To win it all you must roll the dice
Just three minutes and 17 seconds into the preseason, the Chiefs had a play that illustrated exactly who quarterback Alex Smith is, and why that might not be best for tight end Travis Kelce.
On third-and-nine from the Seattle 21, Smith dropped back to pass. Kelce found a soft spot in the zone, about 12 yards downfield. Smith saw Kelce and started to throw, but he pulled the ball back because a defensive lineman obstructed his view. So the QB rolled to his left, kept the play alive and then found wide receiver Jeremy Maclin at the one-yard line to set up a touchdown.
Many—including Smith's coaches—would view that play as a victory. But it also demonstrated a shortcoming, because Kansas City needs him to be more daring and to make more use of Kelce if it's to become a Super Bowl contender.
"I was really trying to find him inside, and it was there when I looked at the sideline pictures," Smith said after the game. "If I had thrown it, though, it definitely would have been batted, it felt like. That's why I ended up tucking it and getting out to the left." This is what Smith does. He's risk-averse. If he doesn't see a throw with a high percentage of success, he'll scramble, roll out, check down or throw the ball away.
Over the past three seasons only Aaron Rodgers (1.37) had a lower interception percentage than Smith's (1.39). Tom Brady (1.47) is third on the list. But Rodgers and Brady are both willing to take greater risks. According to Pro Football Focus, last year they were among the 24 quarterbacks who attempted more than Smith's 17 "big-time throws."
In many ways that's fine. The Chiefs have gone from consecutive losing seasons in 2011 and '12 to records of 11--5, 9--7 and 11--5 under coach Andy Reid (with a wild-card win over the Texans last season) because Smith has played conservatively. With both a scoring defense and a rushing offense (in yards per attempt) that have ranked in the top five in each of the past three years, Smith might seem ideal for the Chiefs.
But can he make them viable title contenders? Only if he continues (he made some progress last year) to take more chances. The Chiefs have to get better on third down; in 2015 they had the seventh-worst conversion rate on third-down passes (31.9%).
That's where Kelce comes in. He may not be much of a blocker, but he's 6'5" and 260 pounds with a huge wingspan. He's also quick off the line and has flexibility, which makes him a tough cover for linebackers over the middle. Big things were expected of Kelce in 2015, his third season. But his stats—72 catches, 875 yards and five touchdowns—only improved modestly from the previous year. He was voted to his first Pro Bowl, but it wasn't the breakout season many envisioned.
Games, especially in the postseason, are about matchups. No one can create mismatches for K.C. better than Kelce. But he works best down the middle of the field, where Smith, when he looks for his tight end, will see more defenders and a higher potential for turnovers. The Chiefs have tried to work around that by moving Kelce all over the formation—at flanker and at slot receiver, even in the backfield. That's fine in the regular season and on first or second down, but on money plays when you need to keep the chains moving against the best defenses in the playoffs, Smith is going to have to pull the trigger to Kelce down the middle.
TAKE THIS GUY AWAY AND THE DEFENSE CRUMBLES
In 2015 inside linebacker Derrick Johnson(left) quietly had one of the most remarkable seasons in the NFL, with 116 tackles, four sacks and two interceptions. At 33 and coming off a torn right Achilles suffered in Week 1 of 2014, Johnson showed no drop in the fluidity and swiftness that has long made him one of the game's best all-around run defenders. As he's aged, his football awareness has only grown. The Chiefs, like many teams seeking greater coverage versatility, prefer to play a "big dime" package featuring three cornerbacks, three safeties and one linebacker. The danger of doing so is that the undersized defense can be vulnerable to the run, even against an offense in a spread formation. Having a 6'3", 242-pound 'backer with awareness and multidirectional movement skills like Johnson offsets much of that risk.
SI's 2016 Prediction: 11--5
2015 Record: 11--5
SEPT. 11 vs.SD [PREDICTED WINNER]
SEPT. 18 atHOU [PREDICTED WINNER]
SEPT. 25 vs.NYJ [PREDICTED WINNER]
OCT. 2 atPIT
OCT. 16 atOAK
OCT. 23 vs.NO [PREDICTED WINNER]
OCT. 30 atIND [PREDICTED WINNER]
NOV. 6 vs.JAX [PREDICTED WINNER]
NOV. 13 atCAR
NOV. 20 vs.TB [PREDICTED WINNER]
NOV. 27 atDEN
DEC. 4 atATL [PREDICTED WINNER]
DEC. 8 vs.OAK [PREDICTED WINNER]
DEC. 18 vs.TEN [PREDICTED WINNER]
DEC. 25 vs.DEN [PREDICTED WINNER]
JAN. 1 atSD
= PREDICTED WINNER