Why Did Dwayne Bowe Disappear in 2013?

For most of 2013, Dwayne Bowe was not an integral part of the Kansas City offense. Can he bounce back in 2014?

“Where’s Dwayne Bowe?” was a common question asked by observers of the Kansas City Chiefs offense last season. Bowe’s 2014 season was a reverse Ferris Bueller - instead of hacking into a computer to say he was in attendance for days he wasn’t, Bowe has spent the offseason changing games he played in to scratches in order to better explain why he was so absent from the Chiefs offense.

At his peak, in 2010 and 2011, Bowe put up back to back seasons of 1,100-plus yards and at least 70 receptions. Both of those seasons involved a lot of Matt Cassel at quarterback. More impressively, his 2011 season also involved catching passes from Kyle Orton and Tyler Palko.

Bowe’s numbers dipped in 2012 with eight games of Cassel and eight games of Brady Quinn under center. The logic went with better play at quarterback in Alex Smith, Bowe could once again regain his production of previous seasons. The level of quarterback play could be debated, but Bowe had one of the worst receiving seasons of his career with Smith.

By numberFire’s Net Expected Points metric, Bowe had his worst season since 2009, which was the lowest rated of his career. He had a higher Reception NEP and two more receptions during the 2012 season in just 13 games - with the aforementioned Cassel and Quinn duo - than he had in 15 last year with Smith.

In order to figure out what we should expect from Bowe going forward, we should first understand the three different stages he went through in 2013.

Deep Peg in a Short Hole

At the start of the season, the timing of Bowe’s routes and Smith’s internal clock to get the ball out were in two different timezones. The receiver was regularly mid-route when Smith was already throwing the ball to another receiver on a quick slant or Jamaal Charles out of the backfield. During this period, Bowe was playing the part of a deep threat in a short pass offense and was victim to Smith looking for Charles as a safety net before the net was needed.

This led to games like Week 3 against the Philadelphia Eagles, where Bowe was on the field for 62 snaps, was targeted three times and totaled one reception for four yards. The one catch was on a four-yard route on 3rd-and-10. Throughout the game, Bowe had yet to make a break from his route and Smith had already released the ball, probably to Charles.

For the first half of the season, the highest reception total in a single game for Bowe was five, done just once in Week 7. The most yards in a game to that point was 66.

Higher Quantity, Lower Quality

Bowe set a season high in receptions a week after having one catch for seven yards against the Cleveland Browns. It was the start of being more in synch with Smith and his timing in the offense. While this was better for the amount of passes Bowe caught, he was running shorter routes with less time to avoid defenders, usually getting tackled shortly after making a catch.

Instead of posts and deep outs, Bowe was running more slants and flats, which also got him to into a better range for accurate Smith throws. Receptions like this led to the second highest catch rate of Bowe’s career of 55.34 percent, but his third lowest Success Rate of 89.47 percent. Success Rate measures the percentage of catches that contribute positively to a player's Net Expected Points score.

His regular season high in yards was 70 in Week 13 against a Washington secondary that ranked sixth-worst according to our metrics last year. Yet, that still came on just four receptions despite being on the field for 61 snaps. The rest of his regular season would be different variables of these performances, finishing with just 673 yards on 57 receptions.

No Charles, No Problem

Jamaal Charles got injured five offensive plays into the wild-card game against the Indianapolis Colts, erasing Kansas City’s most used offensive weapon. With the loss of Charles and no other playmakers of note, the offense again focused on Bowe, who almost doubled his best regular season game as he caught eight passes for 150 yards and a touchdown.

When Smith was forced to look downfield at actual receivers and not default to a dump off to Charles, he regularly looked for the previously invisible top receiver - and it was successful. The offense stopped running through slants and flats and looked like an offense that could throw the ball further than ten yards down the field.

This is the kind of offense the Chiefs should remember when game planning for the 2014 season. While it’s easy to give such a high workload to Charles in both the the run and pass game - he makes it easier because he can handle it - the offense could be more efficient if the receivers start to play a bigger role.

What to Expect, If You’re Expecting

The main thing in any prognostication of Bowe’s 2014 is to try to figure out which of those three scenarios will play out the most. It could be safe to assume the first one won’t happen again as the Chiefs were able to right that ship during the season. It would be surprising, even as Bowe turns 30 years old in September, for him to be a non-factor catching just one pass per game.

Charles will once again be the main weapon in the offense - even the passing game - but after his workload last season, Kansas City’s coaches could be willing to reduce his work on passes out of the backfield. If that’s the case, and without Dexter McCluster, the primary beneficiary will be Bowe.

His good seasons have been recent enough for numberFire’s projections to look favorably on him for this coming season. He’s projected to be just the 32-ranked wideout, but 67 receptions for 915 yards and 5 touchdowns would be his best season since 2011.

He also has the misfortune of the top two teams in his division making upgrades in their secondary. He’ll now have four weeks of the season covered by Aqib Talib and Brandon Flowers, though the second game against San Diego isn't until Week 17. Kansas City will also play games against New England, with Darrelle Revis and Seattle with take your pick.

Bowe shouldn’t be as MIA as he was in 2013, but given the circumstances, he might not be expected to do much more either.