- Adam Teicher, ESPN Kansas City Chiefs reporter
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KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The long faces in the losing visitor’s locker room following the Kansas City Chiefs’ Week 16 game at the Pittsburgh Steelers told the story. The Chiefs’ playoff hopes, which seemed secure a few weeks earlier, were hanging by a thread because Kansas City managed just four field goals in four trips inside the Pittsburgh 20.
One week later, their playoff dreams were extinguished. The Chiefs beat the San Diego Chargers, but again had to drag their lifeless offense along for the ride.
No autopsy was needed to determine the cause of death for the Chiefs’ 2014 season. It was their balky offense, one that for the first time in the modern NFL failed to produce a touchdown from a wide receiver.
The Chiefs knew they had to energize their offense. The free-agent signing of Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Jeremy Maclin was the biggest and most obvious move, but the Chiefs also squeezed the addition of a couple of offensive linemen under a tight salary cap.
With 10 picks in next week’s draft, the Chiefs aren’t done, either.
“Got to get better,’’ quarterback Alex Smith said this week as the Chiefs started their organized offseason workout program. “You need to be taking steps forward and I’m part of that. It wasn’t good enough last year. How are we going to continue to take steps and what’s the plan to do that? Some of that is new faces coming in. We have to jell quickly and bring it together.’’
The Chiefs aren’t starting from scratch offensively. Jamaal Charles is their featured back and he rushed for more than 1,000 yards again last season. Still, it was his least productive season by a lot of measures since he became a full-time player. An incredible string of injuries undoubtedly had something to do with that.
The Chiefs also have one of the NFL’s best young tight ends in Travis Kelce, who caught 67 passes in his debut NFL season last year, and some intriguing complementary parts, including speedy slot receiver De’Anthony Thomas.
“We have a lot of nightmare problems with mismatches with a lot of different guys," veteran wide receiver Jason Avant said. “We have some hard pieces to cover when you think of De'Anthony or when you think of other guys [such as] Kelce. Those players are hard [to cover].
“When you really think about it, in the National Football League, you pay a cornerback a lot of money and he shuts down one player. But when you can have a tight end or running backs that can get open in man coverage against lesser athletes, not to say they’re bad athletes, they’re just not getting paid as much to cover people. We have that working for us.”
The Chiefs are paying Maclin $55 million over the next five seasons to be a lot more than a complementary piece. They’re expecting him to be the big-play, big-numbers wide receiver they have lacked for many seasons.
They certainly didn’t have one of those players last season. Chiefs wide receivers were last in the NFL in almost every significant statistical category, including touchdowns, of course.
“Hopefully I can score at least one next year," Maclin said with only the slightest trace of a smile.
Maclin had 36 touchdowns in his five seasons for the Philadelphia Eagles, including 10 last season. He has the speed to be a deep threat, but Maclin also runs well after the catch, making him dangerous on underneath routes as well.
Maclin had 85 catches for 1,318 yards last season. The last time a Chiefs wide receiver approached those numbers: Dwayne Bowe in 2010.
“He’s the type of receiver that excels in all areas," Smith said. “That’s maybe his biggest strength, at least watching from afar. I don’t think you can pigeonhole him as just a speed guy, an over the top guy. His game is way more complex than that. He can do a lot of different things."
Fixing a porous offensive line was another focus for the Chiefs. Starting guards Zach Fulton and Mike McGlynn were two of the lowest-rated players at those positions by Pro Football Focus and Chiefs quarterbacks were sacked 49 times, or more than three times a game.
The Chiefs traded with the New Orleans Saints for one guard, former Pro Bowl pick Ben Grubbs. They signed another, Paul Fanaika, as a free agent from the Arizona Cardinals. They are the presumed starters.
“All along, we’ve known we had a couple cracks in the foundation last year and we’ve always wanted to strengthen the foundation,’’ general manager John Dorsey said.
The Chiefs lost a bidding war with the Oakland Raiders in free agency for their best offensive lineman, center Rodney Hudson. So they might have a new crack in that foundation in a different spot this year.
These upgrades in total, particularly the addition of Maclin, put pressure on Smith to improve. He has delivered crucial and -- for the Chiefs, elusive -- stability to a most important position in his two seasons in Kansas City. But he hasn’t provided signature victories or many big plays.
He spent his offseason going through the process of reviewing his game, looking for ways to improve.
“I’m looking at my ballhandling and my footwork and I’m looking at my balance and a lot of things, deep balls, all that stuff,’’ Smith said. “You’re really trying to pinpoint those things and [ask], “How can I get better? What can I do differently? What are some areas that jump out, kind of red flags and weaknesses, that I really need to work on and why are they that way?"
“The coaches have kind of done the same thing and we’ve been talking this whole time and communicating.’’
One way to improve is to complete more long pass plays, whether down the field or of the catch-and-run variety. The Chiefs had just 20 pass plays of 25 yards or longer last year, which tied them for worst in the NFL.
Smith threw six interceptions last season and had the league’s second-lowest interception rate. But the trade-off was the Chiefs getting fewer big pass plays.
The Chiefs have encouraged Smith to be more of a risk-taker and won’t back off now that Maclin is on board.
“The deep ball for sure is something that gets a lot of attention," Smith said. “It’s a matter of timing, striking when it’s right and being able to take advantage of those opportunities. They’re few and far between and when you get them, you have to be able to hit them. That’s kind of the nature of it. They are lower-percentage."
The Chiefs need more explosive plays in 2015, and quarterback Alex Smith is working with a retooled group of receivers to achieve that.