When the Kansas City Chiefs selected running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire at the end of the first round, it was a bit of a surprise. With Patrick Mahomes at quarterback, it sometimes feels like the Chiefs… well, never need to bother running the football. Of course, they do need a running game, but their performance last season in the running game was perfectly cromulent.
Of course, Edwards-Helaire brings more than just quality ball-carrying—arguably, that wasn’t even the most attractive aspect of his evaluation. When the Chiefs drafted Edwards-Helaire, head coach Andy Reid discussed the comparison between Edwards-Helaire and Brian Westbrook, the longtime scatback under Reid in Philadelphia. With the Chiefs’ pass-heavy approach considered, the expectation was that Edwards-Helaire would become a big part of the Chiefs’ passing game.
It… kinda happened? Edwards-Helaire is the 16th-most targeted running back in the league by per-game average, seeing four targets a game. His 55 total targets are the third-highest number on the team, below only star wide receiver Tyreek Hill and star tight end Travis Kelce—but only barely above Sammy Watkins, Mecole Hardman, and Demarcus Robinson, all of whom have at least 50 looks.
It’s not like the Chiefs’ passing game is bad—they’re second in EPA/dropback—or that Edwards-Helaire is bad—he’s averaging just under three yards after contact/rush and has 34 avoided tackles on 181 carries this season. He’s been a good player, just perhaps not the high-impact player you want in a first-round rookie offensive weapon.
Unfortunately, Edwards-Helaire left the game against the New Orleans Saints on Sunday with a high-ankle sprain and a strained hip. Those injuries have officially tabled him for the remainder of the 2020 regular season.
Losing Edwards-Helaire for the remainder of the regular season isn’t devastating—the Chiefs are one win against the Falcons away from securing their first-round bye, which would give them three weeks of rest before a playoff game for Edwards-Helaire. With Le’Veon Bell, Darrel Williams, and Darwin Thompson on the depth chart, the Chiefs have more than enough talent to keep their running game humming.
With that said, losing a pass-catching weapon like Edwards-Helaire matters come playoff time for the Chiefs, even for his lighter usage this year. Why? Because Edwards-Helaire’s usage for the playoffs is likely to change relative to his usage in the regular season.
Look at Damien Williams last season. He rotated with LeSean McCoy and Darrel Williams on the starting job before injuries took Darrel Williams off the depth chart. Suddenly left with the lion’s share of the looks, Damien Williams saw 6.7 targets/game in the postseason after averaging 3.5 targets/game in the regular season.
Those running back targets are important even for quarterbacks as talented as Mahomes, as top teams that the Chiefs will see in the postseason have the necessary personnel and coaching to take away the desired downfield targets to players like Hill and Kelce. After dominating the Houston Texans in the divisional round, Kelce fell quiet against the Tennessee Titans and the San Francisco 49ers—Hill was the high volume player in the Super Bowl after a quieter AFC playoff run.
What the Chiefs do specifically against top competition is more important than what they do against average teams. Their talent is so exceptional on offense that against middling opponents in the regular season, they don’t need to reach deep into the playbook to move the football. So far this year we’ve seen a 13-1 Chiefs team only go 7-7 against the spread in part because they aren’t blowing out opponents as they have previously.
But against top competition, the Chiefs start to dive into their bag of tricks. They deployed the Anthony Sherman shovel touchdown against the Baltimore Ravens this season after pulling out a 4th-and-1 pirouette trick against the 49ers in the Super Bowl last season. They hid Hill in the backfield for one touchdown against the Saints this past Sunday; on another, they push-passed a tight end screen to Kelce on a play Reid named after Kelce’s dating show.
Actually worthy opponents are the forces of evolution for the Chiefs, who otherwise just outclass their regular season schedule like Clemson dog-walking the ACC on a yearly basis. And this isn’t just reflected in their trick plays—we can see it in their general scheme. Eric Eager of PFF found that the Chiefs stay pretty vanilla relative to the league’s average trends on scheme—motion, play-action, formation, personnel—until the postseason, at which point they start to ramp up the zany.
So what we saw from Edwards-Helaire in the regular season may not have been the final form of the Chiefs’ vision for their new weapon in Year 1. We can highlight key games from this season as a proof of concept.
Edwards-Helaire took 13 snaps in a wide receiver alignment against the Ravens in Week 3—the first big test for the Chiefs this season—and has never taken more than six snaps out of the backfield in any game since. They ran him on a rub route in the low red zone, a corner route from the backfield, and a reverse flea-flicker throwback—it was straight silliness. The Chiefs beat the Ravens, and Edwards-Helaire’s explosion in the passing game—14 targets, 11 receptions, 102 yards over two weeks—faded away into nothingness. In the 12 weeks since, Edwards-Helaire has only had one big receiving game (Week 14 v. Miami).
It smells fishy, and I don’t trust it. The Chiefs were likely to uncork some new screens and quick passes to Edwards-Helaire in the postseason, and certainly anticipated him bringing more to the underneath check-down targets than Williams did when postseason opponents sold out to stop Hill and Kelce.
But now they don’t know if Edwards-Helaire will be back—or how healthy he’ll be if he returns. With Bell a good receiving option and Darrel Williams is still floating around the roster, the Chiefs can still get good pass-catching play out of their backfield—but what could have been with Edwards-Helaire may never be realized.
At least, not this season. The Chiefs figure to be back in the postseason next season, too.