Entering last December, the Chiefs were averaging a respectable 4.4 yards per rush with three tight end sets, and Alex Smith was averaging 8.6 yards per attempt. Altogether, this made the 3-TE formation Kansas City's most dangerous one by quite a margin.
From Weeks 3 to 9, when the Chiefs were running it "full time", the team was 5-1. Prior to, and after that, the Chiefs were 4-6. Let's officially call this "The Demetrius Harris Effect". With Demetrius Harris on the field, this is a Super Bowl winning team. Without him, the Chiefs are average.
Alert the presses. Sound the alarm. Demetrius Harris is the savior we need. The one we deserve.
Mr. Joel Thorman himself weighed in with some further research on this matter:
Those three tight end sets were very good to the Chiefs last year. Before Demetrius Harris went down with an injury in Week 10, the Chiefs had 56 plays with three tight ends and Alex Smith completed 22-of-25 passes for four touchdowns on those plays.
Does that sound like a formation you want to see more of? It does to me.
The problem is, as Adam Teicher notes in his tight end writeup at ESPN, the Chiefs may not have the personnel to do that reliably.
Indeed, Harris had surgery earlier this month as part of the same broken foot injury he suffered last November. The injury that brought a sudden end to this wonderful array of three tight end sets. Though Andy Reid is optimistic Harris will be back for training camp, the possibility of any injury to Kansas City's tight end corps makes the situation delicate.
Last year, when Harris went down, the Chiefs tried to replace him mostly with Anthony Sherman. Everyone's favorite fullback did an admirable job filling in outside his normal position, but you can imagine things weren't quite the same. TE Phillip Supernaw was also brought in for a total of 19 snaps against Seattle and Oakland. He caught a pass for three yards and was sent back to whence he came: Baltimore. The Chiefs continued using Sherman.
That left Reid, finally, with the acquisition of veteran Richard Gordon. Gordon, whose four seasons in the NFL have produced 4 receptions for 14 yards and a touchdown, spent his first two seasons with Oakland, 2013 with us, 2014 with the Titans, and merely the last two games of last season back with Kansas City. This career trajectory assures us that, 6 months from now, I will be writing another article on the 11 - 0 Chiefs, entitled, "The Richard Gordon Effect".
Yes, the sustainability of the three tight end sets for 2015 will depend on Travis Kelce, Demetrius Harris, and either Gordon or rookie James O'Shaughnessy staying healthy on the field. Good things seem to be in store for O'Shaughnessy, but we'll have to watch the depth chart battle as we inch closer to September.
Without a solid starting three, the Chiefs will return to cycling who they can find into that role. While last year's starting tight end, Anthony Fasano, was (is?) aging, and is certainly replaceable, his release does create big gaps in experience and snap-count, and someone has to step up. If you read Matt Conner's recent piece on Kelce, you get the feeling he is certainly ready for his increased role in the offense. So let's just find two more Travis Kelces to put behind him. Get on that, Dorsey.
Cool plays to look at
The 3-TE "coming out" party was Week 3 in Miami. Kansas City used the formation 13 times. Here's a sampling of some of the fun looks they gave the Dolphins that week.
Above, the three tight ends are lined up at the bottom of the line. Fasano, Harris and Kelce is not the name of an awesome supergroup from the 70's, but it is a look that strikes fear into the hearts of NFL defenses. Knile Davis, in the backfield, would rush for a couple yards on this play.
And Kansas City came out the very next snap with the same grouping:
It goes on like this:
How pretty is that? Bunch formation with three big tight ends. The Dolphins defender in front of Harris (red line) is already tossing his hands up in confusion. Sources tell me he suffered a breakdown on the sidelines, muttering to himself, "But... but... they're tight ends... and there's three of them... how... how can they bunch up and all run passing routes...?? how...? it's not... possible... nothing... nothing is possible... everything... everything is possible... i am... alive for the first time..."
The play above was a well-designed run. The entire line blocks stage right, while Harris (yellow line) pulls across the formation to lead block in the other direction. Davis will run counter. Kelce (red line) will pretend to run a passing route and move to the second level, letting the Miami linebacker (#50) get sideswiped by Harris:
That's Harris (red circle) finishing his block. That's also, I believe, Mike McGlynn, at center stage, holding the door open for Miami's defensive tackle, Ellis McCarthy. Who said chivalry was dead?
This was a run play to your left. The tight ends are lined up along that side.
And here's another cool look with them on the outside:
The Chiefs do still employ former Vikings Head Coach Brad Childress as a "Spread Game Analyst." What is really intriguing about the three tight end sets -- especially if you can find three guys who can catch and block effectively -- is the ability to line them up inside as run-blockers one play and then spread them out wide the next. It does leave defenses with some confusing possibilities.
If you bring in such a heavy set, and the defense responds by going heavy, and then you suddenly go shotgun, with an RB at your hip, or send him out wide for an empty backfield, and the tight ends spreading the defense horizontal, the opposing team may not have the personnel to guard it.
You can come in with the same grouping later, and if the defense is in nickel, line your tight ends up with their hands in the ground, and bulldoze the little defensive backs over. Or you can still line up outside and bulldoze the little backs over with a nice TE bubble screen. That's exactly what the Chiefs did against New England on a big Kelce play.
Ideally, you're getting either a linebacker on one of your tight ends in a passing route, or a defensive back on him for a run/screen play. If you get guys that are comfortable in their roles, of course, Alex Smith can "kill" out of the called play and switch to its opposite. Pass to run. Run to pass. And so on, depending on the defense.
I'll leave you now with a couple touchdown passes Smith threw out of 3-TE sets, just as a way to see what kinds of looks Kansas City was giving.
Touchdowns to non-WRs
This is a quick screen here with Kelce (red circle) catching and Fasano and Harris blocking. While there is one 49ers DB in the endzone, the true mismatch here is simple numbers: the Chiefs have three guys and the 49ers only have two.
This next play has Fasano (white) running an in to clear out the deep post route for Kelce (red). Harris (black) will run a shallow cross.
Smith prepares to throw the ball below, releasing it just before he takes a hit, as Fasano successfully occupies the Jets defender at the goal-line. Kelce (red) catches the touchdown pass.
The focus on 3-TE sets last year was likely a matter of necessity. With a struggling o-line, Reid brought in other big guys to help. With a shallow receiving corps, Reid brought in other "receivers" from a different position group. Who's to say Harris wasn't a more reliable threat in the passing game than Jenkins or Hammond? And who's to say he wasn't a better blocker than McGlynn? The 3-TE sets were creative, and they were also a great way to game-plan around two big weaknesses on offense. Andy Reid continues to impress.
But if the Chiefs struggle less in those areas this year, the 3-TE sets may get less time on the field. That's because, if your No. 2 receiver is actually valuable to you, it becomes harder to justify keeping him on the sidelines so you can find space for your third string tight end.
As to which situation is "ideal", I have to assume the rest of the NFL has it right: a legitimate No. 2 receiver is preferable to a passable No. 3 tight end. But if the Chiefs can manage both, they will make 2015 very interesting.