Three things change for the Chiefs offense when Travis Kelce is absent: More quick passes to wide receivers is one of the biggest distinctions.


Travis Kelce’s Remarkable Decade

Travis Kelce’s Remarkable Decade

The star player of Kansas City, Travis Kelce, has maintained an unblemished record of attendance since 2013, devoid of injuries.

Should Kelce, the cornerstone of Kansas City’s offense, be sidelined due to a significant knee injury sustained just days before the reigning Super Bowl champions’ season opener against the Lions, it would herald a seismic shift in dynamics for Patrick Mahomes, Andy Reid, and the Chiefs’ management.

Travis Kelice’s career has been a testament to durability, having not missed a single game due to injury since his rookie year in 2013. Over the years, Travis has only sat out three games: one in 2017 and another in 2020 for rest purposes, and a solitary absence in 2021 due to COVID-19. Travis symbiotic relationship with Mahomes, who took over as the Chiefs’ full-time quarterback in 2018, has resulted in Travis amassing nearly 200 more offensive snaps than any other skill-position player in the NFL.

However, there is a noteworthy dataset comprising precisely 683 offensive snaps that exclude Kelce but include Mahomes. In the event of Kelce’s absence, or if a secondary player takes center stage, the Chiefs will face an unfamiliar scenario. Insights can be gleaned from these 683 snaps.

Before delving into those insights, it’s imperative to acknowledge the magnitude of Travis absence. Kelce is the linchpin of the Chiefs’ offense, transcending his role as merely a pass-catcher. He embodies a multitude of attributes – Mahomes’ primary target, a matchup nightmare, a red-zone specialist, a safety net, and a crucial component in extended plays. He is a presence not only before and during the catch but also a dynamo on the field. These qualities defy quantification, yet numbers offer a glimpse:

Pre-Snap Adjustments: Increased Motion and Urgency
The foremost alteration is somewhat predictable. Kelce, despite his burgeoning prowess as a blocker, remains a future Hall of Famer primarily for his receiving acumen. Over the past five years, when Kelce hasn’t been on the field alongside Mahomes, the Chiefs have passed the ball over 58% of the time. Conversely, when Kelce has been on the field, this figure drops to less than 35%. Part of this is logical – when their premier pass-catcher takes a breather, the primary targets naturally receive more passes. Yet, situational factors play a role. In 2021, during Kelce’s COVID-19 absence, the Chiefs attempted 35 passes, completing 30 of them. Despite this, they maintained a substantial lead for the majority of the game, ultimately winning 36-10 against the Steelers.

What’s more intriguing is the pre-snap adjustment. Since 2018, when Travis Kelce has been on the field, the Chiefs have employed motion less frequently when facing defenders in primary man coverage—a reduction of more than 5%. In Kelce’s absence, this figure rises by over 24%. Furthermore, when Kelce shares the field with Mahomes, the Chiefs adopt the shotgun formation for over 82% of their plays (as opposed to 64% without Kelce).

Additionally, primary receivers execute pre-snap motion with Mahomes and Kelce approximately 57% of the time, increasing to 64% when Kelce is absent. This adjustment aligns with Kelce’s ability to outmaneuver defenders in one-on-one matchups without necessitating pre-snap motion. However, in his absence, primary receivers opt for alternate targets. For example, Noah Gray, who will shoulder a more significant responsibility with Kelce sidelined, provides an unobstructed release for Skyler Moore, opening up opportunities for Rashie Rice in initial downs.

In-Game Alterations: Greater Emphasis on Wide Receivers, Shorter Throws
Kelce has been the recipient of more passes than anyone else since 2018, surpassing the likes of Devante Adams and Stefon Diggs. Consequently, in Kelce’s absence, Mahomes demonstrates a heightened preference for his fellow wideouts, with a 40% target share when Kelce is on the field, compared to 36% when he is not. This transition also results in a reduction of slot target utilization, dropping from 34% to 28%.

Furthermore, Mahomes exhibits a tendency to release the ball more quickly and target shorter passes in tight situations when Kelce is not in play. With Kelce on the field, Mahomes releases the ball in under 2.5 seconds 43% of the time, whereas this figure rises to 48% in Kelce’s absence. Similarly, Mahomes’ air yards per attempt decrease from 8.3 with Kelce to 6.2 without him. This translates to fewer explosive plays but also fewer sacks and negative yardage plays. It’s a compromise that the Chiefs would prefer to avoid, given Mahomes’ aptitude for evading pressure and taking calculated risks after releasing the ball. Nonetheless, it underscores that a subpar performance may not be as dire.

Travis Kelce’s career trajectory since his rookie year in 2013, where he played a single professional snap before succumbing to a knee injury, has been remarkable. The 33-year-old has led Kansas City in three of the past four seasons. If he is absent on opening night, an untested wide receiving corps will have ample opportunities to shine.

Skylar Moore, Kadarious Toney, Marquez Walden-Scantling, Rashi Rice, Richie James, Justin Ross, and Justin Watson are all vying for their share of receptions in this offense. Without Patrick Mahomes’ primary pass-catching target, the field becomes wide open. Additionally, Noah Gray and Blake Bell are listed as backups to Kelce. Gray recorded 28 receptions for 299 yards and a touchdown last season, while Bell made his presence felt.”

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