Jun 17, 2014; Kansas City, MO, USA; Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith (11) throws passing drills during the Kansas City Chiefs minicamp at University of Kansas Hospital Training Complex. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports
When was the last time you went into a Kansas City Chiefs game excited about the passing attack?
Maybe it was back in 2010, when Dwayne Bowe was having a ridiculous year. The problem is that Bowe was about all you would be getting excited about in the passing game, as the team as a whole finished the year ranked 30th in passing offense.
Unfortunately, that has been about par for the course with the Chiefs air attack over the last several years. Since the 2006 season, Kansas City has not finished above 20th in the NFL in passing.
You can attribute that to about whatever you want. The Chiefs have not had a franchise quarterback since they traded for Joe Montana in 1993. And though K.C. had one of the most reliable weapons in the league in Tony Gonzalez, they generally lacked what you would call a “true number one” type of receiver. And then there was last season with an offense line that was . . . well, you know.
So if you were not particularly excited when you saw the quarterback drop back in the pocket over the last couple of years, you were certainly not alone.
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Jan 31, 2015; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Jeremy Maclin on the red carpet prior to the NFL Honors award ceremony at Symphony Hall. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
That could all be changing this year though.
The first reason is the most obvious – the Chiefs signed Jeremy Maclin. The all-star free-agent acquisition is probably the most talented receiver to wear red and gold for years, and he was drafted and developed in Andy Reid’s system. So yeah, he should give an instant boost to the passing game.
The great thing is that Maclin is not going to be the only option when Kansas City wants to go to the air. De’Anthony Thomas will be returning for his sophomore season, and has showed that he has both the speed and dexterity to beat defenders on routes. Then there is Travis Kelce who had a breakout season in 2014, earning a spot as one of Alex Smith’s favorite targets.
Those are some of the main names you will be hearing on Sundays. But there are also several other options Smith will be looking for, like veteran Jason Avant, second-year man Albert Wilson, and rookie Chris Conley.
Of course, the Chiefs’ passing offense would not be complete without the threat of Jamaal Charles catching balls in the flat.
Looking at the possibilities of that lineup really excites me. In fact, I think it may be exactly what K.C. needs.
You may wonder why that is. Past Maclin, there is not exactly a lot of star power in that lineup. In fact, after Maclin, a tight end (Travis Kelce) and a running back (Charles) are the most notable options. Thomas was used somewhat sparingly in the passing game last season, starting only three games, and being targeted only 31 times. Wilson is still not a fully know quantity, and Conley is an unproven rookie. Not a “murderers row” in the receiving corps.
But I do not believe that the receiving corps has to be the “gold standard” of NFL pass catchers to be effective. History has taught us that this is true.
Kansas City has not had a particularly notable history at the receiver position. Yet, from 2000 to 2005, K.C. managed to finish no worse than 11th in passing offense. They were in the top five in four of those six seasons. The top receivers in those seasons were Gonzalez (three times), Eddie Kennison (twice), and Derrick Alexander (remember him?).
Gonzalez may have been legendary, but neither Kennison nor Alexander ever made a single Pro Bowl. Kennison did not even make it to 1,000 yards receiving when he was the top pass-catcher in 2002 (he had 906). So to use a cliche’, the Chiefs do not need the best players, they need the right ones. And while there is still a lot to be seen, I believe that the this roster may just have the right players.
Imagine the following formation: five down linemen, a two tight-end set of Kelce and Demetrius Harris, Maclin and Thomas spread wide on either side of the formation, and Charles in the backfield.
From that formation you could have Maclin going deep, Thomas running a medium range slant, in, or out route, Kelce running a short curl or something similar underneath, Harris blocking, and Charles chipping before releasing to the flat.
Dec 28, 2014; Kansas City, MO, USA; Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce (87) runs the ball as San Diego Chargers defensive back Jahleel Addae (37) attempts the tackle during the first half at Arrowhead Stadium. The Chiefs won 19-7. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports
None of that is original. It is however realistic for the players involved. We know Maclin can go deep. Thomas has the speed and agility to beat defenders over the middle. Kelce can barrel over linebackers and the secondary. And Charles in the flat is, well, perhaps the most proven play the Chiefs have run over the past few years.
That scenario is also tailor built for Alex Smith.
If Smith is going to throw down the field, then we know it is only going to be when he feels it is a very safe option. With six bodies blocking, and Charles chipping, Smith should have enough time to set his feat and throw to Maclin or Thomas once they have beaten their coverage. Assuming they do beat their coverage, that should be about as safe a play down the field as Smith will get.
But it also provides not one, but two check down options for Smith if he does not like what he sees down the field. And those options, Kelce and Charles, caught just over a third of Smith’s completions, and over half of his touchdown passes in 2014.
That seems like a very good set up. Will it work every time? No. Could it be a reliable staple of the Chiefs offense? Yes. Could it allow this roster to bring some respect back the Chiefs’ passing game? Absolutely.