smith’s throwing downfield existed because of what happened prior to 2017. From 2011 to ’16, there were 18 quarterbacks who played at least 70 games; Smith ranked last among that group in attempts of more than 20 yards. He ranked 15th among that group in yards per attempt (one spot behind Andrew Luck and two behind Matthew Stafford).
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However, Smith also doesn’t turn the ball over, an appealing fact to coaches, and his teams win. In five years as the starter in Kansas City, the Chiefs were 50-26. In his first season, they won 11 games — nine more than the previous year. They also had a top-10 defense in points allowed the first four years (they were 15th last year and 28th in yards). Smith steered the ship on offense.

“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,” Smith said. “If it dictates throwing the ball down the field, certainly you want to be able to take advantage and make them pay. But, yeah, you want to spread the ball around 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.”

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The Redskins have plenty of strong options underneath: tight end Jordan Reed, slot receiver Jamison Crowder and running back Chris Thompson. The Redskins missed the deep ball last season, but when Thompson was healthy, he provided big plays by turning short throws into long gains. On 20 catches that did not travel past the line of scrimmage, Thompson averaged 16.1 yards after the catch.

The Redskins, on paper and if all are healthy — Reed (toes) and Thompson (leg) are coming off injuries — should have the ability for a diverse passing attack. Moving the ball and scoring matters most; how they do it becomes irrelevant. The Chiefs ranked among the top 10 in scoring three times with Smith (and never lower than 16th). Sometimes he threw downfield; other times he did not. Winning, of course, remains the ultimate barometer.

“When you’re possession throwing, you want to be good at that, too,” he said. “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. 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 Minnesota Vikings are firmly in a Super Bowl window, with a talented roster they felt needed an upgrade in one area: quarterback. The Washington Redskins want to enter that same window, which meant they needed a quarterback who could afford them one key thing: cap room to build.

Those feelings are reflected in the contracts handed out to Kirk Cousins (Minnesota) and Alex Smith (Washington). It’s hard to not compare their deals because the Redskins essentially replaced Cousins with Smith.

However, the Redskins never wanted to pay a certain amount for Cousins, knowing they needed more around him to make it work. Their comfort level ended at about $23 million per year — or $5 million less per year than what the Vikings gave Cousins. And once the tag was used in the 2016 offseason, Cousins was a long shot to sign a long-term deal.

Minnesota, though, was one game from the Super Bowl and has a deep core that should be together for the next several years. A quarterback — even one ranked by some in the 10-15 range — could make the difference. As such, the Vikings were willing to pay more than just about any other team, aside from the cap-rich and desperate-for-QB-help New York Jets.

Smith’s contract is expensive up front in terms of cash flow and shows the staggering investment Washington has made in the position over a three-year period. However, it also puts the Redskins in a favorable cap spot at quarterback over the next few years — provided Smith plays well, of course.

At the end of this coming season, the Redskins will have spent $84 million the past three seasons for their starting quarterback. That includes the $27 million signing bonus for Smith and his $13 million base salary this season. It also includes the $44 million in guaranteed money with two franchise tags on Cousins. The Redskins didn’t want to pay Cousins’ three-year, $58.5 million in guaranteed money at the end of the 2015 season.