By Herbie Teope
KANSAS CITY, Mo. – From the West Coast offense to new Chiefs head coach Andy Reid, former NFL TEs Chad Lewis and Jackie Harris have common ground. But arguably the largest similarity surrounds the development they experienced with Reid, where honors and statistics offer evidence of production.
Lewis enjoyed three straight Pro Bowl seasons (2000-02) in Philadelphia, including second-team All-Pro recognition by The Associated Press in 2000. Harris, who played on four teams during a 12-year career, had two of his top three seasons in yards receiving during Reid’s first two years in Green Bay (1992-93).
Overall numbers tell the story, making it difficult to argue against Reid having an established system where TEs flourish.
“Part of it is he coached the TE position for so many years in Green Bay, he has an affinity for TEs,” Lewis explained. “He understands the language, he understands the technique, he completely understands. Andy has no problem manufacturing plays to the tight end that helps the running game and passing game.”
Based on that philosophy, Reid’s arrival in Kansas City signals good news for an offense looking to rebound from a dismal 2012 passing attack ranked last in the NFL (169.6 yards per game). Reid inherits a TE group where Tony Moeaki, Kevin Boss, Steve Maneri and Jake O’Connell combined for 44 catches for 587 yards and two touchdowns.
Moeaki, a year removed from an ACL injury, led the quartet with 33 catches for 453 yards and a touchdown. Boss, who signed a free-agent contract with the Chiefs in 2012, was expected to be a large part of the passing game. However, a head injury suffered in Week Two landed Boss on injured reserve in after Week Four. He finished with three receptions for 65 yards and a touchdown.
Maneri, who had five catches for 51 yards, enters 2013 as a restricted free agent. O’Connell, who chipped in with three catches for 18 yards before landing on injured reserve in Week 11, is an unrestricted free agent.
Nevertheless, Lewis, now an associate athletic director at BYU, said Kansas City’s TEs are in for an enjoyable ride.
“Tony Moeaki and Kevin Boss, those guys are going to love Coach Reid,” Lewis said. “He loves tight ends and he knows how to get them the ball. It’s going to be a lot of fun.”
The former Eagles TE would know, as he totaled 152 catches for 1,555 yards and 12 touchdowns during his three Pro Bowl seasons. But Moeaki and Boss shouldn’t just take Lewis at his word. Instead, they can also look to others who thrived under Reid’s tutelage over the last two decades.
Former Packers TE Mark Chmura made three Pro Bowls (1995, 1997-98) and current Eagles TE Brent Celek averaged 59.2 catches with Reid the last four seasons, including a team-high 76 receptions in 2009.
Additionally, former Eagles TE L.J. Smith proved heavily involved in the passing game. His 61 catches in 2005 tied for the team lead with then-Eagles RB Brian Westbrook, and Smith followed that season with 50 catches, good for second-best on the team.
And there’s Harris, who went from 24 catches for 264 yards in 1991 before Reid to an increase to 55 catches for 595 yards in 1992 and 42 catches for 604 yards in 1993 with Reid.
“The best thing that happened to me in Green Bay was Andy Reid and Mike Holmgren coming to town with the West Coast offense,” Harris said.
Meanwhile, Boss said he monitored TEs around the league when he played for the Giants (2007-10), but he paid special attention to the players within the NFC East. Celek’s success in Philadelphia didn’t go unnoticed and Boss said he was looking forward to playing for Reid.
When informed of Lewis’ and Harris’ comments surrounding the TE in Reid’s offense, the enthusiasm in Boss’ voice grew.
“It’s even more exciting hearing those guys talk that have played with Coach Reid,” he said. “I’ve said from the get-go that I think with me and Tony (Moeaki) there are a lot of possibilities. You can get us both on the field together and create mismatches.
“Unfortunately, we weren’t able to play a lot together last year, but I’m hoping to get back this year and get back on the field again,” Boss continued. “With the addition of Coach Reid and the great staff that he put together, I think these are exciting times now for the Chiefs.”
Still, a critical part of any NFL offensive system surrounds the player responsible for throwing the football. And that position remains in flux, as the Chiefs decide whether to keep Matt Cassel, sign a player in free agency or address it during April’s NFL Draft.
New Chiefs GM John Dorsey, who served as a Packers scout during the 1990s, pointed out the value of having the correct QB during his Jan. 14 introductory press conference.
“I think anytime when you begin to build a franchise, let’s be real here, the QB is a very important part of any franchise as you note these last few weeks in the playoffs,” Dorsey said. “I figure the QB position is a very important position to long-term success of an organization.”
Dorsey’s stance on the QB carries notable weight to Reid-coached TEs, where Harris said cultivating the QB-TE chemistry is significant.
“In the West Coast offense, or at least Andy’s version of it, I think it’s the physical relationship between where the TE aligns most of the time and the QB,” Harris said. “One thing we always worked on – and we really worked on a lot – was developing a good rapport with the QB.”
Former Eagles QB Koy Detmer, who served as Donovan McNabb’s backup from 1999-2005, agreed with Harris’ assessment.
Detmer said in most situations, what the TE does helps establish what the RBs and WRs do with their respective routes. He adds the TE route also sets up the QB read, making the development of unspoken communication between the two positions a priority.
“The relationship between a QB and TE is very important because of the route concepts,” Detmer said. “The tight end is a big part of it because if he’s not the primary receiver, he’s almost always the secondary receiver. That becomes a real big deal to a West Coast offense with the TE.”
Of course, the West Coast offense and its variations produced high-profile QBs over the last 25-plus years. However, Harris points out behind those QBs were capable TEs who helped the scheme work.
“If you don’t have a TE that can play well, that fits in well, you can’t do a lot of the things that you saw Joe Montana, Brett Favre, Steve Young or Donovan McNabb do in the West Coast offense,” Harris said. “The TE is responsible for the blitz adjustment on just about every play. That offense is designed to let the WRs do their thing and the TE handles all the set adjustments, the hot reads, those kinds of things.”
Harris, now an attorney in Pine Bluff, Ark., believes a West Coast offense TE needs to be more than a player designated solely for passing situations and should strive to become a “complete package.”
The former Packers TE said accomplishing that task will lead to more playing time in the system.
“That was the thing, especially when I was in Green Bay, I didn’t want to come off the field,” Harris said. “I wanted to be on the field every down and in order to do that, I had to become a better blocker and pass receiver. And within that offense, it gives you so many opportunities if you’re on the field every down.”
Opportunities to produce come in the form of how Reid attacks the opponent, and Lewis said his former head coach excels in the short passing game to take advantage of an aggressive defense, even when defenders schemed to take it away.
“Andy does a great job of exploiting that simple combination of a quarterback 5-10 yards away from his receiver,” he said. “Gun it in there, get yards in chunks, put the defense on their heels and get the offense rolling.
But when objectives didn’t go as planned, the former Eagles TE said there was always one influence everybody around Reid could rely on – his unwavering faith in his system.
“His confidence was forged with Mike Holmgren in Green Bay,” Lewis said. “He absolutely believes in the West Coast offense. He’s never afraid of tweaking anything to match personnel and that’s what you have to do.”
Reid’s ability to adapt will be put to good use in Kansas City. The Chiefs haven’t effectively replaced the TE production since Tony Gonzalez left via trade to the Falcons during the 2009 offseason.
Even so, the current Chiefs TEs have an opportunity to shine, as the position will be leaned on in Reid’s system.
“They can expect to be key members of the offense,” Lewis said. “They can expect to be totally a part of everything that happens, from blocking to protection to receiving. They are in the mix in the base offensive package, in the third-down offensive package, in the red-zone offensive package, in the goal-line, short-yardage package, and they are integral to what is going to be happening.”
Ultimately, numerous factors impact a team’s triumphs on the field. While past TEs have flourished and garnered individual accolades in Reid’s offense, the most important dynamic remains the position’s contributions to the statistical category that matters the most.
And for a franchise two decades removed from a playoff win, Chiefs TEs are a virtual lock to play a major role in helping Reid turn it around in Kansas City.
“For the Eagles to go to the NFC Championship game five times, the Super Bowl once and really be on the cusp of going to the Super Bowl multiple times, as a player that’s all you can ask,” Lewis said. “I look at Tony Gonzalez – we came out the same time – and it was really just this year he had those magical playoff moments, moments that because of Andy, because of Donovan McNabb, because of my other teammates, I was fortunate enough as a player to experience those almost every year. I know that’s what Andy is going to bring to Kansas City.”
Herbie Teope is the Chiefs correspondent for Pro Football Weekly