If you haven't been paying attention to the Kansas City Chiefs, then you are missing out on the emergence of one the league's great receivers.
Dwayne Bowe is in the midst of a sensational streak, which has pushed him into rarefied air. He has a league-leading 14 touchdown receptions, including 13 in the past seven games, putting him on pace to challenge Randy Moss' single-season mark of 23 scores. He also ranks fifth overall with 885 receiving yards and is tied for the fourth-most receptions (14) over 20 yards.
While those impressive statistics are obvious signs of Bowe's arrival, it has been the transformation of his game over the past year that has convinced me he is worthy of entering the conversation about the next great players at the position.
Bowe, who was the Chiefs' first-round selection in the 2007 draft, entered the league regarded as a big, physical receiver with outstanding tools. Although he spent most of his collegiate career struggling with drops and a suspect work ethic, he overcame those deficiencies to have a strong senior season at LSU. Bowe finished as one of the top receivers in the Southeastern Conference in nearly every category, and he capped his impressive year at the Senior Bowl.
Bowe dominated the likes of Aaron Ross, Michael Griffin and Brandon Meriweather in practices, and flashed big-play ability as a potential No. 1 receiver. The Chiefs gambled on that upside when they nabbed him with the 23rd overall pick. He immediately paid dividends by leading all rookie wideouts in catches (70), receiving yards (995) and touchdowns (five). He followed that with a solid sophomore campaign, topping the 1,000-yard mark while finishing 10th in the NFL with 86 receptions.
With two strong seasons under his belt, Bowe was expected to take another step when Todd Haley took over as the coach last season. Haley arrived with an impressive resume after tutoring Terrell Owens, Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald to Pro Bowl honors as an offensive coordinator or receivers coach at his previous stops. Fitzgerald, in particular, rose to prominence as the league's top receiver under Haley, so it was natural to assume that Bowe would grow into a dominant player in Kansas City.
However, the relationship got off to a rocky start when Bowe reported to workouts overweight, and he underwhelmed Haley with his casual approach to practice. The coach demoted Bowe from the starting lineup during the 2009 preseason for his lack of discipline and conditioning. Haley then challenged his young star to maximize his potential by working on his craft on a daily basis.
Even though the results didn't show up initially because of the Chiefs' scattershot offense last season, Bowe has experienced a rebirth under Charlie Weis. The crafty offensive coordinator has catered the passing game to fit Bowe's strengths as a physical receiver with good running skills.
When looking at tape, I noticed that Bowe runs an assortment of in-breaking routes that allow him to use his superior size (6-foot-2, 221 pounds) and strength to overpower defensive backs. He is extremely productive running slants because he is able to fight through press coverage at the line. If defenders play from depth, Bowe's imposing size makes him nearly impossible to defend on the pattern. As he breaks in at a 45-degree angle, on his third step, he creates an impenetrable wall between the defender and the ball. Add in his exceptional arm length, and Bowe can extend to pluck balls away from his body to prevent defenders from breaking up the intended throw.
Bowe's power and run-after-the-catch ability make him a dangerous weapon in the quick passing game. Not only does he prevent defenders from making plays on the ball with his size, but his knack for breaking tackles makes him a scoring threat from anywhere on the field.
While Bowe's natural athleticism led to success earlier in his career, it has been his improved attention to detail as a route runner that is separating him from the pack. He is showing a keen understanding of how to attack a defender's leverage to create space at the top of his routes. In looking at his touchdowns, I repeatedly watched Bowe work to the defender's outside shoulder to open up the inside on the skinny-post route. The "bang eight" is a big part of the Chiefs' passing game inside the red zone, and he has mastered the nuances of getting open on that route. From the initial stem to widen the defender to taking the right angle at the top of the pattern, Bowe's attention to detail has made the route an automatic score when the Chiefs dial it up.
Given Bowe's emergence as a dominant receiver, the Chiefs have continued to find ways to put him in favorable situations. One of the tactics involves the use of motion to get him a free release at the line. Although Bowe possesses the tools to get free from press or cloud (Cover 2 corners attempting to force receivers inside with two-hand jams) coverage at the line, motion gives him an opportunity to use his momentum to gain a step or two on the defender early in the route.
The movement also gives Bowe a better release angle to avoid contact. With defenders unable to slow him down through physical force, he has been able to become a factor in the vertical passing game on deep sideline throws. The increase in deep balls has taken the passing game to another level and quietly made the connection between Matt Cassel and Bowe one of the league's best.
Bowe teased coaches, scouts and fans with his talent during the first three seasons of his career. However, an improved dedication to his craft under the watchful eye of Haley and Weis has Bowe on the verge of superstardom in Kansas City.