ST. JOSEPH, Mo. – When Andy Reid dispersed the 15-play script for the Kansas City Chiefs' first preseason game last week, a smile crept across the face of wideout Jeremy Maclin. The franchise's biggest offseason acquisition looked at the first play of the game and saw Reid reaching straight for some vertical hot sauce.
The first order of business in Maclin's debut? A deep ball from quarterback Alex Smith to his new No. 1 receiver.
And he could think of no better way to hoist Kansas City's flag in the 2015 season.
"It was just letting them know," Maclin said. "It was saying, 'Hey, we can do this.'"
Maclin was referring to the Arizona Cardinals, who ultimately forced an incompletion. But not before the Chiefs raised the eyebrows of those who haven't been initiated in this year's training camp. There has been a somewhat new attitude in this place, starting with the second play of camp, when Smith descended deep into the pocket and heaved a long completion to Maclin on a sideline route. This was a little opening flare for the Chiefs' faithful, who have long been looking at their starting quarterback and wondering, "Can he do this?"
In the weeks since, dispatches have been coming out of this camp in all forms of media, like Bigfoot sightings from the wilderness: I saw the Chiefs throwing the deep ball today. And lest anyone doubt them, Reid took the opportunity to punctuate this expected staple of the offense, dialing up Smith to Maclin right out of the preseason gate. Much to the liking of his quarterback and wide receiver tandem.
"He came to us and said, 'This is what we're going to do,'" Smith said, mimicking a posture that suggested Reid's delivery carried some swagger. "That's the way he is, totally. That kind of thing trickles down on everybody, that kind of attitude."
The skeptical might flag this as a sales pitch, the kind of annual boast that makes training camps sound like echo chambers full of tough talk and promises. But spend a few days watching the Chiefs and you will see some evidence that Smith and Maclin have an exciting connection. A bond that is typically tough to come by for wide receivers reeled in via free agency, then tossed into a soup of new offensive terminology and concepts.
But Maclin isn't that guy. Not after being plucked by Reid's Philadelphia Eagles in the 2009 draft and spending his first four years in his system. It was actually during those four years when Maclin unknowingly convinced Reid that he was a bona fide No. 1 wideout.
Initially brought in to play a deep-threat second fiddle to DeSean Jackson, Maclin was thrust into a more creative and heavily used role when injuries cut Jackson's 2012 season short. As it would happen, that year would be Reid's last in Philadelphia. But he left remembering how Maclin handled a bigger role in the offense down the stretch that season. He no longer looked like only a deep specialist. He looked like a guy who could be moved around and implemented in different ways. Essentially, he had the hallmarks of a guy who you could anchor a passing offense.
"When DeSean was hurt, he'd go play [the more active role] for us," Reid said, describing the "Z" receiver spot that Jackson held in Philadelphia. "Jeremy knows it. Now it's just a matter of putting enough in the offense for him and then dialing it up. And he and Alex have hit it off pretty good."
Signed in the offseason to a five-year, $55 million deal, the Chiefs are banking on Maclin helping Smith take a healthy stride forward at 31 years old. This after Dwayne Bowe and the Chiefs' receiving corps degenerated into a disaster last season when it scored zero touchdowns.
Now Bowe is in Cleveland and Smith is adjusting to a unique arsenal of weapons that will likely include a wideout (Maclin), tight end (Travis Kelce) and running back (Jamaal Charles) being the top three receiving options. All three could shoulder workloads this season that would make them Pro Bowl candidates. But Smith is going to have to take some steps forward on his own and prove that he can bridge the gap between solid and great quarterbacks. Whether that is coming through consistently in third-down passing situations (which he has been dinged for in opposing scouting profiles), his ability to rally the Chiefs late in games, or connecting more consistently on deep balls, critics have poked at Smith for lacking the foundation of his more celebrated contemporaries.
Reid, for one, believes Smith will continue an arc upward. And not just because of the connection with Maclin. For the first time in Smith's career, he will have been in the same offensive system for three straight years.
"Playing quarterback is like being a farmer," Reid said. "There's always room to improve. As a farmer, there's never a day that you go, 'The work is done.' You go to bed knowing, 'I could have done a little bit more.'"
Of course, Smith isn't on his own. And the pieces around him are still being welded together. Particularly the offensive line, which signed Pro Bowl guard Ben Grubbs this offseason in hopes of solidifying an uneven group. But that effort hit a speed bump Monday when left tackle Eric Fisher (the No. 1 pick in the 2013 draft) suffered a high ankle sprain, an injury that is expected to keep him out until at least late in the preseason. Reid said Fisher's athleticism and flexibility actually saved him from a potentially season-ending injury. Looking at the injury on film, Reid said another lineman anchored onto Fisher's left foot and then he was bent awkwardly in a mash up of bodies.
Still, the sprain shelved Fisher at a time when the staff was pleased with how he had performed in the preseason opener, in which he did a good job bottling up Cardinals Pro Bowl defensive end Calais Campbell. Now Fisher's progress will be paused, and the overall offensive line chemistry will be put into a holding pattern as pieces are shuffled around to fill the void.
For now, those offensive line questions, some ailing inside linebackers and the back injury to All-Pro nose tackle Dontari Poe have left plenty of questions to be worked out for the Chiefs. At the very least, Poe is expected to return in the coming months, and none of the linebackers has a season-ending injury. But there is undoubtedly a lot of work ahead.
That may be why the buzz of the AFC West in the preseason typically has left the Chiefs on the outside looking in. Up-and-coming offense? That's supposedly the Oakland Raiders. Elite veteran quarterback? That's San Diego Chargers signal-caller Philip Rivers. Best in the division? Almost everyone continues to point at Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos. And that's just fine with guys like Smith and Maclin.
"Listen, that's because they've got the sheriff back there," Maclin said of the Broncos and Manning typically being tabbed the AFC's best offense. "That's why people say that. And that's fine. I respect Peyton Manning. One of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play this game. We want everybody to keep talking about everyone else. … Let everybody keep talking about everybody else – Philip [Rivers], Peyton, the up-and-coming Raiders. We're fine with all that."
The Chiefs will just keep trumpeting the expanding relationship between Smith and Maclin, and patiently try to fit all the other pieces into place.
"It may not be bombs over Baghdad every play," Maclin said of the Chiefs' offense. "But is that something we can do? Do we want to do more of it? Yes, we do."