KANSAS CITY, Mo. — As the late, great Wayne Woodrow Hayes once said, three things can happen when you throw the ball to Donnie Avery. And two of them are bad.
“It’s important that when you’re given the opportunity to catch it, you have to catch it,” Kansas City Chiefs coach Andy Reid said after his men dropped their third game in a row, as well as several passes along the way.
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“We can all do our job better. It’s not one position or one player — that’s not what it is. It’s all of us doing our job better.”
Well, it is, and it isn’t. Denver 35, Chiefs 28 was a team whiff, back to front, no question. But some whiffs were bigger than others.
Quarterback Alex Smith (293 yards passing, two scores, one pick) went round for round, punch for punch, with Peyton Manning (403 yards, five scores, two picks), his more ballyhooed contemporary. The difference Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium wasn’t 11 versus 18. Not really.
It was Eric Decker and Demaryius Thomas versus Avery and Dwayne Bowe. It was eight catches for 174 yards and four scores (Decker) and three for 106 (Thomas) versus two for 17 (Avery) and three for 56 (Bowe).
Special-teamer Junior Hemingway was arguably Smith’s best, most reliable option, and that was a very, very bad sign. Not because of what Hemingway can or can’t do — he wound up snaring three balls for 42 yards and a touchdown — but because the people ahead of him on the depth chart dropped rock after rock. Literally.
“That’s part of football, you know, there’s going to be drops,” said Hemingway, whose 17-yard touchdown grab had put the hosts up, 6-0, with 2:41 to go in the first quarter. “You just know that when you drop that one, you’ve got to come back and make the next one.
“You can’t get down on that drive. You’ve got to come back and make that next play and that’s what you’ve got to do.”
The Chiefs did — on their final drive of the night. A.J. Jenkins went high for a 26-yard grab on third-and-14. Dexter McCluster went horizontal for 28 yards on second-and-10. Bowe was clutch for 23 on first-and-10, powering the hosts all the way to the Denver 19.
“I mean, that’s just who we are,” Jenkins would say later. “(We’ve) just got faith in one another. Even if you drop a pass, or something goes wrong, we still keep fighting. It’s not about the last play. It’s about trying to move on.”
This one is going to be tough to move on from.
It wasn’t for lack of want-to, lack of effort — the Chiefs stepped into the octagon without arguably their best defender (outside linebacker Justin Houston) and kept Manning and his cohorts within shouting distance. Rookie cornerback Marcus Cooper continued to get all kinds of abused, but he hung in there, picking off one of RoboPeyton’s wounded ducks and batting another one away.
The Andy Gang was swept by Denver in two meetings over a critical three-week stretch, but they weren’t completely outclassed by them, either. If anything, we’ve learned that the gap between the Chiefs and Broncos might not be about the defense; or the coaches; or Manning vs. Smith, the men throwing the passes.
It’s about the men catching them.
Sunday underscored a problem. A problem and a pattern. The Chiefs went into Week 13 ranked fifth in the NFL in percentage of passes dropped (5.9), according to SportingCharts.com, behind only New England (7.5), St. Louis (7.3), Detroit (7.1) and Cleveland (6.2).
The individual numbers aren’t especially pretty, either, with Jenkins (40 percent drop rate on five targets going into Sunday), McCluster (4.8 percent on 63), Avery (5.4 on 56), Anthony Fasano (12.0 on 25), Jamaal Charles (9.4 on 85) and Anthony Sherman (4.8 on 21) all botching more than 4 percent of the balls lobbed their way.
The perception is that the Chiefs, for all their strengths, are still flawed at wideout, especially when compared to their playoff-chasing peers, especially when matched up against the NFL’s elite. And the reality — Sunday’s reality, especially — bears that out.
Alex Smith isn’t the problem here, kids. He never was.
“I don’t,” Jenkins said when asked if he thought about the inevitable criticism from fans and media. “It’s not even through my mind.
“The only people’s opinions that I care about are the people in this locker room who I’m going to work with every day. I don’t care what the radio people say, (what) people who are looking outside the stadium (have) got to say. That (doesn’t) matter.”
But drops matter. Ball security matters. Concentration matters. Being able to keep pace in a shootout — it’s taken 31 points in a game, on average, to beat a Peyton Manning team since 2008 — matters.
“But (it’s) ‘Next play. Got to move on,'” Hemingway said. “You’ve got to have a short memory.”
Speaking of that, remember all that talk of home-field advantage at Arrowhead in January? The vision of the Chiefs paving themselves a shorter, more comfortable path to the Super Bowl?
Well, you can probably kiss both of those scenarios goodbye. The Andy Gang begins the week a game back of the Broncos in the AFC West, and 0-for-2 head-to-head. Kansas City plays two of its next three on the road (at Washington, at Oakland); Denver gets two of its next three (vs. Tennessee, vs. San Diego) at home.
“It hurts,” Hemingway said. “It’s a division game, it’s going to hurt. But we’ve got to get over it, like men.”
After all, can you really lay claim to something you can’t hang onto?
“We can do better there,” Reid said.
If they’re to salvage December, it’ll have to be.
You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter (@seankeeler) or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.