Chiefs quarterback Matt Cassel would sit in the film room last season and shake his head in amusement at what he was seeing on the big screen. Week after week, defenses would attempt to cover Kansas City wide receiver Dwayne Bowe with one defender. Game after game, Bowe would make them pay by finding the end zone. Bowe finished the year with a franchise-record 15 receiving touchdowns while scoring at least once in seven consecutive games, also a new Chiefs standard.
Fast-forward to the off-season: Cassel is replaying K.C.'s 30--7 playoff loss to the Ravens in his mind, and he's shaking his head—again. Only this time it's in frustration over how easily Baltimore stifled Bowe by committing two defenders to him, one underneath and one over the top.
Bowe had zero receptions; in fact he had zero passes thrown in his direction. It was the first time in 60 career games that Bowe wasn't targeted at least once. The relative ease with which he was neutralized was as bracing to Chiefs coaches and management as the 14° windchill in Arrowhead Stadium that day. It also set in motion a plan to ensure it never happens again.
Already blessed with the league's top running game, Kansas City beefed up its receiving corps by using its first-round draft choice on Pittsburgh's Jonathan Baldwin and then signing veteran speedster Steve Breaston as a free agent. Couple those moves with the continued development of second-year tight end Tony Moeaki (47 catches as a rookie in 2010) and veteran Jerheme Urban's return after missing all of last season with a finger injury, and defenses will think twice about doubling Bowe.
"It's always important for every offense to have balance, and not just run-to-pass balance," Cassel says. "That also means balance on both sides of the formation in passing situations, where you have guys on each side who can stretch the field or be a threat. If you become one-dimensional in the pass game, where you say you're always going to try to look for this guy first, it becomes a lot more challenging for you to succeed when you play good teams."
When they run the ball, the Chiefs can play smash-mouth or finesse. They led the league with 258 rushes of at least four yards and tied for seventh with 15 carries of 20 yards or longer—three of which went for at least 50. The impact of averaging 164.2 yards per game on the ground was felt on the passing game. Defenses had to keep a safety near the line of scrimmage to try to slow Jamaal Charles and Thomas Jones, which created one-on-one opportunities for Bowe, who set career receiving highs with 1,162 yards, a 16.1 per-catch average and the 15 touchdowns—one fewer than he had in his first three seasons combined.
If Bowe's statistics drop this year, it could be good news for Kansas City—as long as other receivers are sharing the wealth. A diverse group of targets will make the passing offense that much more difficult to defend against.
"This offense has a lot of potential; there are a lot of weapons," says Breaston, who spent the previous four seasons with Arizona and had a 1,006-yard season with the Cardinals in 2008, when K.C. coach Todd Haley was the offensive coordinator. "The thing that Coach Haley does a good job with is, he gets the playmakers the ball. He puts people where their strengths will help the team."
Breaston spent much of training camp learning each of the three receiving positions, and though he worked primarily in the slot, it's possible his early work will come on the outside, as Baldwin suffered a thumb injury in camp that could keep him out of the season opener. "I don't know exactly how it's going to work out when the season comes around, but I feel like I'm going to have a lot of opportunities to touch the ball," Breaston says, "not only in the offense but also in the return game, which I didn't do last year. I would love to get back to that."
The Chiefs would love to repeat as AFC West champs, which they have never done, and reach the postseason in consecutive seasons for the first time since 1995. The challenge, in a division that includes an explosive San Diego franchise, could be as daunting as defending Bowe with one cornerback. Cassel is up to the task.