In Week 3 of the upcoming 2014 season, Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Dwayne Bowe will turn 30. A career-worst season in terms of yards per game in 2013 isn’t a good sign for an aging receiver, but it’s not necessarily a death sentence either.
We know that it’s hard for older running backs to be productive past the age of 30, but the same doesn’t hold true for wide receivers. It’s not unheard of for an older wide receiver to have a career year and put up big numbers.
Unfortunately for Bowe and the Chiefs, his best days probably are behind him. Bowe’s career production and situation both suggest that he could be closer to retirement than to a career year.
All eyes have been on the No. 2 receiver position in Kansas City this offseason, but Bowe may no longer even be a viable No. 1 target if he doesn’t bounce back in a big way in 2014. That very well may happen, but it’s hardly a foregone conclusion.
At 6’2” and 221 pounds, Bowe has the size to be a weapon in the red zone. Since hauling in a league-high 15 touchdowns in 2010, Bowe has maintained a reputation as a good scoring weapon.
However, Bowe has been grossly underutilized in the red zone by four different head coaches. During the other six years of his career, Bowe’s touchdown rate is just 33.3 percent, or about five per season.
The good news is that Bowe’s touchdown production has actually been quite stable. If the Chiefs get more looks in the red zone and simultaneously decide to throw the ball to Bowe with more regularity when they do, he could have a nice year hauling in touchdowns.
What’s hard to say is if the Chiefs will throw it to Bowe more in the red zone. According to TeamRankings.com, the Chiefs ranked sixth in red-zone attempts in 2013 and fifth in red-zone touchdown scoring percentage. That’s good for what many consider an average offense.
Even if the Chiefs get as many chances in the red zone in 2014, running back Jamaal Charles was the primary scoring option last year, with 19 touchdowns. There’s little reason to think the Chiefs will depart from something that worked so well.
If Charles misses time with an injury, it’s possible that Bowe could get more looks. Otherwise, it’s probably reliable ho-hum touchdown production from the Chiefs’ No. 1 wide receiver.
Unlike his relatively stable production in the red zone, Bowe’s yardage production appears to be on the decline. Since putting up 72.4 yards per game in 2011, Bowe’s production has declined two years in a row and bottomed out last year at 44.9 yards per game.
The line graph for Bowe’s yards-per-game production looks nearly identical to the one using Pro Football Focus’ yards-per-route-run statistic (subscription required). This makes sense because the common denominator is yards, but that means his production decline is likely due to the number of routes he is running.
Of course, routes run and targets aren’t equal. Bowe averaged 1.5 fewer targets last year than he did in his previous six seasons, according to Pro Football Focus data. So either Bowe isn’t getting open as regularly or quarterback Alex Smith isn’t as willing to throw the ball to him in coverage as the parade of quarterbacks before him. It’s definitely the latter, which doesn’t bode well for Bowe in 2014.
Bowe averaged 4.7 receptions per game for the first six years of his career until posting a career-low 3.8 receptions per game last year. The good news here is that Bowe only lost about one reception per game despite losing 1.5 targets.
This is at least partly due to Bowe’s hands becoming more reliable over time. Bowe improved his drop rate in 2010 by around five percent compared to 2007 and 2008, according to Pro Football Focus. His drop rate held steady around 10 percent for the entirety of the Matt Cassel era in Kansas City.
Last season, Bowe’s drop rate jumped nearly three percent. We can hypothesize that his drop rate has to do with his quarterback, based on the prior three years, but it’s hard to know for sure. Still, Bowe was able to produce more receptions than you would think based on the number of targets he received.
Expanded use of the short passing game in head coach Andy Reid’s offensive scheme explains why he caught a higher percentage of his targets. This is further explained by Bowe’s career-low 11.8 yards per reception.
However, we shouldn’t blame Bowe’s lack of yardage production entirely on opportunity or the offense, because he isn’t doing as much with his receptions anymore. Shockingly, Bowe’s production after the catch has been on the decline for pretty much his entire career.
Bowe did have a couple of years that didn’t follow the trend for yards after catch per reception, but they netted out as a wash, and his other five years followed the trend closely. This suggests that it might not do much good trying to force the ball out to him on short passes, because he would struggle to make anything happen with the ball in his hands.
Although Bowe's opportunities are down, the Chiefs could easily put an emphasis on improving his numbers in 2014. The Chiefs really need the passing game to take some of the pressure off Charles, so it’s not hard to imagine the scenario.
However, absent a change at quarterback, Bowe can’t be expected to produce a big year at this stage. A better year than 2013 seems probable, but it’s hard to expect much beyond that. Smith is unlikely to start throwing deep balls into tight coverage anytime soon.
Bowe’s age, fit in the offense and drop in production have to make you wonder why the Chiefs gave him a five-year, $56 million contract extension prior to last season, according to Spotrac. Now, the earliest the Chiefs can realistically get out of the deal is after next season, but even then, it will come at a steep cost.
Unless otherwise noted, all statistics via Pro-Football-Reference.com.