The Chiefs are on the verge of matching an ignominious NFL record that has stood for 64 years.
Not since the stone-age era of the NFL has a team played an entire season without completing a touchdown pass to a wide receiver. The 1950 Pittsburgh Steelers hold that distinction, but that was before offenses spread their receivers across the field. That team attempted just 255 passes in a 6-6 season.
The Chiefs, 7-6 going into today’s game against the Oakland Raiders, last produced a touchdown pass in the regular season on Chase Daniel’s 2-yard toss to Dexter McCluster in the 2013 finale at San Diego.
Since McCluster’s catch, the Chiefs have attempted 405 regular-season passes without a touchdown to their wide receivers. They are the first team to go 13 games in a season without a touchdown catch by a wide receiver since the 1965 Eagles.
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“I’ve never seen it,” Chiefs wide receiver Dwayne Bowe said, “but this is football … anything can happen. I try to get them in every chance I get. If I got to hurdle somebody to do it, that’s what I’m going to do. That’s all I can do. Once they come, they’re going to start coming. They just haven’t yet.”
That’s not to say the Chiefs are incapable of scoring touchdowns. Running back Jamaal Charles leads the NFL with 14 touchdowns, including five on receptions; and tight ends Anthony Fasano and Travis Kelce have caught four touchdown passes each.
Also, the Chiefs rank 12th in the NFL with 33 offensive touchdowns and are tied for third in red-zone efficiency with 26 touchdowns in 39 possessions, or 66.7 percent. (Oakland, 2-10, ranks first at 17 for 22, and 77.3 percent, for whatever that’s worth).
“It’s not like the Chiefs don’t have any receivers,” said former Chiefs coach Herm Edwards, now an analyst for ESPN. “It seems to me, more of their passing is inside the numbers. There haven’t been explosive plays, as far as receivers catching the ball and running down the field.
“That’s not their offense. Their offense is dinking and dunking it and move the chains and eventually, Jamaal or Knile Davis makes a play, or Kelce. To me, this offense is driven by Jamal Charles and tight ends.”
Still, in a league predicated on passing, and with the rules geared in favor of quarterbacks and receivers, how can a team not have a single touchdown catch by a wide receiver?
“You can justify low production, but not no production,” said former NFL quarterback Steve Beuerlein, now an analyst for CBS Sports. “You can look at a lot of different receiving groups around the league that aren’t overly stocked at that position, and they’ve still gotten the ball to their people who are supposed to catch the ball and score touchdowns.
“I don’t think it’s the system. You look at Andy Reid’s system in the past, his wide receivers have been very productive. It’s exposing how desperately the Chiefs do need more weapons, and you have to put some of the blame on the quarterback.”
Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith, when not avoiding a pass rush that has led to his being sacked 38 times this season, has thrown 16 touchdown passes. Among full-time starters, only Cincinnati’s Andy Dalton, with 13, and Cleveland’s since-benched Brian Hoyer, with 12, have thrown fewer.
“The quarterback has to find a way to get the ball to those guys,” Beuerlein said, “and get them involved in the offense if you want to be playing meaningful football in December. They’ve got a good running game, they’ve got a tight end. If you can establish those wide receivers somehow, it makes you a much better football team.”
The closest a Chiefs wide receiver has come to catching a touchdown pass was on Nov. 2, when A.J. Jenkins, from the New York Jets’ 11, caught a short pass but stumbled to the turf and was tackled a yard short of the goal line. In the same game, Smith’s pass intended for Bowe in the end zone was deflected at the line of scrimmage and caught by Fasano for a 1-yard touchdown.
“I can’t remember the last time we threw a ball to a receiver who was in the end zone or into the end zone untouched…” said former Chiefs wide receiver Danan Hughes, an analyst for Time Warner Cable SportsChannel.
“I think it’s related to the lack of homegrown quarterbacks. When you don’t raise your own quarterback, normally you’re filling in gaps, filling in potholes with sand throughout the course of time.”
The Chiefs have inducted 40 players into their Hall of Fame since its inception in 1970. Only two are wide receivers — Chris Burford, who caught 391 passes with 55 touchdowns during 1960-67, and Otis Taylor, who caught 410 with 57 touchdowns during 1965-75.
And they’ve inducted just one quarterback — Pro Football Hall of Famer Len Dawson, who led the club to Super Bowl I and a victory in Super Bowl IV. But even Dawson was not homegrown. He was signed by Lamar Hunt’s Dallas Texans in 1962 after five years of riding the bench in the NFL.
By contrast, eight running backs, seven linebackers and even two place-kickers adorn the club’s Ring of Honor.
The NFL is a quarterback’s game in which the rules favor passing, and the Chiefs’ inability to develop their own franchise quarterback and game-changing receivers goes a long way in explaining why they have not won a playoff game in 20 years and are stuck in the current rut in their passing game.
The Chiefs have spent nearly 40 years in the wilderness trying to replace Dawson and Taylor.
Since Taylor’s career ended, the Chiefs have drafted some productive receivers: Henry Marshall, a third-round pick in 1976, and Carlos Carson, a fifth-round pick in 1979. They also signed undrafted Stephone Paige (1983). But none was elite, and only Carson was selected to a Pro Bowl.
The Chiefs also whiffed big time with first-round busts Anthony Hancock (1982), Sylvester Morris (2000) and Jon Baldwin (2011), as well as with early-round picks such as third-rounders Lake Dawson and Chris Penn (1994) and second-rounder Kevin Lockett (1997).
Bowe, selected in the first round of the 2007 draft, has lived up to his 23rd-overall selection, producing three 1,000-yard seasons and leading the NFL with 15 touchdowns in 2010, his only Pro Bowl year.
In fact, Bowe, 30, has caught more passes (520) than any other wide receiver in franchise history. But he has just eight touchdown catches in his last 42 games and none in more than a year, or since Dec. 8, 2013. It’s debatable whether he’ll join Taylor and Burford in the club’s Hall of Fame.
“For a lot of years, the receivers were not going to be used as primary targets,” said Edwards, who was on the Chiefs’ staff during 1990-95 as a scout or coach under Marty Schottenheimer and was head coach when the club drafted Bowe.
“You had Christian Okoye, you had a solid run game for years, and Marty Schottenheimer didn’t draft receivers high. You went through that era when it wasn’t a necessary to get a top-round quarterback or top-round receiver … it wasn’t the nature of Kansas City football.”
The Chiefs traded up in the first round of the 1997 draft and selected a future Hall of Famer in tight end Tony Gonzalez, who turned out to be the second-most prolific pass catcher in NFL history to Jerry Rice. But no tight end has ever led a team to a Super Bowl.
The Chiefs complemented Gonzalez by acquiring or signing veterans from other teams through the years, such as Andre Rison, Derrick Alexander and Eddie Kennison. All had their moments, but except for Rison in 1997, none reminded anyone of Otis Taylor.
The Chiefs’ track record at drafting quarterbacks is even more abysmal. In fact, they haven’t taken a quarterback in the first round since Todd Blackledge was selected seventh overall behind Hall of Famer John Elway and ahead of Hall of Famers Jim Kelly and Dan Marino in the famous draft of 1983.
The Chiefs wasted second-round picks on Mike Elkins (1989) and Matt Blundin (1992), who appeared in a total of three games; a third-round pick on Brodie Croyle (2006), who went 0-10 for Edwards; and a fifth-round pick on Ricky Stanzi (2011), who became a punch line for quarterback ineptitude.
Instead of developing their own, the Chiefs, believing a veteran quarterback was all that separated them from being a Super Bowl contender, spent the last 20-plus years importing veterans from elsewhere, starting with Dave Krieg (1992), Joe Montana (1993), Steve Bono (1995), Elvis Grbac (1997), Trent Green (2001), Matt Cassel (2009) and Smith (2013).
That’s produced two playoff wins, both by Montana in 1993.
“Most of the quarterbacks who had success in Kansas City came from other teams,” Edwards said, “but that happens a lot of places. The Pittsburgh Steelers have Big Ben (Roethlisberger) and before that they had Terry Bradshaw. But after Terry Bradshaw, it took ’em a while to find a guy. … The Buffalo Bills had Jim Kelly. Who’s come after Jim Kelly?
“You can go down the line. … You can go to the Oakland Raiders. When was the last time they had a guy? They had Rich Gannon, who they got from somewhere else, and before that, it was Jim Plunkett, and he came from somewhere else. Green Bay had Brett Favre and drafts Aaron Rodgers. He sits on the bench for a few years …
“When you think about the Colts, that’s a whole different story. You talk about the horseshoe being lucky. Goodness gracious, you get rid of Peyton Manning, and then you get Andrew Luck. When you draft a guy at quarterback that can take you (to a championship), you’ve got a guy.”
Certainly, the Chiefs were guilty of bad timing in 2013, the year after Luck was the first overall pick in the draft. A year later, when they had the No. 1 pick, there was no quarterback or receiver considered worthy of a first-round pick.
“When you go for a top-round pick at the quarterback position, you normally come back with or have someone who is young at the wide-receiver position who can grow up with that quarterback,” Edwards said. “Marvin Harrison and Peyton Manning … young quarterbacks who came into an organization and were successful either had a No. 1 or No. 2 receiver who was drafted within one or two years of their being drafted.”
The 2014 draft was rich with wide receivers, but the Chiefs elected not to take a single one. They selected Dee Ford with the 23rd pick of the first round when Florida State’s Kevin Benjamin was still on the board. Benjamin, selected by Carolina with the 28th pick, has caught 59 passes for 848 yards and nine touchdowns.
Without a second-round pick, the Chiefs took cornerback Phillip Gaines of Rice in the third round, four spots ahead of John Brown of nearby Pittsburg State, who has caught five touchdown passes for the Arizona Cardinals.
Projecting the success of wide receivers from the college game to the NFL is almost as unpredictable as quarterbacks. The Chiefs, believing in the investments they’d made in their current receivers — including Bowe, who signed a five-year $56 million contract in 2013, Donnie Avery, Jenkins, Junior Hemingway, Frankie Hammond Jr., and failed Canadian Football League signee Weston Dressler — tried filling other needs in the draft.
“I think that with what we have,” general manager John Dorsey said at the end of the 2014 draft, “we’re going to be very competitive at that position. The players we got here (in the draft), I’m very happy with.”
Barring a trade, the Chiefs will be selecting in the middle of the 2015 draft. It’s uncertain whether touted receivers such as Alabama’s Amari Cooper, Louisville’s DeVante Parker or West Virginia’s Kevin White, will be available to them. But there’s little doubt that acquiring a wide receiver or two will be a top priority.
“Bowe is a solid receiver who can be made better if they can find someone who can take the top off the defense and be that kind of go-to-guy,” Beuerlein said. “They don’t have that wide receiver to scare anybody at this point.
“You’re going to have to invest a high draft choice to get that player they’ve desperately needed for a lot of years.”