Andy Reid has already named Alex Smith his starter for Week 13, but the fact he has to answer questions about his quarterback situation is telling of the free fall the Kansas City Chiefs’ offense is currently in.
The latest disappointment for the team was a 16-10 loss to the Buffalo Bills in Week 12, which was the fifth loss in six games for the Chiefs. The offense managed just 237 yards Sunday — the best performance in six years for a Bills defense that allowed 911 yards and 101 points combined in the two weeks prior.
It has been a striking fall for a Chiefs team that looked like a Super Bowl favorite as recent as a month ago. Now with the Los Angeles Chargers and Oakland Raiders breathing down their neck, it’s approaching desperation time for Kansas City.
Is Alex Smith the problem?
Smith, 33, opened the year as a legitimate NFL MVP candidate after leading the Chiefs to a 5-0 start with a passer rating above 100 in each game during the hot streak. On Sunday, the crowd at Arrowhead Stadium chanted for the Chiefs to put in rookie quarterback Patrick Mahomes.
The fall from grace hasn’t featured disastrous stats either for Smith. In the loss to Buffalo, he completed 23 of 36 passes for 199 yards with a touchdown and didn’t throw an interception until the final minutes of the game, well after the crowd was asking to see Mahomes.
Even with no touchdowns and two interceptions against the New York Giants in Week 11, Smith still has 19 touchdowns and four interceptions in 2017 — good enough for the second-best passer rating in the NFL at 104.5, behind only Tom Brady’s 111.7.
So it shouldn’t be surprising that Reid told reporters he hasn’t considered replacing Smith with the player taken No. 10 overall by the Chiefs in April.
“No,” Reid said. “That’s not where I’m at right now. There’s a couple other things that I’ve got to take care of.”
That’s not to say that Smith is playing well, though. He’s struggling to handle opposing pass rushers, missing open players, and not hitting the big plays that he did early in the year.
Smith isn’t elevating the Kansas City offense the way he was, but the biggest difference between the September Chiefs and November Chiefs aren’t the quarterback’s stats.
The Chiefs can’t run the ball anymore
If Smith was the favorite to win the NFL MVP, there was nobody anywhere close to keeping the pace with Kareem Hunt for Offensive Rookie of the Year.
The third-round pick opened the year with 609 rushing yards in his first five games and six touchdowns in his first three. He was simply unstoppable in an offense that used power read shovel concepts to keep defenses off balance.
It has dried up completely.
Hunt hasn’t topped 100 rushing yards since Week 5 and managed just 17 yards on 11 carries against the Bills. That’s especially surprising after Buffalo allowed a combined 638 rushing yards in the last three weeks.
So what gives?
The obvious answer are the struggles of an offensive line that has dealt with injuries and is currently missing Parker Ehringer. But there’s plenty of blame to go around.
“I feel like as an offense we have to step up and block — not only the offensive linemen but the receivers included in that,” Tyreek Hill said, via the Kansas City Star. “Everybody has to do their job for Kareem to do his.”
Hunt hasn’t played particularly well either.
“I feel like maybe sometimes just being a little more patient, seeing a little bit more, I guess,” Hunt said. “I don’t know. Gotta figure it out.”
Would Mahomes make any difference? It’s possible.
Eventually the Chiefs need to try something different
Against the Bills, Smith attempted just one pass more than 20 yards downfield. Against the Giants, he tried five but completed only two and threw an interception on a deep pass.
The inability to hit the big play is a stark difference from the beginning of the year when Smith was 11 of 19 on passes 20 yards or more downfield in the first five games with 440 yards, three touchdowns, and no interceptions.
That drop off has come despite the fact that teams are increasingly focusing on stopping Hunt and committing extra defenders to do so.
“There’s definitely more people in the box,” Hunt said. “But we just gotta do a better job all around — myself, up front, everybody.”
That’s where Mahomes could make things interesting. The Chiefs want to be patient and develop the former Air Raid quarterback, but traded up 17 spots in the first round to take him because of his cannon of an arm.
He showed it off in preseason when he finished August with four touchdowns and no interceptions, including some effortless bombs over the tops of a few defenses.
It’s impossible to say for sure if he could do the same in regular season action, but if he could, it would instantly force teams to free up running room for Hunt.
The risk is tossing a rookie with growing to do into an offense that has been tailored to Smith’s skillset and potentially stunting the growth of a passer who Kansas City hopes will be the future of the franchise.
For now, it’s Smith’s job. But with the Chiefs now clinging to a one-game lead over a pair of division rivals, the team desperately needs to get back to winning.
Up next is a road game against the New York Jets — a subpar team with a dangerous defensive line. If the Chiefs offense looks like it did in November, calls for the rookie aren’t going to be easy for Reid to ignore.