The offensive line of the Kansas City Chiefs looks a lot like a grade-school game of musical chairs, only with 300-pound behemoths jumping around from spot to spot.
Take second-year pro Zach Fulton. He’s been forced to play three different spots along the line due to a litany of injuries this season. And he wasn’t even supposed to be a starter.
It’s not just along the offensive line, either. The Chiefs have used fullback Spencer Ware as a change-of-pace running back, and wide receivers have lined up all over the field. On defense, guys are moving around so much that it seems as if change is the only constant.
All of which underscores the value of interchangeable parts in the modern NFL.
"Having that flexibility is a big thing," Chiefs coach Andy Reid explained. "It’s that, `The more you do, the more that ups your value."’
The Chiefs aren’t alone. They head to New England for Saturday’s divisional round against a team in the Patriots that is just as adept at moving around pieces to make everything work.
Lose wide receiver Julian Edelman to a broken foot for nine weeks? No problem. Stick journeyman Keshawn Martin out there. Dion Lewis and LeGarrette Blount headed to injured reserve? Brandon Bolden, James White and Joey Iosefa can get you by — until you get Steven Jackson off the street.
"You have to have some way to manage those situations," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "So depending on what the position is, what the situation is, your team — each team is different. I don’t know that there’s one set way to do it."
Nowhere is the value of versatility more important than the offensive line.
Years ago, guys often would sign to play a specific position. Over time, it became necessary for them to play on either side of the line. These days, someone like Jeff Allen could be called upon to play anywhere across the Chiefs’ offensive line on any given day.
The musical chairs were never as evident as in last weekend’s wild-card win over Houston.
Mitch Morse was already out with a concussion, so Fulton filled in at center. Jah Reid was out with a sore knee, so Donald Stephenson started at right tackle. But when right guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif sustained a concussion of his own, Reid limped onto the field to play guard — for the first time all year. And all of this without Ben Grubbs, the starting left guard, who is on injured reserve.
Forgive quarterback Alex Smith if sometimes he doesn’t know who’s in front of him when he takes a snap, or who is protecting his blindside from guys like J.J. Watt.
"It’s not always pretty. That’s not this crew," Andy Reid said. "They’re not going to win any beauty contests. But they come out and they’ll battle you and there’s something to be said about that."
Running back is another position where a piecemeal approach has paid off.
Jamaal Charles went down with a season-ending knee injury early in the year, and Ware has teamed up with Charcandrick West to form a potent one-two combination in the Kansas City backfield.
"Not having Charles and those guys is going to hurt," Patriots cornerback Patrick Chung said, "but those guys are good, too. … They’re a good team, a very explosive team as a whole."
In fact, all of those personnel changes can be just as taxing on the opponent. What the Chiefs are doing with Ware and West may be entirely different from what they did with Charles when New England played them last year, and the same goes for the way the Patriots go about things.
"They obviously emphasize the skills of certain players and skills that their individual players have," Belichick said. "It’s a lot to defend. You have to defend a lot of different things and a lot of good players there, and if they catch on something they have a chance for a big play."
Notes: Chiefs LBs Tamba Hali and Justin Houston did not practice Tuesday to rest sore knees. Morse and Duvernay-Tardif have not passed the league’s concussion protocol. … Chiefs WR Jeremy Maclin (sprained ankle) walked around the locker room with a slight limp Tuesday. "He’s making good progress," Reid said, declining to elaborate on his status for Saturday’s game.
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