Star running back Jamaal Charles did not travel with the Kansas City Chiefs to take on the Carolina Panthers on Sunday night, but his precautionary absence (per BJ Kissel of the team's official website) gave head coach Andy Reid the opportunity to work on offensive elements that don’t include his best offensive weapon.
Without the safety net of Charles, quarterback Alex Smith was able to focus on getting the ball to his wide receivers.
If the Chiefs are going to push for the playoffs in 2014, they are going to need to find weapons other than Charles to carry some of the offensive load.
Wide receiver Dwayne Bowe has long been a leading candidate, but after a disappointing 2013 and a one-game suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy, some—such as Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio—were wondering if the Chiefs would be better off releasing him.
Instead, Bowe proved Sunday that he’s ready for a bounce-back year. The resurgent Bowe now looks ready to become the offensive weapon the Chiefs were missing last season.
Preseason scores and stats are often folly, but that doesn’t mean a specific performance isn’t noteworthy.
Bowe’s five catches for 62 yards in the first half came against a Panthers starting defense that finished second in the league last year in points allowed per game, second in first downs allowed and sixth in net passing yards allowed per attempt.
There isn’t much of a game plan in the second preseason game, but that makes Bowe’s performance more impressive in some ways and less impressive in others.
Reid likely didn’t draw up his best plays for Bowe, but the Panthers likely didn’t focus on stopping Bowe either. Preseason can certainly be deceptive, which is why it’s just important to evaluate players beyond the stat sheet.
Bowe played with an edge and physicality we haven’t seen from him in recent years.
On a six-yard reception in the first quarter, Bowe trucked starting cornerback Melvin White, who stands 6’1” and weighs 205 pounds. On Bowe’s final catch, he fought through three defenders to get a first down on 3rd-and-6 to keep a drive alive.
The Chiefs desperately need offensive weapons to take some of the weight off Charles. Last season, Charles accounted for a ridiculous 36.7 percent of the Chiefs' offensive yards and was the team’s leading receiver.
Defenses have studied and devised ways to try to slow him down, so the Chiefs need other weapons to draw some of the defensive attention.
As exciting an offensive weapon and return man as De'Anthony Thomas can be with the ball in his hands, he’s merely a piece of a much larger puzzle.
Tight end Travis Kelce hauled in another long touchdown against the Panthers and figures to be an important part of the offense, but neither can do what Bowe has to potential to do for the Chiefs.
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Smith appears to be much more comfortable throwing to Bowe than he was last year. Part of that could be the urging of Reid, offensive coordinator Doug Pederson and quarterbacks coach Matt Nagy to be more aggressive and push the ball down the field.
“Let’s let the ball rip a little bit,’’ Nagy told Smith via Adam Teicher of ESPN.com. “It’s practice. Let’s see what we can get away with and what we can’t get away with so when the games come we know where we’re at.’’
That practice could be paying dividends for Bowe. Smith doesn’t have to turn into Jay Cutler—he just has to be more willing to throw into tight coverage when he has a player like Bowe on the other end.
If Smith has both Charles and Bowe as weapons, the practice may start to pay off in a way that puts more points on the board than the Chiefs managed against the Panthers (16).
Bowe also looks to have regained some explosiveness that he may have lost in recent years. In the offseason, Bowe worked with a personal trainer and started a nutrition program.
“I haven’t, but everyone else has,” Bowe told reporters when asked if he’s noticed the difference. “I always felt like I was at the tip-top of my game, but I feel lighter, I feel faster, and I owe it to my coaches, trainers, and the staff for believing in me and letting me do what I do.”
Part of the problem last season was that Bowe didn’t do what he normally does. He finished the season with career lows in receptions per game and yards per game.
At age 29, Bowe may finally be realizing that how he takes care of his body will affect his performance.
“As you get older, talking to the old vets, they tell you, every year you should lose more weight,” Bowe said. “That’s how you stay in the game, and that’s what I’m trying to do.”
After the 2013 season, Bowe’s new contract was already looking like an albatross that might affect the team’s ability to keep both Smith and pass-rushing outside linebacker Justin Houston.
It was just a preseason game, but Bowe’s performance on Sunday is an encouraging sign. The Chiefs may yet be able to get some bang for the millions of bucks they gave Bowe prior to last season.
Unless otherwise noted, all statistics via Pro-Football-Reference.com.