The Disappearance of Dwayne Bowe in Kansas City

Christopher Hansen@ChrisHansenNFLNFL AnalystNovember 1, 2013

Dwayne Bowe was once considered one of the elite receivers in the league, but after signing a big extension in the offseason, he has just 26 receptions for 302 yards and two touchdowns through eight games this season.

Obviously, that's not a very good return on investment for a five-year contract worth $56 million that the Kansas City Chiefs shelled out to keep Bowe. 

Bowe has become a phantom; an afterthought. Maybe we'll never again see the player that once caught 86 passes, or the one that once caught 15 touchdowns, or the one that has three 1,000-yard seasons on his resume.

If Bowe can produce 65.1 yards per game, 4.7 receptions per game and 6.5 touchdowns a season with Brodie Croyle, Damon Huard, Tyler Thigpen and Matt Cassel at quarterback, why are all his statistics down 29-45 percent across the board with Alex Smith—a much better quarterback than any of the previously mentioned players?

What's up with the disappearance of Dwayne Bowe?

The Alex Smith Effect

Bringing in Alex Smith at quarterback was supposed to help the offense, and in some ways, it has. In other ways, however, it has hurt the offense, such as the productivity of Bowe.

It could have been predicted that Bowe's numbers would be down with Smith at quarterback, purely based on recent history. Michael Crabtree produced 23 percent fewer receptions, 35 percent fewer yards and 60 percent fewer touchdowns with Smith throwing him the ball in San Francisco than when Colin Kaepernick was throwing it to him.

Michael Crabtree with/without Alex Smith
With Colin Kaepernick5.7782.880.74
With Alex Smith4.4453.860.30

There was a reason the San Francisco 49ers traded Smith to the Chiefs and decided to go with Kaepernick as the starter; there's no doubt about that. Compared with Crabtree, Bowe's production is down roughly seven percent more.

Crabtree's increase in production with Kaepernick suggests that Bowe is about three receptions for 37 yards off of what we should have expected. This is very reasonable when considering that the team is running an entirely new offense, but it is hardly comforting for Chiefs fans. 

It's notable that Bowe's decline in scoring touchdowns is actually 17 percent higher than what would be expected if we use Crabtree's performance as the model. We are dealing with very small sample sizes, especially when it comes to touchdowns.

Dwayne Bowe with/without Alex Smith
Without Alex Smith4.765.10.44
With Alex Smith3.337.80.25
Crabtree vs. Bowe-6.81%-6.92%16.99%

There may have been some hope that Bowe could be better with a smart, accurate quarterback throwing him the ball, but that's not always how production works for a wide receivers. All those chances Cassel took throwing deep actually benefited Bowe's production, while the interceptions and incomplete passes that eventually led to punts were all blamed on Cassel.

For example, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Bowe was the target on five interceptions in 2011 and 2012. Bowe has been the target on just one of Smith's interceptions this season.

Smith's extreme conservatism has certainly hurt Bowe, who has always done most of his work in traffic. Bowe isn't exactly the fastest guy on the field, but he is 6'2" and has a big 220-pound body that he can use to shield defenders on top of his long arms and soft hands. 

Bowe the Deep Threat
YearDeep TargetsCatchableReceptionsTouchdownsTarget %

Since 2008, Bowe has never had fewer than 16.1 percent of his targets be on deep passes, per Pro Football Focus. Bowe had a high of 26.4 percent in 2010, which should tell you everything you need to know about how he is best used.

Bowe has been targeted deep just twice this year, accounting for 4.5 percent of his total targets. Tavon Austin and Davone Bess are the only two receivers with at least 30 total targets to be targeted deep on a lower percentage than Bowe.

Bowe is the kind of receiver that makes plays on the ball in the air and in traffic, and Smith is the type of quarterback that refuses to throw into traffic. For Smith to thrive, he needs a bunch of tight ends and slot receivers that live off of finding soft spots in zone coverage or ones who can get quick separation at the line of scrimmage.

Utilizing Bowe

At first, the Chiefs ran Bowe deep a lot early on, but he was mostly a decoy. The deep ball has been Bowe's strength, and he can usually pull a safety over, which also helps his teammates. Once defenses stopped respecting Smith's willingness to go deep, though, the Chiefs have had to use other tactics.

Smith's aversion to throwing deep is well-documented. On the occasion that the conservative quarterback does decide to go deep, his receiver usually has to be wide open. Also, right tackle Eric Fisher has been a turnstile all season, which surely hasn't helped Smith throw vertically to Bowe.

In fact, Smith has attempted deep passes on just 5.6 percent of his attempts this season, a league-low among all qualifying quarterbacks, according to Pro Football Focus. Smith has typically hovered closer to 10 percent in this category for his career.

Maybe the Chiefs are thinking it's not worth taking a risk throwing deep passes when the defense has been so good. Running the clock and completing short, safe passes is the way to keep the clock ticking toward victory. 

Bowe in the Slot
YearSlot %Slot Target %Receptions YardsTouchdowns

In recent weeks, the Chiefs have been more actively trying to get Bowe involved in the offense. Bowe has lined up more in the slot, and he's running a more diverse set of routes. Even though Bowe is at his best in traffic, he's still the most talented receiver on the roster.

Bowe has run a higher percentage of his routes out of the slot since Pro Football Focus started keeping track in 2008. The Chiefs are quite clearly trying to get Bowe more involved in the offense by moving him closer to where Smith is comfortable throwing the ball.

Against the Cleveland Browns last week, Bowe caught just one pass for seven yards, but he was actually quite good on the afternoon. Bowe was routinely getting open, but Smith wouldn't throw it to him.

On this play, Bowe ran a drag underneath from the slot against the Browns, sliding behind the linebacker who was playing a short zone. One of the linebackers blitzed, leaving a slot corner on an island against Bowe and out of position to make a play on the underneath pass.

All Smith needed to do is lead Bowe and let him use his natural ability to get yards after the catch. Instead, Smith came back to his right and completed the short pass to Dexter McCluster on the curl. In this instance, Smith still got some positive yards, but he missed the opportunity for a bigger play. 

On another play, Bowe lined up tight left and ran a corner route, and McCluster ran a shorter underneath route from the numbers. Smith had a hi-lo read on a play that was designed to attack the three-deep, single-high safety coverage.

Bowe was open and was also Smith's No. 1 read. If Smith threw it before Bowe got his head around, the Chiefs would have had a big play or at least a first down. Notice that Fisher could not hold his block, which meant the delayed decision also put Smith at risk of having the ball swatted out of his hand. 

Bowe got his head around, but by the time he did so, it was already too late for Smith to get the ball to him. Smith opted for what he probably thought was the safer throw underneath to McCluster, but the linebacker drove on the underneath pass and knocked it away.

Smith is ultra conservative, and he doesn't need to be when he is throwing in Bowe's direction. In the end, the Chiefs have tried to marry an odd couple and are seeing that it doesn't always work. 

Expect the Chiefs to continue to try to get Bowe involved in the short passing game, hoping that he can become Smith's go-to receiver. Right now though, Smith seems to look for every reason not to throw the ball to Bowe, even when he is open.

Bowe's disappearing act has very little to do with what he is or isn't doing, and it has everything to do with Smith. If the Chiefs want to be considered one of the NFL's elite teams, Smith needs to start finding Bowe. 


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