The Downfall of the Chiefs’ Offense: Bieniemy Blues & Poor Receiver Play

The Kansas City Chiefs are 11-6. They clinched their eighth straight AFC West championship and are poised to host the 12th home playoff game of Patrick Mahomes’s career. Mahomes is 11-3 in the playoffs over the course of his career, including 9-2 at home. Though everything seems like business as usual for the Chiefs — on the surface, at least — a deeper look reveals that there is something undeniably wrong with their offense.

The Chiefs Have Hit a Wall

To understand where things have gone awry for the Chiefs, let’s go back to the beginning of the Patrick Mahomes era. Mahomes became the Chiefs’ starting quarterback in his second season in the NFL in 2018. He won the MVP award in that first year with over 5,000 passing yards and 50 touchdowns. Until this season, he was unimpeachable as the best quarterback in football, and the Chiefs’ offense was far and away the most efficient unit in the league.

Expected points added, better known as EPA, is essentially a measure of how well a team performs relative to expectation. It assigns a points-added value to each play to help us better understand how much better or worse offenses and defenses are performing relative to their expected outcome. The Chiefs have dominated this metric in recent years.

The Chiefs ranked 1st in offensive EPA per play from 2018 to 2022, and they far outpaced the rest of the league. The second-ranked team in EPA per play – the Green Bay Packers – were closer to the 21st-ranked team than they were to the Chiefs. This offense was not just elite – it was transcendent.

This season, however, the Chiefs have been mere mortals on offense, ranking 10th in offensive EPA per play. From 2018 to 2022, they ranked no lower than 3rd in that metric. A drop-off like this doesn’t simply happen by chance – we had quite a large sample that the Mahomes and Reid combination was the best in football. So, where did things go wrong? And how will it impact the Chiefs’ chances to win the Super Bowl? Let’s dive into the numbers.

Offensive EPA success rate 2018 2022

Offensive EPA success rate 2023

Decline in Receiver Play

The most apparent issue with the Chiefs’ offense is their declining receiver room. The top option offense on this offense is still Travis Kelce, but he’s been a ghost to close out the season with under 50 receiving yards in his final three games of the year. That’s his first three-game stretch under 50 yards since the 2016 season, and he’s averaging a career-worst 10.6 yards per reception.

Kelce was held under 1,000 yards for the first time since his rookie season. His current seven-year streak is the longest for any tight end in NFL history, but at 34 years old, it’s understandable that his decline has begun to take shape. His hands haven’t been as consistent this year, either – his 6.1% drop rate is his highest since Patrick Mahomes’s first season as a starter.

It’s not all Kelce’s fault, though, as this wide receiver lacks top-end talent. Rashee Rice currently leads the bunch with 938 receiving yards entering Week 18, but his game has some clear flaws. His average depth of target (aDOT) is incredibly low at 5.2 yards – the third-lowest among qualified WRs per PFF – and 70% of his yards have come after the catch. Rice has struggled to gain separation downfield, and his open score of 56 is just 62nd among 137 qualified pass-catchers per ESPN Analytics.

Mahomes aDOT

In terms of field stretchers, the Chiefs have Justin Watson and Marquez Valdes-Scantling, both of whom have an aDOT of over 17 yards. However, they both have a drop rate of over 12% — the average rate is 6.7 % —, and Mahomes has been visibly frustrated with both throughout the season. Rounding out the group is the enigmatic Kadarius Toney, who has arguably outright cost the team two wins with a pick-six that bounced off his hands against the Lions and a fateful offsides call against the Bills.

Ultimately, Kelce can’t carry this underwhelming group of wide receivers at this point in his career. Rice has shown some real talent, but he’s better suited as a WR2 in the NFL. Outside of those two, the Chiefs have two unreliable field stretchers and Toney, a gadget player with a penchant for game-wrecking mistakes. It’s not enough.

Offensive Line Flaws

Offensive line play is one of the most challenging things to quantify in the NFL, and, as is usually the case, there are conflicting metrics for the Chiefs this season. According to ESPN’s pass-block win rate metrics, Kansas City has the number one offensive line in the NFL in pass protection. Pass-block win rate measures the “rate offensive linemen can sustain their blocks for 2.5 seconds or longer”.

However, that only tells part of the story. Since the Chiefs’ wide receivers have struggled to separate downfield, Patrick Mahomes has held onto the ball much longer than normal. His average time to throw this season is 3.08 seconds, the third-highest in the NFL. He’s never been over 2.9 seconds in a season. Mahomes has constantly been forced to extend plays with his legs to afford his receivers more time to get open.

To his credit, Mahomes has an impressively low 11.2% pressure-to-sack rate, the third-lowest. He’s been pressured on 241 dropbacks this year, the second-most in the NFL behind only Sam Howell, who was on pace to break the single-season sack record before being benched. However, he’s only been sacked 27 times, which ranks 27th in the NFL.

Kansas City still has an elite interior offensive line – Creed Humphrey, Joe Thuney, and Trey Smith are ESPN’s three highest-graded interior offensive linemen in pass block win rate. Humphrey and Thuney both have a 99% pass block win rate, meaning you have to get deep into the film to find the few instances where they lose their blocks within 2.5 seconds.

However, the offensive tackle play has certainly declined for the Chiefs. There has been a clear decline from last year’s starters in Orlando Brown and Andrew Wylie to this year’s starters in Donovan Smith and Jawaan Taylor. Smith missed some time, and rookie third-rounder Wanya Morris has been starting in his absence. He allowed ten total pressures in the Chiefs’ loss to the Raiders as Maxx Crosby and Malcolm Koonce lived in the backfield.

Smith’s return from injury should help, but all three of him, Taylor, and Morris rank 65th or worse among 90 qualified tackles in PFF’s grades. It’s unlikely that Brown and Wylie would have graded out much better this season. However, it’s difficult to blame offensive tackles for surrendering pressures when the entire passing operation takes longer than it should on average.

Bienemy Blues

The Chiefs bid farewell to former offensive coordinator Eric Bienemy this season, who left for the Commanders to prove he can run an offense outside Andy Reid’s tutelage. The easiest solution for frustrated Chiefs fans is to blame Matt Nagy — who replaced Bienemy as offensive coordinator — and there is some truth to that sentiment.

The Chiefs have fallen to the 15th-ranked offense in red zone touchdown rate at 55%, their lowest number in the Mahomes-Reid era. Last season, they were second in the NFL in red zone touchdown rate at 71.1% with a very similar supporting cast. While red zone numbers can be fluky in smaller samples, coaching can be a huge differentiator when scoring in the painted area over a larger sample.

Under Bienemy’s coaching, Washington ranks 5th in red zone touchdown rate this season at 63.83%. Bienemy is an innovative coach credited with creating the “Corn Dog Shuffle” play that resulted in two goal-line touchdowns to Kadarius Toney and Skyy Moore in the Super Bowl. Andy Reid is an excellent offensive coach in his own right, but having him and Bienemy on the sidelines every Sunday and in the film room throughout the week was a cheat code in offensive creativity.

Contextualizing Patrick Mahomes’ Numbers

Patrick Mahomes has had to fight through real adversity with this Chiefs team for the first time in his career. Whether you want to put more of the blame on the receiving corps, offensive line, or the loss of Eric Bienemy, it’s difficult to explain this all away by saying Patrick Mahomes, a two-time regular season MVP and Super Bowl MVP, forgot how to play football.

But how much worse has Mahomes been this season? The proof is in the numbers, with some concerning metrics for the former Texas Tech passer. Check out the following league rankings for Mahomes this season:

  • 10th in adjusted EPA/play behind Baker Mayfield, Jordan Love, and Jake Browning
  • 12th in PFF passing grade behind Jared Goff and Geno Smith
  • 21st in 7.0 YPA (out of 44 QBs) behind Will Levis and Desmond Ridder
  • 4.0% big-time throw rate is 22nd out of 44 QBs behind Bailey Zappe and Joe Flacco

The most noticeable area of decline for Patrick Mahomes is in his downfield passing numbers. Mahomes, who many will tell you has the best arm talent in NFL history, has been ineffective as a downfield passer this season. His 34.1 passer rating on throws 20+ yards downfield ranks 41st out of 41 qualified quarterbacks. He has thrown one touchdown to six interceptions on deep balls.

Last year, Mahomes only had three turnover-worthy plays on his deep ball attempts per PFF. This season, his turnover-worthy play rate on deep passes has spiked to 13.9%, behind only Nick Mullens, Mitch Trubisky, and Jimmy Garoppolo. Last year, Mahomes ranked in the top ten with a 47.6% adjusted completion rate on 20+ yard throws. This season, his deep ball-adjusted completion rate has dropped to 36.5%, which ranks 31st out of 41 qualified passers, behind Sam Howell and Ryan Tannehill.

Can This Offense Win a Super Bowl?

It’s a shame this offense is stuck in the mud because the Chiefs have an incredibly well-rounded team. This might be the best defense of the Patrick Mahomes era in Kansas City, ranking third in overall success rate allowed and second against the ball. The run defense has struggled, ranking 30th in EPA against the run, but the recent return of linebacker Nick Bolton to the lineup should provide a considerable boost.

Special teams coordinator Dave Toub has maintained an excellent unit, as well. The Chiefs are in the top ten in special teams DVOA and second in PFF grades in special teams. Harrison Butker has been near perfect this season, making 31 of his 33 field goals and six field goals against the Bengals in Week 17 to help deliver the win.

However, the Chiefs’ offense has struggled to hold up its end of the bargain in pursuit of complementary football, and their inability to score in the second halves of games has often put the team in bad positions. The Chiefs should be able to scrape together enough points to win at home in the first round of the playoffs, especially against a Dolphins team dealing with a litany of injuries.

That said, potential road games against the Ravens or Bills await, and it’s hard to imagine that Mahomes will have enough firepower to beat those elite defenses on the road. Seeing the Chiefs’ odds as long as 10-1 to win the Super Bowl may be tempting, but this isn’t the same Chiefs team and serious work must be done over the offseason to usher in the next era of offensive football in Kansas City.

I've been a huge sports fan for as long as I can remember and I've always loved writing. In 2020, I joined the Lineups team, and I've been producing written and video content on football and basketball ever since. In May 2021, I graduated from the University of Michigan with a degree in sport management. My goal is to tell enthralling stories and provide meaningful insight on the sports I write about while helping you cash some bets along the way.

Hot NFL Stories