The quarterback has gone from MVP frontrunner to bench-ably inept and the coach paid for innovation appears out of it. And if that was the extent of the problems the Chiefs would be in better shape.
If all the problems could be contained with blame for Alex Smith and Andy Reid, then the Chiefs might still be struggling but they would not be in free fall.
At the moment, they are quite obviously in free fall.
Let’s pause here: Smith and then Reid wear most of the blame here. They are each paid commensurate to their responsibilities, and after two months of passing every test they are working on six games of essentially punching themselves in the face.
But the problems go deeper, and depending on how much you trust Smith and Reid, more troubling.
The Chiefs are 6-5, still a game ahead in the AFC West despite themselves. The Chiefs play at the Jets this weekend, then finish with three of four against division opponents. They are grasping for their playoff lives, with the twist that just getting there isn’t enough, because the minimum standard for this season has always been the AFC Championship game.
That creates two uncomfortable, inconvenient, and unavoidable truths.
First, the last five years of building and drafting and planning and patience will be a monumental success or undeniable failure based on the next five games and whatever comes in the postseason.
Second, the specific Chiefs team that will determine how these last five years are valued is only sort of like the team coaches and executives thought they’d have for this crucial stretch.
This is the problem.
The Chiefs are effectively taking the final exam and finding different questions than those they’ve studied.
Again, Smith and Reid are the singular biggest chunks of this.
The offense was supposed to be built around Smith’s timing, reads, accuracy, and athleticism. All have diminished in recent weeks, along with his confidence.
We’ve seen Smith at his best — correct pre-snap diagnosis, quick decisions, shots downfield (he really was doing that early) and the swagger to improvise outside the pocket. We’re seeing, basically, none of that right now. This is an awful time for him to turn into Matt Cassel.
Reid is one of the NFL’s most respected offensive innovators, and finally equipped with the personnel he’s always wanted here: speed, versatility, mismatches, and athleticism. We are now more than a month into teams using varying combinations of the same basic plans — stacking the box against the run, rolling safeties and linebackers to disguise coverages and confuse Smith — without any discernible adjustment by Reid.
That is simply unacceptable. Reid’s job in Kansas City is secure, with a well-earned extension signed before the season, but general fan confidence is a whole different matter. If this is how the year five push ends, who will be trustful that the fix is merely a new quarterback?
But, unfortunately, the problems run much deeper. This is simply not the team the Chiefs expected to have, in so many ways.
The offensive line has not progressed, particularly with run blocking. They appear to be missing too many assignments, and failing with technique too often, which amplify the inherent weakness of a group put together by prioritizing athleticism over strength.
By now, the Chiefs planned on having one of the league’s better lines — reliable in pass protection, dynamic in screens, and good enough to get by in the run game. Instead, there are too many failures in protection, virtually no holes for running back Kareem Hunt, and not enough production in screens.
Wide receiver depth and experience were always going to be issues, but that’s been intensified by Chris Conley’s injury. Albert Wilson has been injured and ineffective, and Smith has yet to develop the trust and chemistry required for the system.
If you’re still reading, you must really be into the Chiefs, and you may or may not want to be reminded that as bad as the offense has been the last two weeks the defense is 27th in yards per play, 25th in rushing average, 22nd in passing average, dead last in first downs surrendered, and 23rd in turnover rate.
The expected this to be an aggressive, fast, and ball-hawking defense. Instead, of their three best playmakers, Eric Berry is out for the season, Justin Houston’s health has been unreliable, and Marcus Peters has not been as effective as in his first two seasons.
Berry’s injury has made Derrick Johnson’s regression more obvious and troublesome, and forced defensive coordinator Bob Sutton into a makeshift lineup from snap to snap. Once, against the Bills, they somehow left 12 defenders on the field. None seemed aware there were too many of them until the flag came out.
The depth at corner has been bad enough that Terrance Mitchell was replaced by Kenneth Acker, and now Darrelle Revis has been signed as a bit of a no-risk hail mary. Dee Ford’s back injury has sapped the team’s pass rush, and a talented defensive line has not created enough of a push to keep offenses from focusing almost entirely on Houston.
NFL seasons are about adjustments. This is nothing new. The Patriots won the Super Bowl last year without Rob Gronkowski, and this year have changed their defense on the fly by finding ways to stop big plays. The Chargers are better protecting Phil Rivers and highlighting their pass rush more. The Eagles have coped without their left tackle, largely by quarterback Carson Wentz’s growth, and found a way to create more turnovers on defense.
So, even if the Chiefs are facing more changes than most teams in most years, they’re still failing the inherent challenge of the NFL.
The next five games will determine how the last five years are measured, and that those will be played with so much in flux is a true concern.
That the team has so far shown such little ability to adjust to new challenges internally and externally is a much bigger concern.