During the Kansas City Chiefs training camp that wrapped up last Thursday, a quiet competition was brewing — but during the team's 38-10 preseason victory against the Arizona Cardinals on Saturday night, it was suddenly right in front of everyone.
While Patrick Mahomes is the league’s best quarterback, he still needs a backup. While it had appeared that veteran Blaine Gabbert was the leading candidate to back up the MVP, Saturday night’s game showed that Shane Buechele is defintiely worthy of consideration for the job.
After the offense scored on the game’s third drive, it was Buechele — not Gabbert — who led the first-team offense back onto the field. It was the first time this season that Buechele played with the starting offensive line and a mix of first-team and second-team pass-catchers.
He wasted little time going to a familiar target.
Shane Buechele with the 1OL in protection. Skyy and Rice in a stack out wide. Skyy keeps vertical but Rice hits a shake route and Buechele puts it on a line. The SMU connection was on display early. pic.twitter.com/1KP9s9ty2s— Caleb James (@CJScoobs) August 21, 2023
When two cornerbacks are playing off the ball and there is one deep safety, there are plenty of chances for wide receivers to create separation — and that is exactly what Buechele’s former SMU teammate Rashee Rice does on this play.
As Skyy Moore continues to take his route deep, Rice takes a hard jab step to the inside, freezing the corner in his tracks. Buechele reads the cut and starts to deliver the ball as Rice heads for the sideline where he has found the void in coverage. Buechele delivers a good ball — and with the other defensive backs deep downfield, Rice has room to pick up some yards after the catch.
This 38-yard play set the Chiefs up in the red zone — where Buechele would cap the drive by showing off his athletic ability.
Buechele getting reps with the first offensive line. Very clean pocket, even when the edge on the left starts to work an inside move Donovan Smith keeps his hands tight and mirrors down the line. Space opens up on the left and Buechele shows off his athletic ability. pic.twitter.com/SjXyhkDjbL— Caleb James (@CJScoobs) August 20, 2023
All evening, the Chiefs’ offensive line was solid in pass protection. Since it could consistently block four rushers, this led to good opportunities for Kansas City quarterbacks to maneuver.
On this play, Buechele doesn't like his downfield reads — but when the EDGE on the left uses an inside move, it opens up a large void on that side of the field. Left tackle Donovan Smith walls off the pass rusher — and Buechele has room to run. A hesitation move near the sticks helps him avoid contact and put six points on the board, capping a well-executed seven-play, 88-yard drive.
But Buechele wasn’t done yet. On his second drive, he and Rice would again rekindle the SMU connection.
Rice in motion starts off the RPO. Buechele makes a good read to pull the ball when the inside DB follows Bushman to the flat. Rice runs a slant and has room to operate. A fastball from Buechele helps Rice catch it in stride, showing off some YAC ability. Ball security needs work pic.twitter.com/ozhOLl14vq— Caleb James (@CJScoobs) August 21, 2023
The Arizona defensive backs continue to play off the ball, which helps open up this RPO. Buechele first shows the handoff to running back La’Mical Perine but quickly pulls the ball.
Tight end Matt Bushman and Rice are working a flat-and-slant combination on the back side of the play. The safety who walked down near the slot as the play began follows Bushman into the flat — but he does so by going between his teammate and Rice. Recognizing this, Buechele slings the ball on a rope to Rice — who makes the catch in stride and picks up even more with some good open-field running.
While the Chiefs would finish the drive with a field goal, Buechele turned in his best performance since joining the team, finishing with a perfect 10-for-10 for 105 yards passing and one rushing touchdown.
Saturday’s game showcased Buechele’s improved decision-making. Playing with superior players gave us a glimpse of the kind of production he could manage in a real-world situation — his athletic ability in the pocket was a real highlight.
While Buechele’s performance was a hard one to follow, Gabbert answered to the best of his ability. As he started the third quarter, he came out firing — showing that even in his 13th season, he can still throw the long balls that have enamored him to front offices ever since he played for the University of Missouri.
Smith-Marsette lined up as the middle WR. Gabbert shows a quick run action look before pulling the ball. Bushamn runs a bubble look, Rice gets vertical then turns back, but ISM accelerates by the CB with a nice inside jab and makes the grab before the safety can arrive. Good ball pic.twitter.com/rFBVkGSR5P— Caleb James (@CJScoobs) August 21, 2023
Here, the Cardinals are in man coverage. dropping one deep safety from the opposite side of the field. Wideout Ihmir Smith-Marsette is lined up in the middle of the trips formation. As he runs the vertical route, he blows right by the cornerback assigned to him.
He flashes a jab step inside before continuing toward the sideline. With the corner beaten — and the safety too late with his reaction — Gabbert launches a beautiful deep ball that Smith-Marsette hauls in for a 44-yard completion.
The drive would conclude with Gabbert throwing a touchdown underneath — also to Smith- Marsette — to expand Kansas City’s lead.
Gabbert would finish his second drive with another touchdown pass.
Gabbert showing off the mobility with this TD pass to Powell. Play action roll out look, Powell dusts the CB off the ball and heads to the corner of the endzone. Gabbert goes through his reads, but waits for Powell to get to the spot and gives him a nice ball. pic.twitter.com/wQkZpHQIyN— Caleb James (@CJScoobs) August 21, 2023
Even at 33 years old, Gabbert still has some juice left in his tank.
On this play, he uses some of it on his rollout to find Cornell Powell in the end zone. While he did not finish with a perfect completion percentage like Buechele did, he went 7-for-8 for 120 yards and two touchdowns. The touchdown passes gave him a perfect passer rating of 158.3, compared to Buechele’s excellent 110.4 rating.
The bottom line
While it may have seemed like Gabbert had the backup quarterback spot sewn up, Buechele turned heads on Saturday — and in doing so, heated up the competition to play behind Mahomes.
The Chiefs seemed eager to reward Buechele for his efforts as the team’s scout quarterback in the last couple of seasons. Given his first opportunity to work with the first-team, Buechele did not disappoint. He elevated his game to match the players around him. His previous connection with Rice was certainly a factor in his success — but he also looked comfortable and poised in the pocket, where he showed off an ability for improvisation that would make him an ideal backup to Mahomes.
Gabbert also turned in a very good performance, showing confidence in the pocket that can only be gained with years of experience. While he doesn't share Buechele’s athletic ability or mobility, he is still the more prototypical backup quarterback — and in the event of an emergency, is likely to be the safer option.
Andy Reid said it: the competition is close. Saturday afternoon’s final preseason game will be very interesting to watch.