Robbed; Chiefs fans (and Mahomes) were deprived of a signature moment
A series of mistakes (that stemmed from a seemingly large roster miscalculation) stole another huge moment from the star QB.
This article is unlocked for all to read as we digest the Chiefs’ Monday Night Football loss, and talk about what was stolen (dropped?). If you want to go beyond the box score a little more often, you can subscribe for $12 a year by clicking this button.
It was all there, right in front of us.
The table was set for another “nobody but Patrick Mahomes” moment. With 1:28 left in the 4th quarter, the Chiefs trailed by 4 points and were facing 4th and 25 from their own 34-yard-line. That situation means game over for 31 teams in the NFL. But for Mahomes and the Chiefs, even on a day when the offense had been (once again) frustratingly inconsistent, it didn’t feel quite insurmountable.
And for a split second, it wasn’t. Mahomes had time to survey the field with the Eagles rushing 3 and leaving a spy in place. And he then fired an absolute missile down the field past the sticks… towards apparent WR1 Justin Watson.
As far as throws go, it was as good as it gets for the situation. Mahomes put the ball on a line with so much velocity that he was able to drive it past the underneath defender, and gave Watson every chance to make a play on the ball. Except he couldn’t. And it’s not because Justin Watson is a bad guy, or a bad player. But because Justin Watson is not the guy for this moment.
This is a painful snap to watch, but seeing it from this angle allows you to note just how incredible a throw Mahomes made here. He threads the needle and hits Watson in the hands. Just as importantly, the heat he put on the throw gets the ball there VERY quickly. That matters because of Slay trying to close from over the top. Had Watson taken just a single step towards the ball (he was approximately 3 yards past the first down marker when he stopped and turned, so he had plenty of space), Slay wouldn’t have been able to properly contest it.
But Watson didn’t take a step back towards Mahomes. Instead, he stood and waited in place for the ball to come to him, giving Slay the spacing to arrive with the ball. Further, he wasn’t able to stand strong against Slay’s play on the ball. And rather than a suddenly resurgent hope for Kansas City with 1st and 10 on Philly’s 40-yard-line, the game was over.
Mahomes made a play that basically only Mahomes can make. But, as has been the case a few too many times this season, it wasn’t enough to overcome problems elsewhere and his own mistakes from earlier in the game.
A signature Mahomes moment, maybe a top 10 one, vanished just as quickly as it appeared. And the Chiefs dropped to 7-3, losing their lead as the 1-seed in the AFC to Baltimore.
Of course, games aren’t won or lost in a single play, and it would be wrong to treat Watson as some sort of scapegoat. This is especially true when just two plays earlier Marquez Valdes-Scantling, who is supposed to serve as a reliable deep threat (and a consistent contributor), dropped a pass that would have given Kansas City the lead.
On 3rd and 10, Andy Reid dialed up a shot play, correctly anticipating that the Eagles would play man coverage and drop down their safeties to try and focus on Kelce. This left MVS on an island out of the slot, and he was able to chew up ground and grab separation. The OL’s protection held up well, giving Mahomes plenty of time to step into an absolute beauty of a downfield throw.
And MVS, in the midst of a wildly disappointing second year with the Chiefs, just couldn’t deliver.
Had MVS held on, the Chiefs would have taken a 3-point lead with approximately 1:40 remaining in the game. And make no mistake, this is one of the most egregious drops you’ll ever see on a downfield throw.
The Eagles still had their timeouts, so victory would have been by no means assured. But given the way the defense had largely held up strong multiple times on the evening, I like the Chiefs’ chances had MVS held on.
But honestly, the actual outcome of the game is barely what is on my mind today.
What’s more on my mind is that we came within an eyelash of seeing something special… again. Mahomes did everything he could do at the end of the game to give the Chiefs their best chance to win. Heck, he did everything ANYONE could do at the end of the game to give the Chiefs their best chance to win, with a pair of franchise throws (particularly the second one, to Watson, which he and about 3 other humans on the planet have even a shot at making) that were gorgeous. And it just didn’t happen because of failures elsewhere.
Mahomes wasn’t perfect last night. He had a costly red zone interception on a poor throw (the decision was fine, but he threw it behind Watson and gave the defender a chance at the ball). He also missed a throw to Kelce deep (on a play he had a checkdown option) on 3rd down coming out of halftime, a drive that could have potentially buried the Eagles and put the game out of reach. He’s not perfect, and has been more imperfect than normal in spurts this season.
But in THE moment, he was perfect… and it didn’t matter. It wasn’t enough to overcome against a top-shelf opponent. And that’s what I keep coming back to. This was one of those moments that would have played on highlight reels for years. Monday Night Football. The two best records in the league. A Super Bowl rematch. The stage was set for yet another addition to Mahomes’ already nearly matchless resume, along with yet another terrific, joyous, unbelievable celebratory moment for Chiefs fans. And just like that, it was snuffed out.
And frankly, one could argue that the Chiefs shouldn’t have even NEEDED those sorts of heroics from Mahomes. Thanks do a defense that was playing absolutely lights out football, all Kansas City needed was a certain level of competence from the offense. They didn’t need to be great. They just needed to not shoot themselves in the foot. And the group that Reid and Veach have sworn by this offseason and regular season couldn’t do it.
There are numerous moments that could be pointed to, but the most obvious was Travis Kelce’s devastating fumble early in the 4th quarter. The Chiefs had driven the length of the field on an impressive drive with multiple 3rd down conversions and even a 4th and 1 conversion (hey, running Isiah Pacheco up the middle works, who knew?). And Kelce, on one of the toughest nights we’ve seen from him over the last half-decade, coughed the ball up.
But of course, Kelce is part of the solution, and long has been (a terribly tough night that involved several drops as well aside). But everywhere else on offense, the Chiefs could not seem to find answers when the question was “who will step up.”
Of course, that could be because they were looking in the wrong place for those answers. And that’s where we start to get the crux of the dilemma (which is based on the choices they’ve made) the Chiefs offense is currently in.
The most obvious example of this dilemma is in Watson, who was targeted an astonishing ELEVEN TIMES against the Eagles. This led all Chiefs wide receivers by a country mile, and was actually as many as the next four WR’s combined.
Yes, you read that correctly; Rashee Rice, Mecole Hardman, Kadarius Toney, and Skyy Moore combined for 11 targets, the same numbers as Watson, whose 3rd and 4 “alligator arms” drop killed yet another drive that could have helped ice the game for Kansas City.
A few things to note with this play before we get to the heart of the issue. Mahomes correctly sees before the snap that the middle of the field will have a gap for Watson on a quick slant. That makes it his first read, and he hits Watson in the hands. But Watson, seeing the ILB closing for a hit, lets it drop. You can see Kelce (top of the screen) letting his frustration at the drop (and I’m guessing the game in general) come through, and it doesn’t help that he was open. But again, Mahomes’ first read had the spacing necessary, so he made the throw.
And therein lies the problem. On 3rd and 4 on a crucial drive, Patrick Mahomes’ first read was… Justin Watson. I have nothing against Watson, who has frankly overachieved in Kansas City in terms of making some clutch plays down the field. But Watson is not a WR1. Or a WR2. Or, really, a WR3. And yet he was placed in a spot where he would likely be the first read on a “gotta have it” situation.
(NOTE: Andy Reid’s decision to punt on 4th and 4 from Philly’s 39-yard-line was such an incredibly poor call that it left me borderline breathless in the moment. But we’re talking about being robbed of A Moment today, so I’ll just leave it at that)
Being the primary target is not on Watson, who can only do as much as he can in the role he is assigned. It’s similar to years of Dan Sorensen being given a significantly larger role in the defense than his ability warranted; It’s not on a player if they are being asked to punch outside their weight class and often fall short.
No, that’s an issue of roster management and coaching decisions. Brett Veach (one would assume with Reid’s blessing) chose to stand pat at the wide receiver position this offseason other than drafting Rice (who looks like a solid young player) in the 2nd round. This was after letting Juju Smith-Schuster walk. There’s no need to relitigate all the stuff surrounding Juju, but the reality is he did play an important role on last year’s team in providing a reliable 2nd option to Kelce. While I understand them letting him walk given injury concerns, having that reliable option mattered. A lot.
And this year, that option has simply not existed. And it has shown.
The Chiefs offense has been average this season. We’ve not got a 10-game sample size to show us this. While they’re moving ball at a decent clip, self-inflicted errors like drops (which can decidedly be a reflection of a talent issue) and turnovers have robbed them of drives time and again. And unlike previous seasons, they lack the firepower to make up for those mistakes absent Mahomes and/or Kelce creating a miracle.
We’ve often wondered what the limitations are of Mahomes and Kelce’s connection. And it appears (for now) that we’re seeing it. Teams are beating Kelce up as much as possible and sending extra attention his way at a rate they’ve never been able to get away with in the past. And outside of Mahomes creating something or Reid drawing up plays designed to take advantage of that attention, the Chiefs aren’t able to make opponents pay for doing so. Which means it will continue.
Brett Veach appeared to bet on the development of Skyy Moore and Kadarius Toney for the 2023 season, knowing that salary cap space was wonky. I’ve stated elsewhere that the danger here was creating a situation where there was plenty of POTENTIAL talent in the room but where the floor, if their bets didn’t work out, is frighteningly low.
And while there’s a lot of debate about Moore and Rice amongst Chiefs fans, right now we seem to have hit that “frighteningly low” scenario, at least if we’re to base it off what Reid trusts his receiver group with. Watson is treated as a primary receiver option, and while MVS’s snaps have dropped they are still substantial (again, he was supposed to be the reliable veteran that helped prop up the floor. That has not gone well).
Moore, who has shown the ability to create some separation at times, is not a part of the target rotation with any consistency and has failed on several occasions when called upon. Toney seems eternally trapped in a niche role (to paraphrase myself, you can’t have Toney run a slant route? That HAS to be Watson?). And Rice, while he’s earned his way to a higher snap count, is still on the outside looking in for target share despite consistently showing the ability to make plays with the ball in his hands.
Rice is still a work in progress in learning to separate against man coverage, but he’s shown a knack for YAC (sorry, I had to) and has also shown the ability to make tough catches. He’s had drops issues of his own, but in his case he’s able to at least make up ground elsewhere. He also shows, from all appearances, the physical skillset to be able to execute routes that he currently just isn’t being asked to run and be targeted on consistently (slants, digs, quick comebacks, etc).
All of this is a long road to a short thought; Andy Reid seems to currently believe, and Mahomes behaves as though, Watson is the best receiver on the team. And perhaps they’re right. But if that’s the case, it is a massive hole in Veach’s generally sterling work the last several years. They could have signed Jakobi Meyers to a very reasonable deal (he’s in Oakland making $11 million per season on a 3-year deal), and he would be by far the best WR on the roster. They could have gone after several other veterans as well.
Worse, at least from where I’m sitting, is what they chose to do after it was obvious that Moore and Toney weren’t going to seize that WR1 or even WR2 role. They could have aggressively pursued veterans at the trade deadline. But by all reports, they’ve generally made the decision to move forward with the way things are.
And that leads to multiple targets for MVS and Justin Watson in big scenarios. Which, at least last night, robbed us of another signature moment from Patrick Mahomes. Because, to paraphrase a certain quarterback’s former spouse, Mahomes can’t throw the ball and catch it in those big moments. And as an incredible spoiled fan over the last half-decade (seriously, it’s insane the amount of success the Chiefs have had), I feel just a little bit cheated out of that big moment by a totally foreseeable issue with the current personnel.
And really, it’s the foreseeability of this that bothers me the most. This isn’t hindsight. Everyone knew this was a potential huge problem. And then everyone knew it WAS a problem leading up to the trade deadline. And still, nothing was done to address it. Yes, the salary cap and draft capital and etc etc, but there were moves to be made that could have them sitting better than they are, and it was relatively obvious even in the moment.
This is hardly the end of the road for the 2023 Chiefs.. They have Mahomes. They have a legitimately elite defense. They have Kelce. They have Andy Reid. They have Isiah Pacheco and a run game that unfolded some really nice new concepts last night that looked effective. They have a solid offensive line. A Super Bowl is absolutely on the table.
But so is a first round exit. And that’s a direct result of the Chiefs’ decisions regarding roster (who they have in the building) and personnel groupings (who they are choosing to provide with snaps and viable routes and/or target shares). Reid’s willingness to stick with players through struggles is often admirable, but in this case Watson and MVS aren’t struggling. They just are who they are, and are being asked to be something they are not. And the entire offensive system is suffering for it.
What is the answer? I don’t know. I’ve previously said I’d oversimplify things on the offense and let Rice, Toney, and Moore gobble up significantly more snaps and targets. But that’s no sure thing given their youth and some of the issues each of them have had in their own right. There’s no magic fix to lacking legitimate, proven talent in the room.
But they need to try something different. Because doing the same thing that hasn’t consistently (or really, more than occasionally) worked through 10 games feels like we’re approaching that “doing the same thing and expecting a different result” sort of insanity. And while there’s a lot of unknown in expanding the roles of the young guys, there’s a known problem in NOT doing so. And so if things are going poorly, rolling the dice makes some sense. Anything to avoid being robbed of another moment we would have been talking about for years.
As most of us know, “would have” is one of the saddest word combinations in the world. And that’s what we’re stuck with as Chiefs fans today.
It would have been awesome. It really would have.
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