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Have we underestimated Jeremy Maclin's impact on the Kansas City Chiefs?

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Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Pop quiz: what was the most dominant the Chiefs offense has looked during the Andy Reid era?

If I were a betting man, I'd put solid money on you responding with one of two times; the Monday night massacre of the New England Patriots last season, and the first half of the "we don't talk about that anymore" playoff loss to the Indianapolis Colts.

Those are the two games I think of when I think of the offense rolling. However, the way in which the Chiefs dominated was different in those games (with one exception I'll get to shortly). Against the Colts, Alex Smith had an out of body experience and played out of his mind. He was better than I've ever seen him, and it's not even close. For multiple drives he flat-out carried the Chiefs on his back.

Against the Patriots, it was different. While Smith played fairly well, it was the ENTIRE offense that dismantled the Patriots. Receivers were all finding space, runners found wide open lanes to run through, the defense was consistently flowing the wrong direction ... it was, essentially, Andy Reid's offense at its finest. It's arguably the most lopsided coaching contest I've watched as a Chiefs fan.

The way in which the offense dominated against the Patriots is much more likely to be repeated, because I just don't see Smith morphing into Aaron Rodgers on a consistent basis. And so that game has been something of a hobby of mine, trying to figure out how the Chiefs made the Patriots (and one of the best defensive coaches in football) look so helpless.

Finally, one day I realized something both the Colts game and the Patriots game had in common; significant contributions from the wide receiver position. Both times the Chiefs offense looked dominant, they had wide receivers making plays.

I don't need to remind you that Dwayne Bowe had a fantastic day against the Colts in the playoffs, as his stat line reflects it. I MAY need to remind you that he played quite well against the Patriots, because his base stats (five catches, 81 yards) aren't particularly impressive. However, Bowe made a very large impact in the first half, catching multiple passes against Revis and company when the Chiefs needed yards. It was a nice performance by Bowe, and it helped contribute to a dominant offensive performance.

When the Chiefs acquired Jeremy Maclin in free agency, the move was largely applauded ... but somewhat hesitantly. The reasoning went something like this; while Maclin is a fine receiver, he's not on the level of a Calvin Johnson. Also, the Chiefs offense (and Alex Smith in particular) isn't one where a single receiver is going to be able to rack up big numbers and have a large impact.

And so the excitement, while real, was at least a little muted. Even I, the writer of a massive column detailing Maclin's exceptional talent as a receiver, was conservative with the impact he'd have. I wrote multiple times that Maclin is a healthy upgrade over Bowe, but I generally was fairly cautious with my language for fear of "overselling" a player who would ultimately only produce 900 yards on 80 catches or so. Because after all, no Chiefs receiver was going to see enough targets to surpass those numbers ... right?

Right?

Well ... maybe not.

Friday against the Titans was the first glimpse we got of how Andy Reid wants his offense to run. Anyone who has been watching this preseason could see the clear difference in play calling against the Titans as opposed to the first two preseason games (remember screen after screen after screen against the Seahawks?). It's pretty common knowledge that coaches use the third preseason game to test out their "real" offense a little bit and see how things are going. And watching the offense out there it was clearly Reid's play calling, with very familiar (yet slightly tweaked) looks for the sets and the route combinations.

Are we supposed to ignore the fact that during the most important dress rehearsal of the preseason Alex Smith targeted Maclin seven times in a little over a quarter and a half, with all seven of those targets resulting in receptions? Or that Maclin caught multiple first downs as well as a touchdown?

None of what I just wrote fits into the narrative that Maclin is going to be just another cog in the Andy Reid offensive system. You know what he looked like? A genuine go-to receiver. One who is going to get a lot more than a handful of targets a game.

Jeremy Maclin provides something the Chiefs simply didn't have last year at the wide receiver position; a legitimate mismatch who can get open quickly and efficiently in most situations.

Tell me honestly, how many times did you see this last year?

That is not a complicated play. It's simply a matter of the corner playing basic off man coverage, something teams do plenty of even in today's press-first-ask-questions-later NFL. Maclin's speed forces a lot of corners to at least play a step or two off him, because he's capable of blowing by them in a second if they're not careful.

But you see here the issue with leaving a cushion for Maclin. He simply flips his hips and is ready for the ball far too quickly for a corner to adjust. Maclin's quickness makes this about as easy a pitch and catch as a quarterback can ask for. And it's not like it only happened once, as later in the game Maclin did the exact same thing on the opposite side of the field.

Again, it's a simple play. But it's so difficult for a corner to adequately defend it when a receiver boasts Maclin's combination of speed, quickness, and route running. If the corner cheats to the outside and drives on the out he risks Maclin destroying him on an out-and-up for six points.

The Chiefs did not have a wide receiver capable of making defenders pay for that kind of coverage consistently. They do now. And Alex Smith has clearly already realized it.

And it's not just quick outs on first down where Maclin made it obvious that something is different this season. When the Chiefs needed a first down on third and four and Smith faced pressure quickly, it wasn't the end of the play the way it would have been so often last year.

I've seen that route called a Z route and I've seen it called an in-and-out. Either way, it's a relatively complicated route that requires a lot of quickness and precise footwork to get open quickly, and Maclin executes it with ease. Smith moves out of danger and hits Maclin before getting taken down, and the drive continues where last year it may have faltered.

As I said on Twitter, an offense looks different when the quarterback has a wide receiver to look to on 3rd down to get open QUICKLY. Maclin can do that.

I mentioned at the beginning of the article that Reid's offense has looked its best when wide receivers are contributing. This is kind of a "duh" statement, but it's worth thinking about beyond the obviousness (I cannot believe that's an actual word. At least it is according to auto-correct, and I trust the almighty machine wouldn't lie to me) of "it helps when wide receivers catch passes."

Reid's offense is predicated on a number of things, but he loves to keep defenses guessing as to where the ball is going and who it is going to through misdirection and spreading the ball out. The problem is that when you have a player or group of players defenses aren't all that concerned with (like, say, all the wide receivers), it creates a situation in which misdirection doesn't actually ... well, misdirect. Teams knew last year they could man up the Chiefs wide receivers and focus on taking away passes to the RB or TE while going hard after the QB, and the WRs would rarely make them pay.

It was different in games where receivers (like Bowe against the Patriots) made plays. The defenses couldn't squeeze the line of scrimmage quite as much. They couldn't key in on the RBs and TEs quite as strongly. They had to respect the entire field, and as a result everything became easier.

Basically, at the risk of repeating myself, a wide receiver who can consistently get open makes Reid's offense tick at a significantly higher level. Maclin can do that.

Smith now has a target besides Travis Kelce who will consistently win individual matchups. It's a glorious thing. And Maclin's ability to do so forces defense into distasteful choices. Take this formation, for example.

chiefs

Here's the three TE trips formation the Chiefs loved so much last season, with Maclin on the other side.

Look, I'm not going to claim the Chiefs TEs outside of Kelce are terrifying anyone. However, you can easily replace one of the TEs (or both) with some combination of Wilson / Conley / Avant / DAT and see the problem the defense has; they're looking at either leaving a corner alone against Maclin (generally a losing proposition) or leaving the middle of the field more wide open than most coaches are comfortable doing.

Throw in that No. 25 in the backfield (on this particular play, Jamaal Charles went into the flat on the right, spreading the defense even thinner) and you're creating even MORE bad choices. Do you leave JC alone against a linebacker? Do you send two backers and a corner to Maclin and JC and only rush three players? Do you rotate the safety all the way over to help against Maclin / Charles and leave the middle of the field even more wide open?

Maclin's ability to win one-on-one opens up a whole realm of possibilities Reid (and Chiefs fans) were never able to unlock the last two years with the talented but inconsistent Bowe as the "go-to" guy.

And, of course, there's also this.

Smith made a very good (and very "non Smith") throw on that play, make no mistake. But the focus required to bring that ball in ... the balance required to plant, stay in bounds, and head up the field ... the raw speed required to outrun the angle taken by the corner ... oof, man. Oof.

Like I said at the beginning, the times we've seen Andy Reid's offense really take off (well, outside of one freakish Jamaal Charles outburst against a hapless Raiders team), wide receivers have been a big part of it. The system doesn't work at its highest level without them.

And until this year, Reid didn't have a receiver capable of consistently making plays on a weekly basis to allow the offense to reach its potential. Now he does, and it looks like they might plan on getting him the ball more than even the most optimistic of us predicted.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go dig up all the four-leaf clovers to undo the jinx I just put on poor Maclin.