By the time the 2023 season kicks off in early September, nearly everything about last year will have faded from the memories of players, coaches and fans. Everyone will be looking forward, touting their team’s strengths while embellishing any lacking features.
In two previous articles, I looked back at the Kansas City Chiefs’ 2022 season and highlighted some statistics that are important to remember ahead of the upcoming campaign. Now, I want to point out four plays from last year and their significance for 2023, trying to avoid the obvious, most memorable moments.
I started with a crucial touchdown in the AFC Championship game:
Travis Kelce’s touchdown on 4th down against the Cincinnati Bengals
A bum ankle couldn't stop Patrick Mahomes from going for the big-time plays— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) February 3, 2023
4th & 1. The sprint out is designed to hit Juju right past the sticks, who has the window. Yet, it feels like 15 was waiting for a 1v1 shot to Kelce in the EZ pic.twitter.com/aPplhPvc5K
After settling for two field goals on their first two possessions against the Bengals in last year’s AFC Title game, the Chiefs’ third drive came down to fourth and short in the red zone — but they did not want to kick once again.
Out of a timeout, the play design calls for quarterback Patrick Mahomes to roll right and hit wide receiver Juju Smith-Schuster on a quick whip route. The outside cornerback’s soft coverage gives Mahomes plenty of space to complete to Smith-Schuster past the sticks, but he ignores it for a chance to trust tight end Travis Kelce in a one-on-one matchup.
It’s a reminder of how much Mahomes trusts Kelce, especially in a crucial spot. Even when he has an easier completion available, Mahomes’ instincts are to give Kelce an opportunity. It’s also a good example of their unspoken chemistry on routes: Kelce’s corner route is properly blanketed, but both Mahomes and Kelce anticipate the pass going to his inside shoulder, and the efficiency in which that’s timed up completely negates the original coverage.
#Chiefs dialed up two shot plays for MVS, getting him loose against man coverage with double moves on two occasions in the 2nd half— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) January 4, 2023
On the 1st, Mahomes short arms it -- and on the 2nd, the pass is just too far pic.twitter.com/uYsPPUBVXr
I cheated and used two plays here, but both came in the same game — and both display the same issue: Mahomes and wide receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling struggling to get on the same page for a vertical pass.
Throughout the season, Valdes-Scantling was used as the Chiefs’ primary deep threat, and he had a handful of big plays that helped him finish 5th in the NFL in yards per reception. Yet, there was a number of other plays where he looked to break open for a big play — but the pass was not completed. There were some that were short armed, others that went too far.
I believe this is a case of repetition and muscle memory, needing more time to feel Valdes-Scantling’s tempo in his routes and understand where he’ll be and when. If Mahomes is more confident in his deep shots to Valdes-Scantling in 2023, we should see a few more game-breaking plays.
Wanted to re-write this tweet w/ better understanding of Mahomes' explanation (s/o @riesejr)— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) November 28, 2022
He wants to dirt this throw once he sees it isn't open, but he just leaves it too high
15 was self-critical in post game:
"I got to take out like the one dumb play I
make every game." pic.twitter.com/ADvfpjhvec
This interception late against the Los Angeles Rams may not have been significant to the game, but it’s an example of a trend that Mahomes started falling into last season, one he needs to be careful with.
In situations where Mahomes was on the move and couldn’t find an open receiver, he would throw the ball at the ground, at the feet of defenders or covered pass catchers and move onto the next play. Here, his attempt to do that comes out of his hand high, and it lands directly in the hands of a defender for an easy interception.
It is a good strategy by Mahomes to avoid contact when it’s inevitable on a scramble, but getting too comfortable with the strategy can lead to missed opportunities, or a hair-pulling turnover. He didn’t seem to bring it out in the postseason, which could indicate that he sees it as a strategy to help him take less hits over a 17-game regular season.
Noah Gray casually making the play of his career— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) November 7, 2022
3rd Down in OT, saving us from a 4th&short decision from Andy pic.twitter.com/qM7Foye8VL
In a Week 9 game against the Tennessee Titans and their rookie quarterback Malik Willis, the Chiefs needed overtime to squeak it out. During that extra period, the Chiefs faced third and short, and a scrambling Mahomes forced a throw up to tight end Noah Gray in single coverage.
The jump ball was initially bobbled, but secured by Gray for 27 yards and a first down near Tennessee’s red zone. Even though he didn’t snatch it out of the air, Gray beats the defender to the high point and sets up a game-winning field goal.
It was the biggest play of Gray’s career, coming within a season where he totaled 299 receiving yards on 28 catches. I believe those numbers could increase in 2023 because of Gray’s progression as a receiver, but also because he could see the field more. He may spell Kelce more often as they try to preserve the future Hall of Fame tight end, but Gray may also be the team’s de facto fullback with no traditional player at that position on the current roster.