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What's Wrong With Dwayne Bowe?

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While the Kansas City Chiefs have been thriving in 2013, primary wide receiver Dwayne Bowe has been struggling. Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images
While the Kansas City Chiefs have been thriving in 2013, primary wide receiver Dwayne Bowe has been struggling. Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Dwayne Bowe is off to the worst start of his career since joining the league in 2007.  The Kansas City Chiefs’ No. 1 receiver is not putting up the stats that the team is used to seeing. 

Through five games, Bowe has 17 receptions on 31 targets for 183 yards and two touchdowns. Only in 2010 did Bowe catch fewer balls through this many games. Bowe has 77 fewer yards compared to the same stretch in any of his other seasons. 

What could be the cause for this drop-off? Is his poor performance due to schematic issues? Or is there something else? Bowe is certainly not performing to his usual standards, which is partly due to schematic issues. 

I first want to look at his numbers to see where is performance has dropped off this season. Firstly, Bowe has never been targeted this rarely in his career. In 2013, Bowe has averaged only 6.2 targets a game. Entering this season, Bowe had a career average of 8.4 targets per game. His targets per game aren’t the only thing that has been dropping. The percentage of targets Bowe receives is also down. Currently, Bowe has 17.1% of the Chiefs’ targets to rank second on the team. (Jamaal Charles currently ranks first with 24.3% of Kansas City’s targets).

Bowe’s low targets numbers aren’t due to a major change in the Chiefs offense. You could reasonably expect that the Chiefs were throwing less resulting in less targets available for Bowe after looking at the numbers. But that turns out not to be the case. The problem is deeper. Not only are Bowe’s numbers down, but this offense is fairly pass happy. The 2013 Chiefs throw the ball more times per game than any other Kansas City team has since Bowe came into the league. Bowe has been a smaller part of the offense this season than he ever has before from a production standpoint. 

This is only the second season of Bowe’s career in which has not received the majority of  Kansas City’s targets. In Bowe’s rookie season, he came in second to Tony Gonzalez in targets. However, during that season, Bowe’s target percentage was four points higher than it is currently. 

Interesting enough, when Bowe is thrown the ball, he catches at an average rate for him. He has not seen any drop-off in that statistic this season. Throughout his career Bowe has averaged a catch rate of 55.4%. This season it is just under his career average at 54.8%, which is a negligible difference. The problem is, that’s not a great catch percentage. This season, Bowe ranks 35th in wide receiver catch percentage among players with at least 20 targets. Keep in mind that the very best receivers don’t always have the best catch percentages. Bowe has a higher percentage than Calvin Johnson and A.J. Green this year. Bowe’s career catch percentage is also better than Johnson’s and Green’s. 

Bowe’s offensive impact hasn’t been limited only because of his lower target numbers. When Bowe does make a catch, he’s doing less with it afterward. His yards per reception is also at a career low. Heading into this season, Bowe averaged 13.8 yards per reception. That number this season is 10.8. 

The two largest differences in Bowe’s performance is his target percentage and yards per reception. Both of these could be due to schematic differences under Andy Reid. The offense has clearly been designed to get the ball out of Alex Smith’s hands quickly and safely. The big plays have come in catch-and-run situations. That’s not Bowe’s biggest strength as a wide receiver. Throughout his career he hasn’t averaged that many yards after catch. Among this year’s Chiefs, four players have more yards after catch than Bowe. With nine fewer receptions, fullback Anthony Sherman has three more yards after catch. In 2013, Bowe has averaged just 2.8 yards after each catch, which is a career-low for him. Excluding this year’s numbers, Bowe has averaged 4.5 yards after each catch, which isn’t a great number by any means, but it is better by a decent margin. 

Stats aren’t the only things that help football players make an impact. Bowe’s impact isn’t limited to only his receptions. Opposing defenses will still typically use their best cornerback to cover Bowe, which matters at least a little. He’s still a strong and powerful receiver and he has put that on display a few times this season.  

Bowe picked up a garbage touchdown late in the win over the New York Giants in Week 4. The Chiefs led by 17 with just over three minutes remaining and were at the Giants’ 34-yard line. While the outcome didn’t totally matter due to the game situation, the process of the play showed what Bowe is capable of. Even if Bowe’s numbers as a whole look bad, and they do, Bowe has shown a few flashes of the Pro Bowl level talent he has. On the aforementioned touchdown, Giants cornerback Terrell Thomas is up against the line and jams Bowe when the play starts, at least he hopes to. Bowe burns him with a double move and begins his go route. The ball is underthrown, giving Thomas a second chance. Bowe adjusts and wrangles the ball away from Thomas and breaks the tackle. Bowe then stiff-arms Antrel Rolle and gets into the end zone for an inconsequential score. The play featured Bowe's speed, strength, and athleticism. 

However, far too often Bowe has seemed to lack effort during plays usually with lazy route running. The offense doesn’t give the receivers a bunch of time to get open, so there isn’t time for Bowe to find the soft spot in the zone. The ball will be out of Smith’s hands long before. 

It is entirely possible the Chiefs are designing their plays away from Bowe and to Charles, Sean McGrath and Donnie Avery. Maybe Bowe is getting fewer opportunities by design. But is that really what you want to do with your highly paid receiver? I think it’s much more likely that Smith simply looks for those other options first. Can you blame him? When those options do get the ball, they are putting up better numbers than Bowe is. 

It’s certainly possible that Bowe’s production will increase as the season goes along. However, we are already a third of the way through the season. There isn't that much time for Bowe to make huge improvements. The Chiefs have been very fortunate schedule-wise, especially when it comes to defensive prowess. Four of the five teams they have faced are in the bottom one-third of defensive DVOA, according to Football Outsider’s rankings. It can't get much easier than that and yet, Bowe is still struggling. 

After five games, it is clear that Bowe’s performance is down based on expectations. It is down compared to past performance and future projections of what a Smith-Bowe connection would be like back before the season began. Smith likes Bowe about as much as he does Avery, which is something I never thought would happen heading into this season. Bowe just hasn’t shown up yet. There is no reason why he shouldn’t perform well in this offense. He certainly has the talent. He’s had only one impactful game out of five and that was against one of the league’s worst defenses. If things don’t change, it wouldn’t be a surprise if his role gets a bit smaller.