Growing up in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, Travis Kelce loved football, and like most football-loving kids, he had his favorite players at each position.
“There were certain guys that I feel like played the game the right way,” said Kelce, a third-round pick in 2013. “Guys like Jeremy Shockey, Tony Gonzalez, guys that really showed their passion for the game out there. You can’t help but like guys that show that love.”
In a similar manner, you will have a hard time finding a Chief who shows more enthusiasm for the game than Kelce, who might have as many celebrations — dances, first-down signals, etc. — as he does receptions this season (34).
Still, the second-year pro, who leads the team in receiving touchdowns with four and is second in catches and yards (438), insists he is perfectly fine when Chiefs coach Andy Reid and quarterback Alex Smith opt to the ball around on Sundays, as they did in the Chiefs’ recent 17-13 win over Buffalo.
“We’re winning, I’m as happy as I can be,” Kelce said. “As long as we’re winning, you’re not going to see me complaining or spark up a conversation on why I’m not getting the ball.
“And even if we’re losing, I’m not that kind of guy. I’m the kind of guy where if I get the ball, I’ll do my best to help the team win. And if I don’t, I’ll do the best I can in other aspects of the game.”
No kidding. Even though Kelce, who played 40 of 60 possible snaps on Sunday, was only targeted a season-low two times Sunday, he still found a way to contribute away from the ball.
On one third-and-7 play in the first quarter, Kelce de-cleated Bills linebacker Jerry Hughes on a chip block before he started a drag route. Smith’s pass to Junior Hemingway fell incomplete, but Kelce helped keep a rapidly-shrinking pocket clean for an extra nanosecond.
It was the second time in as many weeks Kelce has de-cleated a pass rusher in a similar manner before venturing into his route. He did it the week before to 315-pound defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson in the Chiefs’ 24-10 win over the New York Jets.
Still, there’s little doubt that with his athleticism and big-play ability — he beat nickel defender Nickell Robey badly on a dig route Sunday, though Smith was swallowed up by the Bills’ pass rush before he could deliver the ball — Kelce does his best work as a receiver, especially when you consider the Chiefs’ receivers have yet to score a touchdown this season.
That’s why it’s tempting to wonder why Kelce, who finished with two catches for 19 yards, was targeted so little against the Bills on Sunday.
“Every week’s not going to be a big-catch week for receivers,” Reid said. “We’re lucky here that we have guys that really understand that and work through it. D (Dwayne) Bowe had a big day, so that took a little off of what Kelce had.
Bowe caught eight passes for 93 yards. But Kelce was only sent out on pass patterns roughly 50 percent of the time he was on the field Sunday, and when he was, there were some occasions Smith did not even look his way.
“He was dialed up on a few of them,” Reid said, “and the coverage dictated the quarterback to go a different direction.”
Reid said teams have begun paying a little more attention to Kelce since September, when he averaged four passes for 54 yards and scored touchdowns in three of his first five games.
“I’ve seen a little bit more focus on me, but it’s nothing out of control,” Kelce said. “It’s not like they’re double covering me every play or anything like that. It’s just they’re recognizing where I am and picking up our tendencies.”
“I don’t know, this last week it didn’t feel like there was necessarily more attention to him,” Smith said. “I think certainly he has put more things on film, so teams are aware of him. I think it really kind of comes down to all of us doing it and finding those matchups and throwing the ball where it’s supposed to go.”
Smith said the fact Kelce only got two targets Sunday was more of a collective deal.
“They were playing good defense and a little lack of execution on our part,” Smith said. “(We) failed to execute a little bit, but certainly he is a guy you’d like to get the ball to — a playmaker for us like a lot of the other guys.”
Kelce, however, still has room to grow as a player. Reid’s playbook is complicated, and he sees himself (correctly) as a hybrid player, meaning he lines up all over the field. The Chiefs like to use him split out wide, attached to the line, as a h-back and as a slot receiver, and the responsibilities for each differ, depending on the play.
“The variety of things you could possibly do in this offense isn’t really like every single offense out there,” Kelce said.
In other words, it’s not as simple as listening to Reid’s complicated playcalls, hearing his route assignment and executing.
“I wish it was,” Kelce said with a laugh. “But it’s really not.”
There are times when the Chiefs call two plays in the huddle and kill one at the line of scrimmage. Kelce has to know the mid-play adjustments for each, depending on the type of defense the opponent is playing.
The good news, Kelce said, is that he’s starting to get it.
“At this point in the year, I feel like I’ve got a pretty good grasp of it,” Kelce said. “It doesn’t really trip my mind too much. Week one, it was a little bit different. And first week of training camp, a whole lot different than that. But I feel like I’ve got a pretty good grasp of it.”
“He’s got the whole thing down,” Reid said. “It’s just, he and Anthony (Fasano), they work. You saw him at the end of the game, when Anthony was hurt, go in and do a nice job with a play that Anthony is normally in on. The beginning of the year we kind of kept the packages a little bit smaller and then we’ve added to it, and he’s really caught up to speed with the whole deal right now.”
Kelce showed some growth on his final catch Sunday, which came on a crucial third down late in the fourth quarter that helped ice the game.
The Chiefs, who led by four with two minutes, 13 second left, were facing a third-and-8 at their own 17-yard line, and Reid called a hi-lo concept for Bowe, who ran a drag, and Kelce, who ran up the field about 12 yards and found the soft spot in the Bills’ zone coverage, which made for an easy first-down throw for Smith.
“Yeah, I felt the zone just open up,” Kelce said. “It kind of opened up right behind me, so I just kind of peaked into and Smitty made a good play in the pocket to get me the ball.”
Smith gave Kelce credit for making the play happen.
“They actually went and dropped eight guys into coverage,” Smith said. “O-line did a great job protecting up front. (Kelce) did a great job moving, it was kind of a second deal there in the zone, finding the soft spot in the zone and having a good feel for it. Made it pretty easy.”
For his part, Kelce is excited about the growth he’s made and is eager to keep proving it, though he doesn’t want it to come at the expense of the Chiefs’ spread-it-around style.
“I’m feeling the game a little bit more, in terms of where Alex likes to see coverages and where he likes to go with the ball in certain coverages,” Kelce said. “Just going out there, getting reps, I feel like I’m going to naturally get better at what I do.”