They can talk up second-year wideout Jon Baldwin all they want. They can believe it makes more fiscal sense to keep Bowe on a one-year franchise tender than a long-term deal. What they can't do is convince the world that they can win without him totally focused. That's just not going to work out well for them.
Bowe is easily the least-discussed holdout in the NFL these days, but his situation certainly is capable of hurting the Chiefs in the long run. Because Kansas City won't know if running back Jamaal Charles has recovered completely from a torn ACL, Bowe is the best offensive player on the Chiefs' roster. He's gained more than 1,000 yards receiving in three of the past four seasons. He's made the Pro Bowl. He's been the person Kansas City could most count on when it needed to make something happen offensively.
Most importantly, Bowe is the man who makes life easier for quarterback Matt Cassel. We've reached the point where we finally can say with conviction that Cassel is merely a serviceable NFL signal-caller. He's not good enough to carry a team by himself and he's capable only when surrounded by the right people. That means Cassel needs all the legitimate weapons he can find. In that regard, Bowe is as good as it gets for the Chiefs.
The problem is Bowe has been nowhere near the Chiefs since last season ended. The team hit him with the franchise tender when he became a free agent and the speculation then was that a long-term deal was bound to happen. General manager Scott Pioli had declined to invest big money in cornerback Brandon Carr (another free agent who eventually signed a $50 million deal in Dallas), so it appeared Kansas City was going all-in on Bowe. That possibility died the moment the deadline to sign long-term deals passed without Bowe and the Chiefs reaching an agreement. He could play this year for $9.5 million, then see what happens next offseason.
The theory that has been suggested in some circles is that the Chiefs want to rent Bowe for a year instead of committing to him long-term. The thinking there is that he'd been such a knucklehead in his early years -- inflated ego, shaky work ethic, stupid comments to the media -- that there's no telling how he'd behave with a hefty raise. The reality is that the old Bowe vanished years ago. In his place is a wiser, steadier veteran who rarely even talks to reporters.
At this stage, you could legitimately argue that Bowe is one of the 10 best wide receivers in the NFL. He also deserves to be paid somewhere in the neighborhood of the deals that recently went to receivers such as Philadelphia's DeSean Jackson (five years, $51 million) and Tampa Bay's Vincent Jackson (five years, $55 million). Now it's possible Bowe might have complicated negotiations by overestimating his market value. It's also quite likely that Pioli was never willing to spend too much to keep Bowe in the first place.
If Pioli's history in New England should tell us anything about his thoughts on receivers, it's that he doesn't place a high value on them. The Patriots never gave big money to their wideouts during Pioli's tenure -- they parted ways with two starters, Deion Branch and David Givens, after New England won Super Bowl XXXIX -- and the acquisition of Randy Moss in 2007 was a major bargain. The Patriots stole Moss from Oakand in a trade that cost New England a fourth-round pick. It was the kind of safe gamble that Pioli relishes.
It's now safe to assume Pioli was positioning himself for this offseason when he used a first-round pick on Baldwin in the 2011 draft. But turning to Baldwin as the No. 1 receiver is a big risk in a year
when Kansas City desperately needs to finish on the right side of .500. If the Chiefs start stinking up the joint once again, Pioli -- who has been around for one winning season in three years -- will be feeling the heat right along with new head coach Romeo Crennel.
It's a big leap to think a player with 21 career receptions is going to be as good as Bowe is right now. We also know Bowe will return to the Chiefs at some point because he has no choice -- he can't get a long-term deal until next offseason, when Pioli can franchise him again. What isn't so easy to predict is when Bowe will come back and where his head will be at that point. Contract issues sent DeSean Jackson into a funk in Philadelphia last season and they had the same effect on Vincent Jackson during his final two years in San Diego. It's possible Bowe could let his own problems infect his play and that locker room.
It's also apparent that the Chiefs are sending a bad message to one of their best players. They gave long-term deals to stars such as Charles, cornerback Brandon Flowers and linebackers Derrick Johnson and Tamba Hali once they proved their worth. They should've done the same for Bowe as soon as he established his value. It's not like Kansas City doesn't have the money. It's consistently been way under the cap ever since Pioli's arrival in 2009.
We will see what that strategy means for the Chiefs as this year progresses. They're claiming Baldwin is making huge strides and they're staying tight-lipped about Bowe's absence. They're surely thinking their star receiver has no option except to rejoin them and suck it up. What they can't predict is how this season will go if he's not cool with the way he's been treated.