Could the Chiefs turn into a rushing team?

It’s no secret that the Kansas City Chiefs have the most dangerous offensive passing attack in the NFL. Quarterback and preseason MVP favorite Patrick Mahomes is universally at the tip of everyone’s tongue when it comes to the question of “If you were to start a franchise today, who would be the top pick?” Wide receiver Tyreek Hill and tight end Travis Kelce are on a short list — though it would be easy to argue they lead that list — of the best receiving duo in the league.

Agreeing that Mahomes is the NFL’s best QB, that Kelce is either the best or second-best TE in the game and Hill is part of a collection of the top-5 WRs (depending on what you value most), doesn’t make for a very interesting article, however. So this is what I want to know: Could the Chiefs actually benefit from becoming more of a run-heavy offense?

The smartest people in the sport could answer that question pretty easily. They would say “no.” But I am not one of those people, so I will try to make the case:

Professional football has changed dramatically over the last decade, and invariably the new rules have bent to favor offenses — specifically passing offenses. Referees now go out of their way to protect quarterbacks from defensive players hitting them both high and low. Corners are no longer allowed the leeway to rough up wide receivers at the line of scrimmage. Linebackers and safeties are hit with personal fouls (for “targeting”) whenever they blow up defenseless receivers over the middle of the field.

As someone who used to trash the NFL on this blog for not giving a shit about the wellbeing of its players, I’ll be the first to raise my hand and admit that these new rules have been good for the game. Older generations long for the days where they could tune in and witness car crashes every Sunday; they lament how “soft” the modern game is and wish we could all go back to seeing guys get paralyzed by safeties who lower their helmets to destroy slot receivers. I tend to enjoy football a lot more in 2021 than, say, 1999, but that’s because I’m 31 and I would rather see the stars on the field than on injured reserve.

I say all that because in some ways I believe NFL teams have started to sway too far in the direction of passing. Since Patrick Mahomes came along in 2018 the Chiefs have basically been at ground zero of this phenomenon, as the star QB has thrown for a whopping 13,868 yards and 104 touchdowns over the last three seasons. In that time Kansas City has made three consecutive AFC Championship games and two Super Bowls (winning one). Other teams around the league have seen that success, and now virtually everyone is attempting to copy it.

That’s why I’m so curious about what the Chiefs plan to accomplish during the 2021 season, because I think it would be pretty clever of them to zag while nearly every other team attempts to zig in hopes of catching up to them.

Let us now look at the logic of Kansas City’s offseason. Below is a list of their offseason acquisitions of consequence on the offensive side:

QB: N/A
RB: Jerick McKinnon (free agency)
FB: Michael Burton (free agency)
WR: Cornell Powell (draft, 5th round)
OT: Orlando Brown Jr. (trade)
OG: Joe Thuney (free agency), Kyle Long (retirement), Trey Smith (draft, 6th round)
OC: Austin Blythe (free agency), Creed Humphrey (draft, 2nd round)

Obviously the 31-9 Super Bowl blowout loss made the Chiefs feel some type of way, and they thought the best course of action was to load up on the offensive line to protect their half a billion dollar investment in Patrick Mahomes. But is it not also possible that they did all this — adding six offensive linemen — with the intention of bolstering the running game? Again, smart people would say no. But I am not willing to give in so quickly.

There are multiple reasons why running the ball more would help the Chiefs. To me? I just think it makes sense. Here is why:

1. Keep Patrick Mahomes healthy

The more Mahomes has the ball in his hands, the higher the likelihood that he gets injured. During the 2019 season Pat dislocated his kneecap on a quarterback sneak on a Thursday Night game in Denver. Sure, it was a fluke. And Kansas City has not run a QB sneak since. Last year in the Divisional Round against Cleveland, Mahomes got knocked out of the game with what at the time looked to be a concussion from a QB option. Of course in the NFL there are going to be injuries, but the more Mahomes drops back to pass, the better the chance that one defensive lineman gets a clean shot and busts up his head or awkwardly takes him to the ground to tear a ligament or break a bone.

2. The Chiefs did not meaningfully address the WR position this offseason

Cornell Powell was selected with a late-round pick in the NFL Draft. That is the extent to which the Chiefs pumped resources into the receiving game. They allowed Sammy Watkins — who to be fair is past his prime — to walk in free agency, and they are replacing him with some combination of Powell, reserve WR Byron Pringle, and third-year receiver Mecole Hardmon.

I don’t know what to expect of Powell, so I can’t really speak on it right now. I am high on Byron Pringle, but no one can reasonably expect him to go from what he has been to a legitimate contributor. And Mecole Hardman? To this point he has been a gimmick option in the passing game. He runs only two routes, the Go — where he uses his elite speed to run in a straight line up the field — and the Jet — where he runs horizontally behind the line of scrimmage — but in either case his effectiveness is dictated by whether or not the defense falls asleep. If he is accounted for, there is a strong probability that he won’t get the ball. If he isn’t, he can create a big play here and there.

Heading into the offseason I was of the mind that the Chiefs should just load up on receivers. I argued they should trade their first rounder for Bears WR Allen Robinson (who ended up getting the franchise tag), and go ahead and use their second rounder on the best available WR. As it turned out, Kansas City ended up flipping their first round pick for a left tackle, and spent the capital it would have required to land a beast like Allen Robinson on a left guard in free agency.

3. Clyde Edwards-Helaire

It was only a year ago that the Chiefs invested a first round pick — albeit 32nd overall (the last pick in Round One) — on former LSU RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire. Production-wise, CEH did fine in his rookie season, netting about 4.5 yards per carry on roughly 200 rushes (including the postseason). He wasn’t much of a threat in the red zone, finishing the year with just five rushing TDs, but what was perhaps most underwhelming was just how little he was utilized in the passing game. In 13 regular season games Edwards-Helaire had just 54 targets (less than 4 per game), of which 38 were completed.

So this all feels like a simple proposition: the Chiefs want to pay off their first round investment, and one of the ways you do that is by, like, feeding him the ball more. With Patrick Mahomes under center I am not advocating for CEH to be the first option in the Kansas City offense, but it seemed for about half of the 2020 season he was a non-factor in games. In 13 starts he eclipsed 15 rushes only 5 times, which is kind of remarkable considering the Chiefs ended the season 14-2 and had leads for long stretches of most games.

* * * * *

I present this case strictly for argument’s sake. At the end of the day the Chiefs are a passing team, Andy Reid is a coach that wants to pass the ball early and often, and for Kansas City to make the Super Bowl for a third year in a row it’s going to be Patrick Mahomes’s arm that gets them there. My challenge is that it makes too much sense for them to continue doing what they’ve been doing.

Dominant as they were last postseason (until the Super Bowl, that is), everyone saw the fragility of the Kansas City offense by virtue of how much usage Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce got. In the Divisional Round against the Browns and AFC Championship against the Bills, Hill and Kelce combined for 38 catches and 508 yards — accounting for 76 percent of all Mahomes completions in those two games and an unbelievable 87.5% of his passing yards.

There are many flashy and impressive words that could be used to describe that two-game playoff sample size, but the first that comes to my mind is “unsustainable.” Mahomes, Hill and Kelce carried the Chiefs to Super Bowl 55, but in no way was their success in the AFC Playoffs tenable for an entire regular season (duh) and in all likelihood it can’t be duplicated again in any other postseason.

Tyreek Hill is arguably the best receiver in the NFL and is the no doubt about it top deep threat in the game. He also stands somewhere in the range of 5’8″. Travis Kelce is the best receiving tight end in football, and one of the best all time, but he is also about to turn 32 years old and is getting ready to enter his decline years. If these are the Chiefs top two playmakers — which they are — then the first priority is to keep them healthy for the playoffs. If either one of them misses significant time during the course of the regular season, then Kansas City just won’t be nearly as effective on offense.

I feel like the evolution of throwing the ball will be pronounced in 2021 more than any year before in the NFL, and I also feel like that will create a market inefficiency to favor teams that are good at rushing. The 49ers are the first team that comes to mind, but the Patriots (who added two high-priced tight ends in free agency) shouldn’t be far behind them. Most defenses around the league have gotten smaller in the front seven — valuing pass rushers over run stuffers, and valuing speed at linebacker over downhill run defenders — which just begs teams to take the fight to them upfront.

It isn’t my suggestion for the Chiefs to do a complete 180, but by now it’s been proven that Patrick Mahomes can pass it on anybody. What hasn’t been proven is what he looks like with a legitimate running threat. With a brand new offensive line I’m guessing it’s going to take several weeks before they gel, so what better way to generate some chemistry and cohesion than going out and mauling defensive fronts in the running game?

It’s likelier than not that Kansas City is going to try to repeat their winning formula from the last three seasons. And why wouldn’t they: Patrick Mahomes is the star of this team and everything revolves around him. In late-game and crunch-time situations, everyone knows the ball is going to be in his hands.

When looking at all the factors surrounding this team, from keeping Mahomes healthy, to keeping Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce healthy, to letting the offensive line do what they do best, to helping cash in on their first round pick from a season ago, to the idea that they didn’t really add anything substantive in the receiving game, it’s my feeling that running the ball more is what this team wants to do. I wouldn’t say it’s going to lead them to a Super Bowl, but it is a path that will help get them there for a third straight year.

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