Kansas City Chiefs 2014 Season Review: A Step Backward

Jamaal Charles is one of the best backs in the league, but what else went right for the Chiefs in 2014?

The 2014 Kansas City Chiefs’ 9-7 season was a bit of a letdown considering the team won 11 games in 2013, earned a Wild Card playoff spot, and almost beat the Indianapolis Colts to advance to the 2013 Divisional Round.

Don’t get me wrong, the Chiefs enjoyed some success this season. They were vying for a playoff spot in the final game of the season, beat both of the Super Bowl teams, the Patriots and the Seahawks at home, and were actually looking like a legitimate contender in the middle of the season.

Then, the team lost four of five games after the Week 11 win against Seattle, and eclipsed 20 points only twice during that five-game span, both times against the Raiders. Now, with the offseason upon the league, let’s review what the Chiefs did well and not so well in 2014.

Kings of Arrowhead

This doesn’t necessarily need to be said and it’s more or less a given fact, but Jamaal Charles is unbelievably good. Despite a somewhat light workload for a player of his caliber (12.9 carries per game), Charles had an incredibly efficient season behind a so-so offensive line. That's not to say their offensive line was not solid enough in the run game, because the unit posted the league’s second best Adjusted Rushing Net Expected Points (NEP) total.

As a team, their rushing attack was fantastic, but as an individual player, Jamaal Charles was certainly one of the three most efficient backs in the league in 2014. He finished third overall in Rushing NEP and first in Rushing NEP per attempt. But he had a slightly down year in the receiving game, finishing 13th in Reception NEP among 22 running backs with 50 or more targets.

Arguably, Jamaal Charles has been one of the league’s most efficient players since he entered the league. Fortunately for Kansas City, they have already found another emerging star in the league in tight end, Travis Kelce.

Travis Kelce has a major conundrum in the passing game, and his name is Alex Smith. We’ll get to Smith a little later. But it really is amazing what Kelce was able to do on the field in 2014 despite Alex Smith’s inability to throw the ball down the field and head coach Andy Reid’s puzzling usage of Kelce throughout the entire season. Those two things, inherently, work completely against a player, but it really didn’t matter for Kelce.

Despite seeing only 5.4 targets per game, Kelce finished seventh among all tight ends with 48 or more total targets in Reception NEP. Given the six other players that had a higher Reception NEP all had higher per-game target shares, finishing seventh is quite good. As efficient as Kelce was on a per-reception basis, he was even better on a per-target basis.

Kelce finished second only to Rob Gronkowski in Target NEP, he ended the season fifth in Reception NEP per target, and his 2.25 fantasy points per target (PPR-scoring), outpaced both Gronkowski (2.15), and Saints tight end, Jimmy Graham (1.92). Imagine what Kelce could do in a full season with a target-share near Jimmy Graham and Gronk’s level of eight targets per game.

Lastly, and moving to the other side of the ball, Kansas City was pretty solid overall on defense in 2014. The team finished 14th in Adjusted Defensive NEP, which isn’t great, but the Chiefs finished 10th overall in Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP ahead of some pretty solid defensive units such as Detroit and Arizona.

While the Chiefs’ advanced metrics on defense aren’t stellar, they were among the stingiest units in the league and didn’t allow many points to be scored against them. Kansas City allowed only 17.6 points per game, second-best in the league just behind Seattle, and their 1.64 points allowed per drive was the seventh-best mark in the NFL.

The Chiefs’ Glaring Weaknesses

Alex Smith isn’t bad. He’s just not good, and that’s why he’s showing up in the “what needs improvement” category instead of a positive contribution to his team.

Smith’s advanced metrics are, not-so-shockingly, average. He finished 13th among the 37 quarterbacks with 200 or more attempts in Passing NEP and 14th in Passing NEP per drop back. His Passing NEP of 50.66 was only slightly above the league average of 45.17.

Alex Smith is what he is. You can win with him, but he’s not necessarily an asset to your team, either. That’s sort of a tongue-in-cheek argument, but given that Smith’s contract is 66% fully guaranteed and the Chiefs have at least $15 million in cap hits until his contract expires in 2018 and a ton of dead money until 2017, Kansas City is stuck with his mediocrity.

One part of the Chiefs team that is 100 percent below mediocrity is their wide receivers. In a way, the unit almost deserves a pass because Alex Smith absolutely refuses to throw the ball more than six yards past the line of scrimmage -- Smith was the only quarterback in the league to have an average depth of target below seven yards -- but looking at their metrics, it doesn’t earn a reprieve at all.

On the surface, Dwayne Bowe is probably the lone semi-bright spot in a sea of terrible receivers, and even he wasn’t that good in 2014. To put the poor receiving units in perspective, here is a table with each receiver’s relative league ranking in various advanced categories. To qualify, a wide receiver must have been one of the 125 wide receivers to record at least 20 targets on the season.

NameRec. NEPTarget NEPRec. NEP/Target
Dwayne Bowe38th (of 125)27th45th
Albert Wilson107th (of 125)83rd61st
Junior Hemingway121st (of 125)111th119th
Donnie Avery122nd (of 125)116th123rd

Granted, Albert Wilson, Junior Hemingway, and Donnie Avery were very lightly targeted this season, but they were horribly inefficient given their workload. Based on these metrics, they are certainly far from decent receiving options in the NFL.

We’ve heard the stat 1,000 times, but it bears repeating: Alex Smith hasn’t thrown a touchdown to a wide receiver since their Wild Card game against the Colts in the 2013 season. But, their receiving core, outside of the uber-efficient Travis Kelce, doesn’t deserve a pass at all.

What’s Next for Kansas City?

The Chiefs don’t have a terrible roster by any means, but they do have some holes. On the offensive side of the ball, three of their five starting offensive linemen, including their starting center, are slated to become free agents. Their wide receiving core is close to the bottom of the barrel talent-wise, absent Dwayne Bowe, and the team will hopefully look to add some firepower through free agency or the draft.

On defense, star line backer Justin Houston is going to become a free agent, and they could give him the franchise tag, but would likely cause a few cap-casualties in the process.

By all accounts, the Chiefs will remain competitive in the AFC West in the foreseeable future. The 2015 offseason is a big one for the team, though. Without smart, cap-friendly acquisitions and a solid draft, the Chiefs’ playoff window could close in a hurry.