In what has become a special season for Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce, no play better encapsulated his unique combination of gifts than his 80-yard touchdown against Denver on Sunday.
Tight ends are more athletic than ever, but they rarely score on long plays. The fact the play was the longest touchdown reception for a tight end in team history, surpassing future Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez’s 73-yard jaunt in 1999, backs that up.
But it was the way Kelce did it — all on the ground, on a tight end screen, of all things — that earned him respect and appreciation from his teammates and coaches. After he hauled in the pass on the tunnel screen, he darted between several white jerseys — the Broncos have one of the fastest defenses in the league, by the way — and galloped into the end zone, essentially untouched.
Not bad for a 6-foot-5, 260-pounder. Not bad at all.
“He runs well — he’s a good athlete, so you can put him in a lot of different spots,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid explained. “The acceleration on those quick screens outside, that’s important. Those first three steps after the catch of getting yourself up and rolling — the first 5 yards, however you want to term it — he gives you that flexibility to do that.”
Kelce, indeed, is a rare breed. The former high school quarterback-turned-tight end ran a 4.61 40-yard dash at his pro day in 2013, and over his first three seasons, Kelce showed enough — catching a combined 139 passes for 1,737 yards and 10 touchdowns — to earn a five-year, $46 million contract extension in January.
But this season, Kelce has had a career year — and there’s still one game left. With his 11-catch, 160-yard explosion against the Broncos — the yardage total was an all-time single-game high for a tight end, passing Tony Gonzalez’s mark of 147 against New England in 2000, by the way — Kelce surpassed 1,000 receiving yards for the first time in his career. He enters the season-finale with career-highs in receptions (84), targets (115) and yards (1,117), to go along with four scores.
With another monster game — 142 yards, to be exact — he’ll surpass Gonzalez for the most receiving yards in a season by a Chiefs tight end, and also become the only Chief in club history to record seven 100-yard receiving games in a season.
“Yeah, I think he’s taken his game to another level — I would say that,” Reid said. “He’s not out there thinking where do I have to line up, what route gets this coverage, he just goes out there and plays, so you’re getting the full range of his skill.”
It hasn’t always been like that. Kelce, a fourth-year pro, has always been a good player — he just earned his second-straight Pro Bowl berth — but he spoke often the last few years about needing to get a better grasp of Reid’s voluminous playbook, which often requires players to adjust their routes based on the defensive scheme.
In that regard, the number of reps Kelce has logged the last two seasons — no Chiefs skill player has logged more — has only helped that process.
“As he’s gotten older and played more, he banks all of that stuff,” Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith said. “We move him around and do different things with him. He’s a guy that has so many tools for a tight end. We do a ton with him, and he’s capable of it. He’s handled it mentally and physically.”
So much so that Reid, who prides himself on a balanced offense, has not been shy about dialing up Kelce’s number more than he used to, especially out of different looks.
“Yeah we are, we’re trying to do that,” Reid said. “We’re trying to change it up where teams can’t get indicators.”
Smith agreed, noting he can tell when a play is designed to take advantage of a matchup Kelce might get.
“Certain play-calls that come in, there’s an underlined intent that comes in with them,” Smith said. “Some calls come in and I know they’re designed for Kelce, so if he does get the one-on-one, you’re going there. There’s other times where the play wasn’t drawn for him, but a great matchup took you there.”
Thing is, there’s a pretty good chance these days that when Kelce runs a route, he’s getting the ball. Teams know Kelce is the most targeted Chief, but he lines up everywhere — outside, in the slot, attached to the line of scrimmage — and because of his rare size and athleticism, linebackers simply aren’t quick enough to stick with him while corners and safeties are simply too small.
“Really good safeties or corners maybe aren’t the coverage you’d want, but I think Kelce is a guy that regardless of who covers him, he seems to separate,” Smith said. “Really good cover corners, nickels, linebackers and safeties — he’s gone against all of them and he’s shown he can win. He’s got that kind of ability.”
Then when he gets the ball, he often wins too. Kelce possesses outstanding run-after-the-catch ability, particularly for a tight end. According to Football Outsiders, he’s broken 12 tackles this year, the second-most of any tight end in the league, behind only New England’s Martellus Bennett (14).
“Certainly he’s gone out there, won and found separation,” Smith said.
Adding to Kelce’s arsenal is his ability to block. In a league where tight ends are getting smaller and more athletic, where colleges ask them to block less and less, Kelce’s ability to serve as a functional blocker against big guys (defensive ends and some linebackers) and a sometimes-devastating blocker against little guys (safeties, corners) gives the Chiefs all kinds of versatility.
Yet this, in many ways, is still the final frontier for Kelce, who wants to be more consistent in this area, overall.
“There were some key blocks, and there were a couple blocks where it was Bad News Bears out there for me,” Kelce said. “I’ve got to keep working on it — stick to the fundamentals that we do Monday through Friday and keep playing hard for the guys that are back there running the ball.”
Still, this is just nitpicking. Few tight ends in football possess the array of skills Kelce does, and at 27, he’s still got several years of his prime left — a fact that makes his teammates and coaches smile, much like they did when they watched his gorgeous 80-yard gallop against Denver on Sunday.
“He’s special,” Smith said.