In Super Bowl 55, Patrick Mahomes’ first five passing attempts went to Byron Pringle and Mecole Hardman. That cannot have been the plan.
And it wasn’t. In the span of those five targets, Mahomes scrambled three times. He wanted Travis Kelce on one play but he was nicely bracketed by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ zone defense, and he wanted Tyreek Hill against man coverage on another play—and could have had him—but there was plenty of room for an 11-yard scamper. He also had a throwaway on an RPO designed to go Kelce’s way, which busted due to a miscommunication with the offensive line.
But for as much as a heavy early dose of Hardman (62 regular season targets, 41 catches) and Pringle (17 targets, 13 catches) wasn’t entirely the plan, the Chiefs and Mahomes were right to go to them. Pringle’s two looks came on an RPO and an offside free play on which Mahomes was late hitting Pringle on a deep post.
Neither of these looks are particularly advantageous for Pringle. It’s a tough tackle break on the first rep against such an aggressive corner like Carlton Davis, and that deep ball simply arrives too late. Of course, a bigger player could have played a post-up game on the deep post, but that’s a tough ask.
The same isn’t true for Hardman. He was given a look on a nine ball as an isolated X receiver against Jamel Dean and wasn’t able to create separation; he was open on a 3rd-and-8 corner but elected not to take a hit from Davis to lay out for the football; he failed to sight-adjust his wheel route to off coverage and never looked for the football on his third target.
The Chiefs needed Hardman to do something—anything—with these targets. They went unbalanced on the first look (four receivers on one side, only one on the backside) to get Hardman a one-on-one matchup with no safety help—Dean wasn’t even pressing! But Hardman couldn’t get on top.
The corner route is just an inexcusable lack of effort and situational awareness. On 3rd-and-8 with a single-high safety pre-snap, Hardman should know the ball is likely to come his way. But he cuts the angle of the route too sharp and slows as he looks for the football, putting the ball at the edge of his reach. He then doesn’t even make a play on the catch point. This is the Super Bowl!
And finally, the wheel route. Mahomes clearly expects Hardman to look early so he can throw him hot against the nickel blitz, and Hardman just isn’t on the same page. Often, these wheel routes—called to give Hardman an easier catch than the earlier routes he had missed on—will sit against off coverage so the quarterback can throw the receiver to space. But if Hardman has that check, he doesn’t use it.
Hardman ended up with six targets on the day; Pringle with just those two. Running backs Darrel Williams and Clyde Edwards-Helaire combined for 10, while Sammy Watkins—newly returned to the playoff roster after a late-season injury—saw just one target.
Altogether, the non-Kelce, non-Hill receivers on the Chiefs roster were against the Buccaneers what they were for most of the 2020 season: afterthoughts and non-impacts.
The Chiefs never had a clear “third target” behind Hill and Kelce. It was a smorgasbord of options: Watkins (55 targets over 10 games), Hardman (62 targets over 16 games), Demarcus Robinson (59 targets over 16 games), and Edwards-Helaire (55 targets over 13 games). And none were particularly exciting. Hardman was the most dynamic at 1.64 yards/route run, good for 69th among all targets in the league. That’s solid for the third target on a team, but behind two players averaging more than two yards/route run (Kelce was eighth in the league, Hill was 18th) on a team with Mahomes at quarterback? It’s not cutting the mustard.
It’s not so much that the Chiefs need an additional pass-catching weapon besides Hill and Kelce. One game against a hypercharged Todd Bowles defense with no offensive line does not suddenly dictate your offseason priorities. Mahomes still led one of the league’s top passing offenses by feeding Hill and Kelce—and target distribution is a zero-sum game. Forcing targets to less talented players could cost you Hill and Kelce looks that would likely be awesome, because, well, let’s face it: Hill and Kelce are awesome at football.
But Watkins, Pringle, and Robinson are all approaching free agency, which leaves the Chiefs’ wide receiver depth chart with Hill and Hardman alone. You could argue (fairly) that Kelce is essentially a wide receiver, with his snap distribution (592 snaps at wide receiver to 463 snaps at tight end) and receiving production considered—but behind Kelce on the tight end depth chart, there’s only Nick Keizer and Deon Yelder. The same problem exists.
And it has all season. The Buccaneers were finally able to make the Chiefs pay for their thin depth charts behind Hill and Kelce, and while most teams won’t be able to, the Chiefs are at a point in their team-building arc in which they should be drafting for the playoffs.
At No. 31 overall, the wide receiver draft board could still include Minnesota’s Rashod Bateman, LSU’s Terrace Marshall, and Purdue’s Rondale Moore—three wildly different receivers who could consolidate those vacated targets for Robinson and Watkins and immediately produce in an impactful way. The tight end board will have Penn State’s Pat Freiermuth, Miami’s Brevin Jordan, and Boston College’s Hunter Long—again, different molds who can give the Chiefs increased offensive flexibility and a true third target in the passing game.
The Chiefs are the most challenging offense against which to gameplan—decimated offensive line or otherwise. That’s the reality of the Mahomes, Kelce, Hill triumvirate. There’s a chance that an additional weapon doesn’t really add much to that danger—too many mouths to feed—but there’s no doubt that an additional dangerous pass-catcher would have made a difference for Kansas City in Super Bowl 55.
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