Here’s what’s plaguing the Chiefs’ offense — and how they can figure it out

There’s a story that Patrick Mahomes has shared a couple of times over the past year, in trying to underscore his early-NFL naivety. The anecdote places him on a stage after his first Super Bowl, where at some point a 24-year-old quarterback held the Lombardi Trophy and just assumed it wouldn’t be the last time.

Actually, as he tells the story, his real assumption is that it would turn into an annual celebration. That easy, he figured.

Not quite.

For all of the successes of the past three years, even including a second Super Bowl, those seasons have been defined first by their challenges. And it took all of two weeks for this year’s group to happen upon one.

The Chiefs are struggling offensively, in case you haven’t heard. Over a season-opening loss, they totaled fewer yards per play than they did in any 2022 game. And even in a Week 2 win in Jacksonville, they scored fewer points than they did in any 2022 win.

It’s been anything but how Mahomes thought it would be as he stood on that stage in February 2020: easy.

I’ll get this out of the way first: I think the offense will eventually be fine, but there’s less certainty about when. OK, it doesn’t take a lot of guts to have faith that the Chiefs’ offense will come around, I realize — they’ve never finished outside the top-five in scoring with Mahomes as a starter.

But the prediction isn’t based solely on the history. It’s based on how they arrived at that history. And it’s based on the culprits for the early-season numbers.

The latter is more complex than first glance might suggest, but let’s not gloss over the first-glance stuff. The drops, turnovers and penalties have played their part, and I underestimated perhaps just how significant of a part when dissecting the offensive issues post-game.

Consider this: The Chiefs committed eight offensive penalties Sunday in Jacksonville. That’s the most for their offense since 2018, totaling data available on NFLpenalties.com.

A year ago (2022), in their most penalized game, the offense scored 17 points in regulation against the Titans. In their two most penalized games a year earlier (2021), they scored three points against the Titans and 19 against the Cowboys. The 2020 and 2019 examples follow the same trend. In fact, five of the lowest seven team point totals in Mahomes’ career are the highest or second-highest penalized games of their respective seasons.

So, yeah, that hurt Sunday. And that’s fixable. Even Jawaan Taylor.

That’s a big culprit.

But not the only one.

The issue more likely to linger is what the Chiefs are seeing from opposing defenses. We have a form of this discussion every year, analyzing whether there’s a new way to defend Mahomes. Press coverage, two-high shells, robber on third downs with single-high safety. There are long enough stretches of the Chiefs struggling against each scheme that we eventually get to this spot — wondering if and how and when it will be fixed. You know how the ending usually unfolds.

But this year’s beginning? Zone defense.

We dug into this some post-game, but fuller analytics tell an even clearer picture. Zone defense is not a foreign language to Mahomes and the Chiefs, but they ought to be fluent in it after the last two weeks.

After facing man-to-man defenses at the third-highest rate in the league last season, they have seen it at the seventh-lowest rate this year, per FTN. They saw less man-to-man coverage snaps from the Lions and Jaguars defenses than they did in all but two games last season, using data collected from Sports Info Solutions. The replacement? Zone. The Lions basically started out in man, got beat, and then went full-on zone for the remainder of the night. The Jaguars showed man-to-man even less frequently, aside from mixing it into third downs.

A year ago, that entire paragraph would’ve been irrelevant. The Chiefs were the best team in football last season against coverages that trend toward zone, with Mahomes totaling 31.63 expected points added (EPA) against those looks, per SIS. The next best in the league? Jimmy Garoppolo was at 1.53 EPA. Mahomes lapped the field, and then lapped it again.

Through two games this season, though, against the same schemes, Mahomes is minus-12.81 EPA. He’s 27th in the NFL. It’s early, granted, but the field is leaving him in the dust.

The type of coverage is suddenly pretty relevant to the Chiefs’ output. The story, therefore, isn’t simply that they are seeing zone schemes a bit more frequently. It’s that they’ve misplaced their success against it.

What gives?

The foundation of the Chiefs offense requires more actors than the quarterback to read coverages. When the defense drops into a spot-zone or matchup zone, the play-call typically requires the wide receiver to read it too, then find and sit in the opening. And most importantly, it requires the quarterback and receiver to predict the same opening.

“That’s the entire offense,” Mahomes said. “Especially here, I think. It’s a lot of reading on the run, recognizing coverages and making plays off that. I have to be on the same page with the receivers.”

Which is based on?

“Feel,” head coach Andy Reid said, “is the first thing. Just the players being able to sit in holes and do those things.”

After pointing out that the Chiefs are still seeing a mixture of some other coverages — always have — Reid concluded his thought on improving against the higher frequency of zone, “You’ve got to have a feel for it.”

If it looks disjointed in two weeks, well, it is. If they look out of sync, well, they are. Those are the consequences when the “feel” isn’t there.

It would be too simple to place that at the feet of one person, one coach or even one position group. Probably too simple to place it at the feet of one type of coverage, too. But a lot of this points in a similar direction: The quarterback and a relatively new wide-receiver group are reading from different pages, and that’s amplified against the zones.

Sure, Mahomes has thrown some inaccurate passes, especially to his tight end, Travis Kelce, who didn’t play one game and didn’t look to be 100% in the other.

But Mahomes is still trying to find a groove with a group of receivers who are still trying to find the openings against zone. And they’ve had ample time to find them. Mahomes has had more time to throw in the initial two games than he did throughout last year. He’s also scrambling more frequently, about 4.2% more often than the last three seasons, per Sumer Sports, an indication that when he scans the field, he just isn’t seeing what he wants. The film shows evidence of him staring down receivers, and you can’t help but wonder if he’s waiting for them to break off their routes.

The argument for the inconsistency is inexperience. The flip-side argument for a looming turnaround is time. Rashee Rice and Justyn Ross were described as “package players” for a reason. They apparently need more seasoning.

Oh, and the other argument for a turnaround? History.

The Chiefs are tested every year in ways some of their counterparts are not, and what’s most interesting is the test challenges more than their talent. In fact, the focal point is rarely the talent gaps. The first-year blitzes predicted Mahomes, a new NFL starter wouldn’t be able to make quick decisions. The deep shells surmised he couldn’t pull back his own reins. The robber third-down looks hoped to trick him.

The crux of the latest?

Well, Andy Reid said it in one word.

Feel.