In 2022, the Kansas City Chiefs had the NFL’s No. 1 offense, averaging 29.2 points and 413.6 yards of offense per game.
Kansas City’s elite red-zone play was a significant reason the team finished with the top offense for the third time since 2018. The Chiefs led the league by averaging 3.0 red-zone touchdowns per game. That was an improvement over the 2.6 they averaged in 2021, which was the last season Kansas City had the league’s No. 1 offense.
In the first installment of a series, let’s consider the red-zone contributions of quarterback Patrick Mahomes and tight end Travis Kelce.
Mahomes and Kelce were flat-out dominant in the red zone. The quarterback finished 2022 as the league’s best red zone passer, with 73 completions (and 34 touchdowns) inside the 20-yard line. The tight end was the NFL’s best red-zone pass-catcher, scoring ten touchdowns on 19 receptions. The next-closest tight end was the Cleveland Browns’ David Njoku, who had four touchdowns on 12 receptions.
This was the fourth consecutive season that teammates led these categories. The Seattle Seahawks’ Russell Wilson and Tyler Lockett were the league’s top red-zone quarterback and receiver in 2019, followed by the Green Bay Packers’ Aaron Rodgers and Davante Adams in 2020 and the Los Angeles Rams’ Matthew Stafford and Cooper Kupp in 2021.
But Mahomes and Kelce are still unique. According to Pro Football Reference — which has been tracking red-zone passing and receiving since 1994 — they are the only quarterback-tight end duo to lead the league in both statistics in any season.
Dialing it up
Andy Reid and the rest of the Chiefs’ offensive staff made sure to get their star tight end as many red-zone looks as possible, capitalizing on the well-known Mahomes-Kelce connection in the biggest situations — including a game-winning play against the Los Angeles Chargers.
Game winner in LA. Kelce vs James. Inside release from Kelce with Watson coming across on a slant. Pre-snap motion tells Mahomes it is likely man coverage. Kelce creates more separation off of Watson's route and accelerates into the endzone. pic.twitter.com/pEeKwHz0mz— Caleb James (@CJScoobs) July 7, 2023
Here we see the Chiefs run a play right at Los Angeles safety Derwin James — who, like Kelce, is an elite player in big situations. When wide receiver Justin Watson motions over, the cornerback follows him. This tells Mahomes that it is man-to-man coverage — just what Kansas City wants.
Covered by James, Kelce stutters his feet before releasing to the inside — while Watson’s slant from the opposite side creates a pick play. But Watson stops before he contacts James — although it still helps Kelce get enough separation to make the catch and outrun everyone to the end zone.
After collecting a dozen touchdown receptions through the first 11 weeks of the season, Kelce finished the regular season without another one. But the Chiefs wasted no time getting him the ball in the Divisional round against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Run action roll out. McKinnon in the flat, Gray with the corner. Mahomes manipulates the defense toward the sideline, but Kelce stops after initially selling a block. The defense is out of position, and as the middle parts Kelce strolls in for six. pic.twitter.com/Sl0bRuE58s— Caleb James (@CJScoobs) July 7, 2023
Selling run and then rolling to his right on this play, Mahomes looks downfield. That forces the defenders to key in on tight end Noah Gray (running a corner route) and running back Jerrick McKinnon in the flat. Meanwhile, Kelce is blocking — but it’s all for show.
After Mahomes manipulates the defense to the right, Kelce stops blocking — but remains in place. Mahomes whips him a quick pass. With the entire secondary flowing hard to the right, Kelce is wide open to the end zone.
While the Chiefs’ playbook is stuffed with ways that allow Mahomes and Kelce to operate in the red zone, they are often at their most deadly in unscripted situations.
In October, they combined for four touchdowns against the Las Vegas Raiders. Those included some of the iconic improvisation that has made this duo great.
Kelce is knocked off his route initially throwing off the timing of the play. Mahomes extends the play with his legs, but as the defense starts to flow to the right he finds Kelce who has a perfect angle to run left and score a touchdown. pic.twitter.com/F2pdHmTfEP— Caleb James (@CJScoobs) July 7, 2023
Here we see Kelce begin the play with a crossing route. A Raiders linebacker contacts him before he can get five yards past the line of scrimmage. Mahomes initiates a scramble — but when the defense flows hard to the right, Kelce gets separation by moving back toward his quarterback.
He catches the pass and cuts to the left. Now with a perfect angle to the end zone, Kelce returns the Raiders’ physicality with a pair of stiff arms to ignite the Chiefs' “Monday Night Football” rally.
That same telekinetic energy set up the play just before the duo’s Divisional round touchdown.
Pre-snap motion from JuJu gives away the man look, and might also alert Mahomes that the pressure is on. LB drops to the middle on the snap. Mahomes scrambles, and as the LB leaves the middle he slings one to Kelce who just created separation. Great focus to bring it in. pic.twitter.com/rrNop6jqIy— Caleb James (@CJScoobs) July 7, 2023
The Jaguars are showing blitz on this third-down play — but at the least second, drop a linebacker to the middle of the field.
While it looks like Kelce is only single-covered, Mahomes must be careful; this linebacker and the high safety are both covering the middle of the field — and they’re starting to key in on the tight end. At the top of his drop, Mahomes decides to improvise.
When the linebacker sees the scramble, he vacates the middle. That’s just what Mahomes wants. As he’s dragged down, Mahomes fires a rope to Kelce— who uses great concentration to haul in the pass just past the spot the linebacker had dropped back to cover.
Mahomes and Kelce are revolutionizing the game — and their red-zone connection is a big part of how they’re doing it. When they’re inside the 20 — whether it is a rehearsed play executed in perfect harmony or telekinetic improvisation — they are the league’s best duo.
In part two of this series, we’ll examine Jerrick McKinnon’s role in Kansas City’s red zone offense.