Sam Mellinger

How Alex Smith and the offense are holding back the Chiefs

After it was over, after a team that claims Super Bowl expectations lost at home to the NFL’s version of lukewarm tap water, the quarterback and head coach disagreed on who should be blamed for the day’s biggest failure.

What could’ve been another ugly Chiefs win turned into an ugly-as-vomit 19-17 loss to the mediocre Buccaneers at home on Sunday the moment quarterback Alex Smith executed a bad throw poorly, leading to an interception in the end zone when even a field goal would’ve probably been enough to win.

Exhale.

“I’ll take responsibility,” coach Andy Reid said: “Lousy call.”

A few minutes later, Smith addressed reporters.

“You can’t have it,” he said. “You can’t throw it. You have to protect the play.”

Three truths need to be said about this.

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First, Reid is right. Lousy call. Lousy call, because it was a predetermined read that relied upon Bucs safety Chris Conte falling for a play-action fake, and Conte did not fall for the play-action fake. The Bucs had consistent problems covering Travis Kelce, whose combination of agility and strength becomes more effective near the goal line, but the call Reid made meant Smith never looked that direction.

Second, Smith is right. Can’t have it. Can’t throw it, for a hundred reasons, starting with the larger truth that his value lies largely in his ability to avoid crucial mistakes. But beyond that, it was a virtually blind throw, his decision made regardless of what he saw when he looked up from the fake.

The throw was tipped at the line of scrimmage, but it’s not clear if that caused the interception. Either way, it only adds to the failure — in a situation where a field goal would’ve given the Chiefs the lead, Smith attempted a throw that wasn’t there through a passing lane that wasn’t open.

The third truth: The franchise quarterback and the coach paid more money than anyone else without a Super Bowl win each failed on Sunday, have failed for a few weeks now, and need to be better if the most promising Chiefs season in years is to end up in anything other than disappointment.

Because the Chiefs have a Super Bowl defense. They have won seven games with a wicked combination of point prevention and playmaking, using a talented, versatile and athletic group to nullify an opposing offense’s mismatches and create enough in the defense’s favor.

But at the moment, they have a lemon offense. This column could be a thousand words of nothing but specific reasons the offense is frustrating, but in the interest of respecting your time and limiting our collective masochism, let’s keep it to two.

They should be so much better than this in their fourth year together, and a disproportionate amount of the problems are in the most crucial spots.

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In the last three games, the Chiefs have had 10 red-zone possessions. One of those came after Marcus Peters’ remarkable strip that set up the winning field goal at Carolina. Of the nine in which the Chiefs were trying for a touchdown, they have six field goals, two touchdowns and a game-destroying interception.

Smith is responsible for at least three of those failures — two wide-open touchdown passes he missed at Carolina, and the interception against Tampa.

The rest are more of that murky and foul-smelling stew of football blame. Some on the quarterback, some on the play-calling, some on individual execution and some on good plays by the opponent’s defense.

One of the laments you hear around the Chiefs’ locker room is that their offense hasn’t found its identity yet, but if we’re being completely honest, the offense has developed a clear identity — they are in the league’s bottom half in points because Smith has regressed, they’ve been overmatched in the biggest moments and they haven’t gotten enough from their playmaking stars.

Reid, Smith and everyone else involved with the offense spent a lot of time last week acknowledging their shortcomings on third down. They entered the week among the league’s worst five in converting third downs. They were awful at it, again.

The defense was bad enough, giving up 11 conversions on 16 third downs, but the offense didn’t help. They converted four of eight third downs, but that’s misleading. Two of the conversions came after Smith and Reid’s self-induced knee-capping, meaning the Chiefs were two-for-six when they still had a realistic chance.

Particularly in football, and particularly after disappointments like this, the temptation for hyperbole is omnipresent. But this isn’t a bad offense. At least, it shouldn’t be. They were ninth in points scored last season, and the emergence of Tyreek Hill should be providing the deep threat they’ve always missed.

But the Chiefs are torpedoing their own best chances, often on third down.

Consider:

They averaged 6.6 yards per play against the Bucs but let drives die on third and 9, third and 2, third and 1 and third and 7.

Blaming the quarterback is always among the easiest things to do in football, and it’s probably one of the most misguided. But it fits here, with this team, at least as a primary problem.

Smith’s underperformance — compared to what he’s been in the past, and what he should be now — is the single biggest obstacle keeping the Chiefs from being what they could and should be.

Maybe it’s worth mentioning that I’ve been higher on Smith than most over his first three seasons. But so far, what should be his best season with the Chiefs is instead pacing to be his worst, by touchdowns, yards per pass, passer rating, QBR and rushing yards. All of this while being surrounded by the most talent, and protected by the best offensive line, that he’s had in Kansas City.

One theory: Smith and the coaches have not effectively adjusted to defenses taking away the quarterback scramble, which is emphasizing the truth that Smith operates with a smaller margin for error than most.

Smith did have an 11-yard scramble for a touchdown against the Bucs, but that’s the exception. If he keeps his current pace, he will finish the season with 74 yards on 37 attempts (2.0 yards per rush). A year ago, he ran for 498 yards on 84 attempts (5.9 per rush).

Without the threat of him running, windows that were already small tend to shrink, particularly on third down. A year ago, Smith ran for 30 first downs. Only Cam Newton and Russell Wilson had more. This year, he has run for three.

The worry here is only amplified by the vague head injury Smith suffered in Indianapolis. He is wearing a different helmet now, and has pledged to no longer slide feet-first to better protect himself.

Smith talked about seeing pressure up the middle when describing one of the missed throws at Carolina, and even his inner self-defense calculus has only changed slightly, it could make a significant difference. Football coaches and players are constantly talking about the thin margins that decide their sport’s winners and losers.

Maybe it’s that. Maybe it’s something else. Maybe it’s that, combined with something else. But the Chiefs are down three points per game from last year, scoring 20 or fewer in five games already after being held that low just four times all of last regular season.

The good news is that this doesn’t have to be a fatal flaw. The Chiefs can still win the AFC West, and can still work their way into a first-round bye and home playoff game. The defense has been more than good enough and only figures to improve as Justin Houston comes along.

But the offense is holding them back. It needs to be fixed, and soon. They play at Denver on Sunday night. Heck of a time to see the toughest defense on their schedule.

Sam Mellinger: 816-234-4365, @mellinger

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