Reasonable minds can disagree on this, but for me, the moment of certainty that the Chiefs’ second preseason game would be a giant waste of time for the first-string offense came on their second drive.
Maybe you remember this. Things were looking up, actually. The Chiefs had just picked up a first down on a short pass — did you just snicker? — to Jamaal Charles. Then came trouble.
Paul Fanaika, who — bless his heart — was starting at right tackle against the Seahawks, was pushed straight backward until K.J. Wright released to tackle running back Knile Davis for a 6-yard loss. That was bad enough, but you know, one bad play.
Then came the clincher. The Chiefs called a screen pass, which was a good idea with their line overmatched, and Charles may have been able to make something of it. But Laurent Duvernay-Tardif — and while we’re at it, bless his heart, too — tackled Charles. Yep. He tackled him. He didn’t mean to, we should make this point clear, but that’s what happened. Duvernay-Tardif ran into Charles, and Charles went down.
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Impressive play, actually. Charles is very good in space.
Now, obviously, we can have fun here. It’s preseason football. This exists mostly for five reasons: the owners make money, regular players can find rhythm, the owners make money, coaches can fill the bottom of their rosters, and last, but definitely not least: the owners make money.
We’re supposed to include scores when we write about games, so the Chiefs ended up beating the Seahawks 14-13 on Friday at Arrowhead Stadium. If there is any preseason game worth analyzing, it’s the third one, next Friday against the Titans, when the starters will likely play into the second half.
But we are sports fans, which means we don’t need things to actually matter to pay attention to them, so it’s nothing but good, clean, wholesome fun to watch these preseason games and find something to talk about.
Only, here, for the Chiefs, there is nothing.
Not for the first-team offense, anyway.
“We’re missing a few guys,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid understated when asked if he knew who his regular-season offensive line would be. “We have a pretty good idea. We’re missing a couple of guys.”
The defense has earned trust. The offense is another matter. The Chiefs themselves know this. That’s why they signed Jeremy Maclin to play receiver, and why they worked to upgrade the offensive line. If there is an area Chiefs fans would particularly like to see progress in before the season starts, this is it.
It’s just that the line is making that impossible.
This is nobody’s fault, really. It’s not even a real reason to worry, at least not yet. The Chiefs played against one of the NFL’s best pass rushing defenses with the previously mentioned Duvernay-Tardif and Fanaika mismatched with the first team instead of the injured Eric Fisher and Jeff Allen. The results were, let’s be kind here, not great.
“I still have a lot to learn,” Duvernay-Tardif said. “It was good to have reps with the ones. You get to experience the real speed of the game. I made a couple of mistakes. I need to get better.”
That’s two-fifths of the line taken up by guys who won’t play in the regular season unless something goes very wrong, which meant Seahawks star Michael Bennett could practice his sack dance and Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith could practice his prayers. On Saturday, he can practice getting treatment on what will be way more aches than a preseason game should cause.
The starters played until halftime. They’ve now had eight drives: one touchdown, one field goal, two interceptions (one returned for a touchdown), three punts, and one Hail Mary at the end of the half.
That’s less than ideal, obviously, but with the offensive line only vaguely resembling what it will look like once the season starts — Fisher and Allen are both expected to be healthy by then — it’s hard to evaluate.
“It can be tough sometimes,” Donald Stephenson said of not being able to play with the likely regular-season starters. “But that’s O-lineman play. Everything’s tough about what we do. They don’t say our name when we play well. You hear our name when we don’t play well. We’re the guys who tough it out through the good and the bad.”
The offensive line is this team’s biggest concern. Particularly on the interior, they showed a bad habit of getting beat on stunts last year.
Fisher made some nice progress as the season went on, and looked solid in the first preseason game, but he is still a young left tackle who has not earned the benefit of the doubt. Stephenson played sparingly last year. Mitch Morse is a rookie. Ben Grubbs is a proven veteran, but this is his first season with the Chiefs. Jeff Allen missed all but the first game last year.
Maybe the line would struggle even at full strength. Maybe it will struggle once the season starts. But there’s no way to know that now, and what’s worse, it’s affecting how everything else can be viewed. It’d be nice to see a clearer comparison between Davis and Charcandrick West for the No. 2 running back job. It’d be nice to see if Maclin can get downfield. It’d be nice to see if Smith will throw it downfield.
But with an already questionable offensive line weakened by two key injuries, all of that is clouded. The play-calling has to change. Smith’s interception was a rotten throw directly into coverage, so no excuses, but this was not a realistic environment.
Football can be a complicated thing, but there is a very simple truth here: when the offensive line breaks down, everything breaks down.
As long as the Chiefs’ line is less than whole and blocking like this, it’s hard to know much about anything else.
At least, the Chiefs hope this isn’t how it will look when the real games start.