Ignore Chris Conley’s final stat line for 2017 — 11 catches for 175 yards. When the third-year receiver suffered a season-ending Achilles injury in the Chiefs’ fifth game of the season, the offense was never the same.
Just ask quarterback Alex Smith.
“That’s the one thing that I thought really hurt us that kind of didn’t get talked about, was Chris,” Smith said. “From a depth perspective, outside, he gave us another guy that was such a threat downfield and did so many things for us. (He was) kind of the glue.”
Smith looked outstanding through the season’s first five games, when he completed 76.6 percent of his passes for 1,391 yards, 11 touchdowns, zero interceptions and a stellar 125.8 passer rating. The Chiefs won all five of those games.
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The sledding became much tougher from there, however, as the Chiefs’ offense failed to replicate that production over the course of the season. Starting with a deflating 19-13 loss to Pittsburgh on Oct. 15 — their first game without Conley — the Chiefs proceeded to go 5-6 over their last 11 contests. And Smith’s stats tailed off, as he completed only 63.4 percent of his passes for 2,651 yards, 15 touchdowns, five interceptions and a 95.2 passer rating.
While some of that dropoff had to do with the declining play of a beat-up offensive line that failed to generate as much movement in the running game as it had throughout the first month of the season, Smith said he also missed Conley, a smart player who rarely made mistakes when it came to mid-play route adjustments.
“I love Conley ... he did so many different things for us,” Smith explained. “When we move Ty (Hill) around a lot, and Albert (Wilson) around a lot, people forget that someone on the other side has to move too, right? And Chris was the guy — that man, he (knew) everything.”
Conley’s knowledge of the playbook also allowed the offense to be more diverse, formation- and concept-wise, than without him.
Throw in the fact Smith has complete trust in Conley — and remember, the 13-year veteran rarely throws 50/50 passes to receivers he doesn’t fully trust — and the full impact of Conley’s absence becomes more clear.
“He put all that in place, and it really hurt (losing him),” Smith said. “He was so dependable, man. I was very comfortable with him.”
The good news for the Chiefs is that Conley’s rehab appears to be going very well. A source told The Star on Wednesday that he is expected to be present and moving around at organized team activities this spring and fully ready for training camp, which starts in late July.
When Conley got hurt, the Chiefs initially turned to second-year pro Demarcus Robinson (21 catches, 212 yards), whose downfield skills project well long-term. Robinson, however, is still mastering the finer aspects of Andy Reid’s offense, and the Chiefs opted to give a bigger workload to Wilson over the final month of the season.
Wilson, a four-year veteran who also knows the offense extremely well, responded with a career year (42 catches, 554 yards, three touchdowns) as the Chiefs rallied to go 4-0 down the stretch and earn their second straight AFC West title.