It’s only October, and the season is far from over, but receiver Dexter McCluster has come to expect the same scene whenever he strolls into the Chiefs’ locker room after a victory.
First, he sees the smiles. The laughter. The high-fives and the relief. Then he hears the rap music, which always blasts out of a small, red boombox supplied by the player who has perhaps sacrificed more than most realize to help the Chiefs jump out to their best start since 2003.
“After every win, Dwayne brings his boombox out,” McCluster said. “He’s the first one to play that music … and it’s like a small party in there. We’re smiling. We’re dancing. Then coach (Andy) Reid gets in and he turns it off.”
But the smile apparently hasn’t left Dwayne Bowe’s face after that. Teammates and coaches are adamant that no one is happier with the Chiefs’ 6-0 start than the 29-year-old Bowe, who is on track to post the worst 16-game season of his career, statistically.
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“I don’t know what his perception is to people,” Reid said, “but this is a phenomenal guy. He’s all in … wherever we put him, wherever he can help win games, that’s where he wants to be.”
Right now, you argue that’s largely been as a decoy, though Reid and Bowe’s teammates say there are reasons for that.
“The biggest thing for him is he’s just got to stay patient,” cornerback Dunta Robinson said. “I know he’s a great receiver that wants the ball, but this offense, we’re not going to force anything. They’re gonna take what the defense gives them.”
Through six weeks, Bowe ― a seven-year pro who signed a five-year, $56 million extension this offseason ― is on pace to finish the season with 53 catches, 610 yards and five touchdowns. Barring the 2009 season, when he missed four games for violating the league’s policy against performance-enhancing drugs, his catches and yards would be career lows for a man who only a few years ago had a two-year stretch in which he averaged nearly 77 catches, 1,161 yards and 10 touchdowns.
But while the 2010 and 2011 seasons helped Bowe cement his status as one of the NFL’s best receivers, it appears the Chiefs’ miserable 8-24 combined record in 2011 and 2012 had an equally profound effect on his outlook.
“This part of my career … this should be everybody’s mind-set: It’s not about numbers, it’s about letters,” Bowe said, referring to his desire to get “W’s.” “You want to reach the ultimate goal? You gotta sacrifice some things.”
For Bowe, that meant giving up his targets so others can get involved.
“He’s the most unselfish person I know,” receiver Donnie Avery said. “He’s got the numbers, you know? It’s been a long time for him (to experience) winning … that’s what he told me from the start. He said he’s tired of losing. He said he doesn’t care if he has 200 yards (this season); as long as we’re winning, he’s OK with that.”
Bowe won’t finish with only 200 receiving yards this season, but he has seen his average number of targets per game dip from 8 1/2 to a little under six, a career-low, even though the Chiefs are on pace to throw 576 times, far more than they did last year (475).
So why the sudden downtick in production? Assuming Bowe is the same player he has always been physically, which shouldn’t be a problem given his relatively young age, some of it has to do with the nature of Reid’s West Coast offense, which has always been predicated on quick reads, spreading the field horizontally and finding the open man.
In five of Reid’s last nine seasons in Philadelphia, a running back or tight end ― not a receiver ― led the team in catches. And so far, Reid is continuing that trend in Kansas City.
The Chiefs are throwing to Bowe about as often as they’re throwing to Avery, who leads the team with 310 receiving yards and is third in receptions with 18, but far less often than they’re throwing to running back Jamaal Charles, who averages almost nine targets per game and also leads the team in catches (33) and ranks second in receiving yards (300).
McCluster said this spread-it-around approach is a little different from past years, when the Chiefs sometimes went out of their way to force-feed Bowe the football.
“He was definitely one of our top targets for our quarterback,” McCluster said. “I think sometimes it may have been forced. But the difference between now and then is you have more opportunities for other guys to get involved.”
Offensive coordinator Doug Pederson also attributed some of this to the way defenses are playing Bowe, who is being used inside and outside and on both sides of the field at receiver.
“The coverage dictates where the ball is going to go,” Pederson said. “It may be dialed up for Dwayne, but it ends up going to Donnie (Avery) or (Dexter McCluster) or (Jamaal Charles).”
That’s not to say teams are defending Bowe like he’s 1998’s Randy Moss or even 2011’s Calvin Johnson. But by shading a safety Bowe’s way, even if only a few yards, teams can discourage quarterback Alex Smith from throwing to him.
“When I look at him on Sundays, I saw, ‘OK, somebody else is open because the safety is leaning way over the top,’ ” Robinson said. “That read is already taken away, so you go to the other side, your second and third progression.”
Especially with a risk-averse quarterback like Smith, whose numbers reveal to perhaps be more likely to check down than others. According to Pro Football Focus, Smith is attempting passes of 20 yards or more only 5.1 percent of the time, which is easily the lowest rate of any starting quarterback (the great majority of quarterbacks hover over 10 percent).
“One-on-one matchups, I’m gonna win all day,” Bowe said. “But when you’ve got Cover 3 and you’re doubling the ‘Z’ (receiver), which is me, I mean, what are you going to do? Alex is gonna take a look, he’s going to see two guys going to me and he’s going to hit Donnie deep or hit the tight end or catch Jamaal out the backfield.”
Bowe has only caught one pass this season for 20 yards or more, which accounts for a miniscule 3 percent of his receptions. In his previous three seasons, at least 20 percent of his receptions went for 20 yards or more.
Pederson insists there have been times the Chiefs have tried to get Bowe the ball downfield only to see the protection break down or coverage refuse to cooperate. However, Pederson also admits his offense can do a better job of getting Bowe the ball, especially when he faces single coverage.
A good example of the benefits of this strategy came to the forefront Sunday against the Raiders, when Smith saw Bowe in a one-on-one matchup and gave him a chance to make the play despite tight coverage. Bowe drew a pass-interference penalty, which led to a touchdown that tied the game at 7-7.
“He’s that kind of player that when he is one-on-one, that certainly warrants me throwing that into a window that maybe I wouldn’t with some other guys,” Smith said. “He’s that type of player."
For his part, Bowe is confident he’ll be ready to pounce when given the opportunity.
“Everybody knows what I can do,” said Bowe, who added that he’s comfortable with the number of times he’s been targeted. “I got the contract because of what I did. ... The weeks coming up, I’ve got a lot of good matchups. I (could) get the ball a little bit more.”
For now, Bowe insists he’s perfectly happy with the way things are, provided his teammates keep making plays and the Chiefs keep winning. In other words, don’t expect Bowe to end his recent tradition of leading postgame celebrations in the locker room anytime soon.
“You’ve gotta look at the big picture,” Bowe said. “Everybody’s getting involved, everybody’s contributing and everybody’s making this thing work to where we’re at right now, 6-0. I just want to tell everybody I am very, very happy and excited about where this team is going.”