Kansas City is proving that it can compete with quality teams. The question is whether the club’s transmission can shift into a higher gear.
Every season under Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes, the worst the Kansas City Chiefs have done is comfortably make the playoffs and take the AFC Championship Game down to the wire. That’s a level of success that no club has come close to reaching dating back to 2018, with Kansas City winning a couple of world championships during that span.
This year, it’s expected that the AFC West crown will once again belong to the Chiefs. There are several other AFC contenders rounding into form, though, and the 2023-24 version of Reid’s bunch is dealing with an identity crisis that could leave it vulnerable.
Outside of a Week 8 loss to the Denver Broncos, the Chiefs have established a floor as a team with a shutdown defense and an offense that, while inconsistent, is generally fine in the grand scheme. Flashes of a high ceiling haven’t been nearly as frequent as in years past. Sunday’s win over the Miami Dolphins was a great example of that phenomenon. Two separate drives resembled the Chiefs of old, but the rest were representations of the possible new normal. Is that ceiling reachable on a consistent basis? Is it real?
The answer is complex. On one hand, the offense seems to be drifting closer and closer to being an average unit every week. Entering Monday’s play, Kansas City ranks 12th in points per game, 15th in points per play and 15th in touchdown percentage in the red zone. Drops are a major issue. On the other hand, the Chiefs rank fifth in EPA per play, fifth in dropback EPA and seventh in overall success rate. Where are they actually as an offense? Likely somewhere in the middle: a fringe top-10 group. Is that good enough to win a championship with a top-shelf defense? Is that floor salvageable for the season? Sure, although it significantly decreases the margin for error.
How can Kansas City find its ceiling? The answer isn’t comprised of just one thing. At the top, wide receiver play does need to improve. There can’t be constant drops or miscommunications. Not to pick on only him, but Skyy Moore can’t run an awkward route that leads to an incompletion like it did on Sunday. Timing must improve across the board, and Mahomes is a part of that solution. He’s played a hesitant brand of football in 2023, hands-down the most reserved he’s been as a professional.
Play calling and scheming must also be taken into account. Situationally, the Chiefs have put themselves in tough positions by dialing up second-and-long runs or ill-advised plays on short-yardage downs. Reid and offensive coordinator Matt Nagy’s personnel usage at receiver — holding rookie Rashee Rice back a bit and almost completely phasing Kadarius Toney out of the game plan, for example — has been far from perfect. From a coaching standpoint, the Chiefs aren’t at their best.
Last, but certainly not least, offensive line play isn’t where it should be. In the passing game, Donovan Smith and Jawaan Taylor are on thin ice. Kansas City’s line got outplayed on stunts repeatedly in Week 9. The Chiefs aren’t blocking at full capacity in the run game on the year, currently ranking 21st in rush EPA despite Isiah Pacheco enjoying a solid individual year. Coming into the year, the front five was touted as potentially the best of Mahomes’s career. It hasn’t been that.
As you can tell, there doesn’t really appear to be one catch-all fix the Chiefs can implement during the bye week. Improvement (and reaching the ceiling) will take incremental improvements across the board. Various elements are slowing down the offense, with a different one seeming to kill a drive every time out. Some combination of more aggressive quarterback play, better wideout play, more dependable offensive line output, a steady reliance on the run game or more appropriate usage of weapons can lead to the gap between floor and ceiling being closed a bit. Thus, that margin for error can be expanded.
It’s well-known how terrific Reid is at getting the most out of his bye weeks. His track record speaks for itself. If anyone can get an offense back on track, it’s someone with two weeks between games. It’s someone who’s a Hall of Fame offensive mind with two offensive pieces (Mahomes and Travis Kelce) that are also in the same boat. With the Philadelphia Eagles waiting for a Nov. 20 Super Bowl LVII rematch, it’s a perfect opportunity for the Chiefs to show that they can tap back into the upside they used to have.
Of course, maybe they simply don’t have that extra gear in them consistently. Perhaps there isn’t more in the tank and this is who the Chiefs are as a team this season. Until Kansas City gets outclassed by a non-Denver team, this appears to be a squad capable of hanging in there with perceived contenders (Dolphins and the Detroit Lions this year). Being in the mix while also having the Reid-Mahomes-Kelce trio come playoff time isn’t a terrible spot to be in.
With that said, this would be the first time in a while that the Chiefs have merely been in the mix. For years on end, they were a powerhouse. Folks used to be truly confident in picking them to take care of business against the best of the best. Could Reid and Co. just be a great team rather than a sure-fire elite one now? Absolutely, and that formula can still win a ring, but it allows everyone on that same tier to smell blood in the water. The Chiefs have shown the football world what they can be. Now, the burden is on them to elevate to what many believe they can’t be.