ST. JOSEPH, Mo.—The Chiefs’ quirky feat of going through an entire NFL season without registering a single touchdown reception by a wide receiver got ample and understandable attention last year, but it wasn’t even the most telling statistic to define the struggles of the Kansas City passing game in 2014.
The number that really told the story was 20, as in a league-low 20 pass plays of 25 or more yards, tying the Chiefs with Cincinnati for the bottom rung in terms of those type of explosive plays. Not enough big plays equals too many long fields to navigate, and having to go 80 yards to score a touchdown is no way to make a living on offense.
To paraphrase Al Davis in the AFC West wars of yesteryear, in today’s NFL the quarterback must go vertical in the passing game, and he must go vertical on a regular basis.
Alas, that part of KC’s attack went largely AWOL last year, and it’s why the Chiefs bade farewell to declining veteran receiver Dwayne Bowe and made the need for speed its top priority this off-season. To wit: Former Eagles playmaker Jeremy Maclin was Kansas City’s No. 1 target in free agency; third-round pick Chris Conley brings an explosive burst with him from the University of Georgia; and second-year man De’Anthony Thomas was officially designated a receiver, rather than a running back/receiver, with the hope that the switch helps Kansas City fully utilize his blazing straight-line speed and elusiveness in the open field.
“Your percentages [for success] go down if you’ve got to drive a long field, because 80 yards is tough,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said Monday after wrapping up his team’s first full-pads practice of training camp at Missouri Western State University. “You want to be able to get those chunks, and last year, we were young [at receiver] opposite Dwayne [Bowe], and we had some injuries there. But I think we’ve added guys who can run, and I think we’re good now. Hopefully that [big-play] number increases.”
Maclin alone should elevate the Chiefs' deep-threat quotient. He received a market-setting five-year, $55 million deal in the wake of his career year with Philadelphia, in which he returned from 2013’s ACL injury to post 85 catches for 1,318 yards and 10 touchdowns—the first true No. 1 receiver showing of his six years as an Eagle. But the question that followed him to Kansas City is this: Was Maclin’s huge season largely a product of playing in Chip Kelly’s prolific offense, or can Maclin reproduce those gaudy numbers in his reunion with Reid, the former Eagles coach who drafted him in 2009’s first round out of Missouri?
Unsurprisingly, Maclin sees his 2014 production as entirely transferrable to the AFC. The stats will go where he goes. And he’s in Kansas City now.
“I don’t necessarily believe that, that the offense determines things,” Maclin says, a slight edge in his voice. “There’s no such thing as a system putting up numbers in the NFL by itself. Everybody here is very super talented, everybody here is playing football at the highest level. There’s nothing a coach can do by just saying, ‘Hey, this is my system, it’s going to work.’ You’ve got to have playing talent to fulfill that. Talent and work still trumps all. My response is if I’m going to be a big part of this offense like I think I will be, the numbers will come. The most important stat is winning football games.”
Reid is confident he can get his money’s worth out of Maclin as K.C.’s new lead receiver and points out that last year’s wide receiver touchdown drought was probably pure anomaly.
“Chip does a great job with that offense, but this offense over the years has been a good productive offense, too, so I’m not necessarily looking at numbers as much as I am scores,” he says. “We didn’t have any touchdowns by receivers last year, but I had more touchdown catches from my tight ends [nine] and my running backs [nine] than I’ve ever had. So somebody was scoring, because we were scoring points.”
Still, to watch the Chiefs offense last season was to see a unit that couldn’t and didn’t challenge a defense aggressively enough downfield, sticking primarily to an approach that featured short and intermediate passing. Kansas City is intent on changing that mindset this year, and Chiefs general manager John Dorsey told me he has seen a noticeably more long-ball-conscious Smith early in training camp.
“He’s unleashed some really nice deep balls the last couple of days,” Dorsey said. “You do have to push it and have a threat of verticality, and what we’ve tried to do is add the element of speed. That’s kind of why we went out and got Chris Conley as well. Not only does he have speed [Conley ran a 4.35 40 at the combine], but he’s got some length [6'3", 205 pounds], because in today’s football your receivers have to have length and the vertical speed to push it and put the threat on the defense. I think the speed component is there now and they have to acclimate to each other, and that’s kind of what training camp is all about.”
Smith raves about Maclin’s combination of No. 1 receiver skills and said there has been little or no learning curve needed given Maclin’s previous experience in Reid’s offense. With fellow ex-Eagles receiver Jason Avant also signed by Kansas City in free agency, the Chiefs have added significant experience around the young nucleus at the position, with Thomas, Conley and the emerging Albert Wilson (12 catches for 209 yards in Weeks 14–16 last December) all benefitting from the pair of veteran pass catchers. Avant has taken on the role of mentor in schooling Thomas on the art of playing the slot, and Maclin sees a player ready to take a significant step forward in the second year of his career.
“(Avant) has kind of taken De’Anthony under his wing a little bit and tried to get him prepped to play, and play inside this year,” Maclin said. “You talk about somebody that wants to learn, he wants to learn everything. He wants to be great. Anything you can tell him to help him get there, he’s going to do it. And obviously with the ball in his hands, he’s tremendous. I think he’s made tremendous strides even from when I got here in April, as a route-runner and a receiver.”
But it was Maclin, 27, who got the big payday in free agency from the Chiefs, and he’ll draw everyone’s best cornerback in coverage this season. Smith has yet to find something Maclin can’t do well and hopes that leads to opening up Kansas City’s offense in the post-Bowe era, stretching the field on a much more consistent basis in 2015.
“Jeremy brings another dimension, because his skill set is pretty diverse,” Smith said. “As a receiver, there’s not many guys at this level who can do all those things he can do. Just the speed to run by guys, with the precision and route-running ability, and he’s so good out of his breaks. He’s big enough to move inside, and he’s really competitive with the football. He’s bigger and more competitive than I thought he was, you can just see him turn it on and how competitive he is as a person on the field. He’s smart, really extremely smart, and sees defenses well, and is one of those rare receivers who can anticipate when the ball is coming to him.”
It’s coming to him plenty this season, and while it was difficult for Maclin to leave Philadelphia, the only NFL home he ever knew, the bi-faceted homecoming of returning to Missouri and reuniting with Reid made the Chiefs the obvious choice.
“It was tough, because it’s a career-defining decision,” Maclin said. “Probably if I had stayed there, there’s a lot I could have done. I could have re-wrote the [team] history books there and everything. But at the end of the day, to have the opportunity to come back to the state of Missouri, with the coaches that drafted me, that’s what decided it for me. Now I guess I’ve got to make sure it’s a good story.”
Unlike several other ex-Eagles recently, Maclin also made it clear his exit from Philadelphia had nothing to do with Kelly and his highly-scrutinized coaching style. When asked if he understood the racially-charged comments that former Eagles players like Brandon Boykin and LeSean McCoy have made about Kelly once they were out the door in Philly, Maclin said there was no such issue between him and the Eagles coach.
“It was fine and I have nothing bad to say about Chip,” Maclin said. “Everybody knows Chip likes to do things a certain way, which is fine. He’s in control. My relationship with him is fine. As a matter of fact, Chip texted me a couple days ago, so we’re fine. I don’t get into all that. Now, Boykin’s relationship with Chip is different than mine. It’s not my place to say anything about that. My relationship with him was fine, and he texted me the other days, saying ‘Good luck, you’re a beast.’ I texted him back saying, ‘Good luck, Coach. Hope you all do well.’”
Maclin running a go pattern out of Philadelphia this spring was a case of Kelly losing a player he didn’t really want to lose. And Kansas City benefits as a result, especially if all goes as planned and the deep ball makes a much-needed return to the Chiefs playbook.
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