By Sam McPherson
It’s tough these days in the NFL when a division title isn’t enough, although it’s also a good sign for any franchise to be unsatisfied with a mere postseason appearance. This is where the 2016 Kansas City Chiefs find themselves after a 12-4 regular season, an AFC West Division title and a first-round playoff bye. Those are nice accomplishments for most organizations, but these Chiefs want more, and the 18-16 playoff loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday means the Kansas City organization as a whole and its fans are going into the offseason with a sour taste in their mouths.
The division title was the team’s first since 2010 and only its third since the 1997 season. The Chiefs have a 44-24 record overall since Head Coach Andy Reid took over after the disastrous 2012 campaign that saw Kansas City get the No. 1 overall pick in the NFL Draft. The team won its first playoff game in decades last January, and expectations were high this season. The Chiefs season cannot be considered a failure, but it also cannot be considered a true success considering the trajectory Reid himself has established in just four seasons with the organization.
What Went Right In 2016
Kansas City swept through the toughest division in football, winning all six games against its AFC West opponents. Two of the wins came in overtime, but the perfect 6-0 record was the reason the Chiefs emerged as division champs. Kansas City’s two wins over the Oakland Raiders were the actual tiebreaker, and the last time the Chiefs lost to an AFC West opponent was 11 games ago (Week 2 in 2015). Overall, Kansas City is on a 23-6 roll over the last two seasons, although each time the Chiefs have come up just short in the postseason. Reid has this team trending up, and the roster just needs to get that big win against the heavy competition in January to establish itself among the NFL elite.
The emergence of wide receiver Tyreek Hill in 2016 was the biggest story of the season. Hill burst on to the national scene right after Thanksgiving, with a Week 12 performance for the ages on Sunday Night Football: He scored via the run, the pass and the kickoff return that night to open the NFL’s eyes. From that point on, Hill gave the Chiefs offense a new dynamic it had been lacking since losing running back Jamaal Charles to injury in 2015. He was a threat to score every time he touched the ball. Hill only had 860 yards from scrimmage this season, and he will get twice that every season going forward now in Reid’s offense.
What Went Wrong In 2016
Despite finishing 13th in scoring offense this year at 24.3 points per game, the K.C. unit was inconsistent at best, scoring 21 points or less seven times this year—not including the playoff loss to the Steelers. Quarterback Alex Smith threw for only 15 touchdowns in 2016, his lowest output since joining the Chiefs in 2013. He also posted the worst interception percentage (1.8) of his career in Kansas City. At age 32, he is not in decline, per se, but the Kansas City offense simply lacked consistent firepower and weaponry all year. Outside of tight end Travis Kelce, no other receiver caught more than Hill’s 593 yards, and that meant too often it was Kelce or nothing for the passing offense. For decent defenses, it was too easy to silence Smith’s arm.
As for the defense, there was a huge disconnect highlighted in the Pittsburgh playoff loss: The bend-but-don’t-break unit finished seventh in the NFL for points allowed but 24th overall in yards allowed. That means the defense was spending way too much time on the field, even if the other team wasn’t scoring a lot. The Steelers used that formulaic extreme to their advantage in the postseason, but in general, the Chiefs defense had a lot of weaknesses in 2016. Kansas City relied a lot on turnover margin this season, and when that didn’t go its way, the Chiefs had challenges winning (minus-4 in regular-season losses, plus-16 overall in regular season). This defensive philosophy reached its breaking point this year in Kansas City.
Outlook For 2017
With Denver and the now-Los Angeles Chargers changing head coaches, the Chiefs and the Raiders will be favored to win the AFC West next fall. To do so and to finally reach an AFC Championship Game, Kansas City needs to address two main issues with the 2017 NFL Draft and free agency: Defensive depth and WR talent.
The Chiefs have the No. 27 pick in the first round, so they can still find game-breaking defensive talent there. Linebacker Derrick Johnson will be 35 next year and coming off a major injury; the defense wasn’t the same without him down the stretch. In addition, WR Jeremy Maclin had his worst season ever, and the offense could use another playmaker or two at the position to complement Kelce and Hill. Trading RB Jamaal Charles is an option as well, to bring some WR talent in return. It also may be time to see if backup QB Nick Foles can be the starter as Smith ages and/or declines.