By Sam McPherson
The National Football League really does represent the spirit of America, and in 2013, no team exemplified that resilience more than the Kansas City Chiefs.
Last season, the Chiefs were the worst team in the NFL with a record of 2-14, and after shrewd decisions in the front office and on the field, Kansas City rose from the ashes of that debacle to win its first nine games of 2013 on its way to a playoff spot. And even though the Chiefs came up short (again) in the postseason, it was a great season for a great franchise in a great sports city.
Kansas City’s 45-44 loss to the Indianapolis Colts on the road in the first round of the playoffs shouldn’t take any luster off what the team accomplished in 2013, and with Head Coach Andy Reid and some key players in place for the foreseeable future, the horizon looks bright for the Chiefs – and what more could any fan ask for? (Beside a playoff victory, of course. Or a Super Bowl win…)
So, let’s take a final look at the Kansas City Chiefs and their 2013 season:
What Went Right:
A lot went the team’s way this season, from the hiring of head coach Andy Reid and the acquisition of quarterback Alex Smith to the schedule favors and opponents’ misfortune. The Chiefs 9-0 start was fueled by an opportunistic, ball-hawking defense that found the end zone on its own and a very efficient offense that converted other turnovers into scores. No, those strengths didn’t vault Kansas City to an AFC West title in 2013, but they lasted long enough to ensure the team found its way to the postseason after the disaster of 2012.
The schedule was favorable, as the Chiefs played one playoff team in those first nine games (Philadelphia), before playing five in their final seven games (all losses). So in essence, Kansas City beat the teams they needed to beat, but the squad couldn’t get over the hump against the top level of competition.
Smith played right in line with his career arc at this point in his nine NFL seasons, completing 60.6 percent of his passes for 23 touchdowns and only seven interceptions. He is a Bart Starr/Bob Griese type of field general, as Smith doesn’t need to be Dan Marino or John Elway to win ball games, obviously. He also ran for a career-high 431 yards, averaging 5.7 yards per scamper, using the mobility he demonstrated in college at Utah under Urban Meyer that made him the number one overall pick in the draft once (2005).
Running back Jamaal Charles posted strong yardage numbers, carrying the ball 259 times for 1,287 yards and 12 TDs. But he also became a favorite target of Smith’s in the passing game, catching a whopping 70 passes and seven more TDs. Reid’s offenses have always called for versatile running backs (think LeSean McCoy, Brian Westbrook, Duce Staley, etc., when he was in Philadelphia), and Charles continued that tradition in 2013.
The offensive production benefited from the defense’s aggressiveness, where the Chiefs forced 36 turnovers this year after only forcing 13 in 2012. Throw in the offense’s reluctance to turn the ball over (only 18 giveaways this year), and Kansas City completely remade its team profile by going from minus-24 last year to plus-18 this year in the give/take category.
What Went Wrong:
Injuries actually took their toll on the Chiefs in 2013, and not just in the playoff game against Indy where it seemed every time there was an injured player down he was wearing Kansas City red. The defense’s hot start to the season got derailed in Week 11 with the loss of Justin Houston. Houston totaled 11 sacks in just 11 games, and it’s difficult to overlook his absence from the defense down the stretch when the team struggled to win games. Of the five games lost with Houston out of the lineup, the Chiefs lost four of them by 10 points or less. His presence could have made a difference there.
And it wasn’t only Houston, of course. There were other absences and nagging conditions that impacted the effectiveness of several players. So for the Chiefs to win 11 games still with less-than-optimal health was impressive.
One area of weakness for the team could be merely a result of one of its strengths: it’s probably never a good thing for your running back to lead the team in receptions, because that means your wide receivers and tight ends aren’t getting the ball enough. Wide receiver Dwayne Bowe had one of the worst seasons of his career, posting only 57 catches in 15 games. He caught 59 passes last year in only 13 games, and Smith’s inability to get the ball downfield to Bowe and others more often kept the offense “short” and allowed adjusting defenses to crowd Charles and stunt the Kansas City offense too easily and readily late in the year.
For the Chiefs to take that next step forward on offense, they’ll need to develop more weapons in the passing game for 2014.
Outlook for 2014:
The schedule will be tougher next year, and not just because of the four division games Kansas City must play against AFC semifinalists Denver and San Diego. Interconference division matchups will include Arizona, San Francisco and Seattle instead of the New York Giants and the Washington Redskins, for example. And instead of the weak AFC South in the intraconference division assignment, the Chiefs will get the AFC East – which means the New England Patriots and two bound-to-improve teams in the New York Jets and the Miami Dolphins.
(But at least the Oakland Raiders will still be on the schedule twice, right?)
The offense should get better with another year to acclimate and thrive in Reid’s system, and the defense can get healthier and stronger – although counting on the same turnover differential next year would be folly. The Chiefs know if they want to make the playoffs again – and win the franchise’s first playoff game since January 1994 – they’ll need to work harder and be hungrier.
Reid’s track record in Philadelphia is a good one to mirror, however, after his first season (1999) with the Eagles, the head coach took his squad to the postseason five straight times and in nine of the next 11 seasons – including four straight trips to the conference finals and five overall, while losing the Super Bowl once in that time frame as well.
Maybe time’s have changed, but that kind of pattern would be welcomed in Kansas City, without a doubt.
Sam McPherson is a freelance writer covering all things Oakland A’s. His work can be found on Examiner.com.