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What’s wrong with the Chiefs offense, and how do they fix it?

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Do the Chiefs need to make a QB change? No. Retired NFL lineman Geoff Schwartz gets to the bottom of Kansas City’s problems.

Buffalo Bills v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

The Chiefs aren’t a good football team right now. They started 5-0, averaging over 30 points per game. In their last six games, they have gone 1-5, with an offense that has gone dormant.

If you’re reading this because you’re hoping I’ll endorse starting quarterback Pat Mahomes, you’re going to be disappointed.

The Chiefs offense is in a major rut. There is no denying that. After starting 5-0, the Chiefs faced the Pittsburgh Steelers, who have the Chiefs’ number. The Chiefs lost 19-13.

The following Thursday, the Chiefs lost to the Raiders on the road, 31-30, on the final play of regulation, a touchdown throw by Derek Carr. The following week, the Chiefs got back into the win column, beating the Broncos 29-19. The Chiefs were 6-2 after that, and there weren’t many worries about this team.

Then the offensive spiral began.

Before the bye week, the Chiefs went to Dallas and lost 28-17 in a game that wasn’t as close as the score indicated. Following a regular season bye week, Andy Reid’s teams are 16-2. The Chiefs traveled to the 1-8 Giants and got embarrassed 12-9, with a pathetic offensive performance. Fast-forward to Sunday, and the Chiefs offense couldn’t get it done again, and they lost 16-10 at home to the Bills.

The Chiefs offense has been stagnant for many reasons besides quarterback play.

When the offense was humming along for the first five weeks, the Chiefs were able to impose their will on opponents, especially with the run game. They brought in a new college run scheme, which I highlighted here, that allows them to use all their interchangeable parts on the edge.

Running the ball well opened up the play-action pass, which allowed Smith to chuck the ball downfield and hit home runs, something he hadn’t done in previous seasons. He took advantage of the aggressiveness of defenses playing the run, which isn’t the case anymore with the decreasing success running the ball.

The running game dried up

Kareem Hunt’s reps have fallen off dramatically. Through the first five weeks, Hunt averaged 19.4 carries per game, and the last six games, 14.5 a game. This has always been a downfall of an Andy Reid offense. Too quick to pull the plug on the run game if things aren’t going well.

When the run game isn’t firing, it’s fair to point the finger at the offensive line. The Chiefs’ offensive line is having too many communication issues and individual breakdowns. As with any struggling run game, it’s not an entire unit of bad offensive linemen. It’s the left tackle one play, the center on the next run play, and right guard next, and so on. This unit needs to step it up and it starts with just knowing who to block.

Injuries and the passing game

Now let’s get to Alex Smith and the passing game. I’m not going to show y’all a bunch of GIFs of “open” receivers that Smith is missing. For one, that’s not fair to him because we don’t know who the first read is, or even the second read. Second, I’m still learning more about the route concepts against certain coverages. Besides maybe 10 people on Twitter, no one else knows either. So I’m not doing that.

For the first five games of the season, Smith had his full complement of offensive skill players — Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, Chris Conley, and Albert Wilson. He trusted those guys. He threw to them all offseason and through the first five games of the season. In game five, Conley tore his Achilles late against the Texans. In that same game, Wilson went down, and has since been in and out of the lineup with knee and hamstring issues. He hasn’t been targeted often when he’s played, until the Buffalo game, where he had seven targets.

Smith is down to Hill, Kelce, and young players he has zero chemistry with. This matters for Smith, who has a limited skill set. He needs to play with confidence in his receiving targets and throw in rhythm. He’s not Tom Brady, who can insert anyone at receiver and have success.

He also needs to play with confidence in the pocket, which he’s lost. The first month of the season, the Chiefs trotted out their starting five offensive linemen. Smith was comfortable going through his reads. Then they lost their center and their right guard for a good chunk of time. Coupled with their young left guard, who’s struggled at times, the inside of the pocket was rough for weeks. Smith was getting pressured and he’s reverted back to being jittery in the pocket, not trusting his linemen, even with the starters back and generally pass protecting well.

There are far worse offensive pass-protecting units. Entering this weekend, Football Outsiders ranked the Eagles, Redskins, Seahawks, Lions, and Packers below the Chiefs in pass protection.

Game planning

Before we get to the Mahomes vs. Smith debate, let’s touch on the coaching. Andy Reid is brilliant at designing game plans. There’s no debating that. However, it’s fair to comment on the lack of in-game adjustments. This isn’t just an Andy Reid thing. Most offensive coordinators struggle with in-game adjustments because they have already mentally game planned for every situation, including struggles.

For example, what exactly can Reid change in the middle of a game when players aren’t executing well enough? I think it’s fair to question the run scheme on Sunday. They ran too sideways. That didn’t work and they kept going back to it. But if guys are open and Smith doesn’t hit them, that’s not on the staff.

Lastly, I’d love to see the Chiefs go up tempo and spread the field out. It would force Smith to make quick decisions with the ball and get the defenses on their heels.

Pat Mahomes or Alex Smith?

When Pat Mahomes was drafted, it with was with the understanding that he was going to take time to get up to speed with Reid’s offense and NFL defenses.

This from The MMQB sums it up well:

At Texas Tech, Mahomes played in a spread offense, which, notably, he ran with very little discipline. Raw sandlot playmaking prowess works in college, but it does not transfer to the NFL—not as a quarterback’s foundation, anyway. It will take at least an offseason (and probably more) for Mahomes to develop the awareness and discipline to run a full-fledged NFL offense, particularly one as comprehensive as Reid’s.

Nothing has changed from that assessment besides a few out-of-the-pocket plays Mahomes made in the preseason. Unlike Deshaun Watson (who was ready for NFL action, and backing up Tom Savage), Mahomes was given zero reps in practice with the first-team offense, and maybe a drive or two in the preseason with that unit. There was never any plan for him to play, barring injury.

This Chiefs offense is designed for Smith. It has the run concepts that use his legs, something Mahomas didn’t do in college. The timing routes fit what Smith can do, and what he needs to do better. The route concepts are often layered and require complex understanding of both those routes and of the defense. Smith is asked to make multiple checks throughout the game based on coverages. Some are run-to-run checks based on a safety, some are pass checks. Alex makes the protection adjustments on pressures as well.

Most importantly, and if you couldn’t tell, Reid trusts him and so do the players in the huddle. That goes a long way for this veteran coaching staff.

Let me address some of the lines I get about why Mahomes should be playing now.

“Well Travis Kelce said ‘what Mahomes does in practice is just unbelievable.’”

OK, well Mahomes has an excellent arm. It doesn’t surprise me that comes off as unbelievable in practice. However, Mahomes is taking a majority of these reps with the scout team. On the scout team, you just look at a card and run that play. Often as offensive linemen, we’d get in trouble for running our techniques for a play when the defense wants it done differently. You just do what the defense wants. Mahomes is free from reading coverages and free from consequence of mistakes.

Finally, I can probably make a list of 20 scout team defensive linemen who’d be All-Pros if you watch just practice film. Then, when they get called up to the show, they can’t do anything. I’m not saying Mahomes would be a bust, just trying to provide context to that Kelce comment.

I often hear “Mahomes can provide a spark.” What does that mean? The team isn’t losing because of lack of effort. Does it mean that Mahomes can run out of the pocket and throw the ball 40 yards downfield? That’s not an offense, especially in a West Coast system. That is a novelty and it eventually wears down.

There are very few quarterbacks in the NFL who are successful doing that for a living. For as many times as Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson make plays with their legs to complete a deep throw, they sit in the pocket and fire missiles around the field. Successful quarterback play starts in the pocket.

“We know all how this ends with Alex, I’d rather see Mahomes throw 20 picks.”

Sure, we might know how this season ends with Alex. So be it. Mahomes could be Watson, or he could be Nathan Peterman or Paxton Lynch. The opposite of what you might think or want.

The coaching staff has a job to do, and that’s to win games ... now. They don’t get bonus points for preparing to win next season, not when the Chiefs still lead the division.

Because of how the Chiefs offense executed the first five weeks of the season, which I’ll admit might be fool’s gold, the coaching staff and players believe they can always regain that form. They will continue to work toward getting that flow and success back.

There is no magic solution to the Chiefs’ offensive issues. It will take improved play from everyone across the board and more from the coaching staff. That’s the answer. Play better. Run the ball more. Force Alex to take chances with empty formations. Block better in the run game. Trust the pocket. Catch the ball. That’s it. It’s simple.

I hope the Chiefs figure it out in time for this weekend against the Jets.

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