The question of whether the Chiefs’ offense is “gimmicky” was always bound to come up again this week; both Chiefs coach Andy Reid and Oakland coach Jack Del Rio had to know that.
Following the last game between the teams, a 26-10 Chiefs victory on Oct. 16, Del Rio complimented Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith — who had just eviscerated his defense by completing 19 of 22 passes for 224 yards — by calling him a good football player who was “underrated.”
But Del Rio also said that if Smith “has to rely on throwing the ball, it’s not really his strong suit,” and added that if you allow the Chiefs to run the ball and do “their gimmicky things,” then Smith comes to life.
On Tuesday — only two days before a Thursday night showdown at Arrowhead Stadium that will help decide who wins the AFC West crown — both teams predictably downplayed the statement.
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“Those are effective plays,” Del Rio said, when asked if he regretted saying it. “You can call it what you want … you’re talking about ways to get playmakers the ball and, hey, we do some of that as well.”
But Del Rio, to his credit, didn’t walk back the statement, either. And to be fair, the Chiefs’ offense does feature some college-style screens, run-pass options and ghost sweeps that aren’t necessarily in every NFL playbook.
“If the word is something somebody doesn’t like, that’s just too bad,” he said, before reiterating his point. “There’s things they do — that we do — to get the ball in your playmakers’ hands, and that’s what it’s all about.”
When Reid was first asked about the comments two months ago, he noted that the Chiefs were just scheming things up, which is what every team tries to do, and added the shifts and motions “looked good” against Oakland.
And on Tuesday, he continued to shrug off Del Rio’s original comments.
“I don’t put much into it — I mean, I know Jack well, so I don’t think he meant anything by it,” Reid said. “There are good gimmickys, (too).”
Still, Del Rio’s original comment stirred up some interesting emotion in the Chiefs’ locker room the following week as the Chiefs defended their style of play against Oakland, which did feature a touchdown run by nose tackle Dontari Poe but was primarily dominated by lots of play-action and presnap shifts in an effort to test the Raiders’ shaky defensive communication.
“To be honest, I have no idea what he’s referring to,” Smith said at the time. “I just know that we won and that’s all I really care about. … I felt like we came out and played physical.
“To be honest, I felt like we even won the battle up front, and I don’t know what was ‘gimmicky’ about that.”
Yet, it will be interesting to see how the Chiefs attack the Raiders this time around. On Oct. 16, they only called 41 percent of their plays from the line of scrimmage from the shotgun, which is far off their 2016 per-game average of 62 percent.
In the absence of that, they instead preferred to lean on a ground-oriented attack under center as the Chiefs tallied season highs in rushing attempts (40) and yards (183).
The approach was a good match with the conditions at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, when a rainy weekend produced a wet, muddy playing surface conducive to old-school football. The weather could also play a big role in Thursday’s game; early forecasts are calling for a frosty night with temperatures projected to be somewhere in the 20s.
The cold weather might not be ideal for Oakland’s star quarterback, Derek Carr, who played the Raiders’ last game — a 38-24 win over the Buffalo Bills — with a dislocated right pinkie finger.
But that cold-weather reality cuts both ways, and if things are indeed frosty, the Chiefs might not be able to sling it around as much as they’d like, even if they do appear to be on track to regain the services of star receiver Jeremy Maclin after a four-game absence due to a groin injury.
A cold, hard ball is tougher to catch and throw, and while Smith has a history of wearing gloves in inclement weather, the Chiefs’ quarterback has done a resounding majority of his best work out of the shotgun this year, completing 213 of 316 passes (67.4 percent) for 2,156 yards, nine touchdowns and three interceptions, according to Pro Football Focus.
Compare that to his work from under center — where he’s completed 37 of 55 passes for 416 yards with two touchdowns and an interception, according to PFF — and it will be interesting to see if Reid allows Smith to sling it around as much as normal, regardless of the expected conditions.
“Normally you call the game and you go,” Reid said, when asked about the ways the weather can effect a game plan. “The players are used to that stuff.”
Smith agreed, and while all eyes will be on him Thursday night — especially after Del Rio’s comments a few months earlier — he added that the Chiefs, who are only a few weeks removed from a stunning 30-27 prime-time win over Denver, are again excited to face off against a divisional foe with the entire nation watching.
“They save all these division games for the end, so it’ll be fun,” Smith said. “We’re looking forward to it; it’ll be an awesome environment on top of a huge rivalry.”