The Kansas City Chiefs have turned into the New England Patriots. I’m not referring to the winning, the Super Bowl rings, the legendary quarterbacks.
This is more about the pragmatic nature of the head coaches, the ability to adapt on offense, and go with a style that works best depending on the circumstances.
When Bill Belichick was at his best in New England, you could see his teams change shapes. He had teams that relied on power running and formidable defenses and didn’t have to rely on the quarterback to be the day-saving hero.
In those days, the young and developing Tom Brady was more of the game-manager type of quarterback. And that isn’t an insult. He was very, very good at his job. The offense was more efficient than exciting as Belichick leaned on his immovable defense and went with a run-pass balance on offense.
When the Belichick-Patriots won their first three Super Bowls – 2001, 2003 and 2004 – the defense allowed only 16 points per game in the three championship seasons. Those same Patriots had an average league rank of 14th in passing yards, but Brady continued to improve and gain more trust with the coaching staff. By the 2004 season the Patriots were fourth in the NFL for Expected Points Added (EPA) in the passing game.
When the Patriots had more elite offensive personnel lined up to be Brady’s accomplices, the Patriots opened up the offense. Belichick let it fly. During their undefeated 2007 regular season, New England led the NFL with 36.8 points per game and points per possession and finished on top in passing yards, passing touchdowns (50), passer rating, yards per passing attempt, and passing EPA.
Brady’s career peak was ascending, and he’d go on to win three more Super Bowls with the Patriots and set all of the meaningful passing records in NFL history. Belichick had the intelligence to go with an offense that complemented the foundation of rushing and defense.
So what does this have to do with the Chiefs?
Andy Reid is there with Belichick as one of the greatest coaches in league history. Reid’s quarterback is the wondrously talented Patrick Mahomes, who is on course to eventually hang with Brady in the best-ever quarterback discussions.
The creative Reid drafted Mahomes out of Texas Tech and incorporated the “Air Raid” offense that Mahomes ran in the Big 12. Reid installed Air Raid concepts in creating the ideal offense for Mahomes in the NFL.
There wasn’t much of an easing-in period for Mahomes. Kansas City has made it to every NFC Championship Game in his six seasons as a starter. They have a preposterous .824 winning percentage – regular season and postseason – with Mahomes in place.
Mahomes will start in his fourth Super Bowl when the Chiefs play the 49ers on Feb. 11. Mahomes has already won two regular-season MVP awards and two Super Bowl MVPs. And he’ll be the youngest quarterback in NFL history to start at least four Super Bowls.
Since 2018 Mahomes leads NFL quarterbacks in passing yards, touchdown passes, passer rating, adjusted yards per attempt, regular-season wins, and postseason wins. He’s so automatic – so phenomenal – the success seems easy and inevitable. Just let him play and pile up the wins.
As Chiefs fans know, that wasn’t the case during the 2023 season. Long story short: inexperienced wide receivers, dropped passes, wrong routes, offensive penalties, breakdowns in pass protection, too many punts, not enough touchdowns. The Kansas City offense finished 15th in the regular season with an average 21.8 points per game, and were 10th in passing game EPA. The downturn wasn’t Mahomes’ fault, but he set a personal record for frustration.
So what did Andy Reid do?
Downshifted. Adjusted. Evolved.
Reid had the wisdom to take advantage of his team’s outstanding defense. The Chiefs didn’t have to rely on the passing game. Mahomes will always make big plays, but there was no reason to count on him for EVERYTHING at a time when his surrounding cast had weaker parts and a helter-skelter look that led to so many mistakes.
Reid recalibrated his offense. Late in the regular season – and in all three postseason victories – Reid went with full smashmouth sets, frequently lining up one running back behind a wall fortified with three tight ends.
Born to run it, baby. With coordinator Steve Spagnuolo running the toughest defense by a Reid-coached team in Kansas City, Reid decided to play to his team’s strength.
And why not?
This season the Chiefs allowed the second fewest points in the league – an average of 16.5 per game. They were second in sacks and quarterback pressures and No. 1 in EPA against the pass. The Chiefs’ excellent secondary prevented big plays. Spags’ blitz party was a weekly event, with new concoctions presented to overwhelmed quarterbacks who weren’t sure what they were seeing. Where did that come from? Well, chances are Spaguolo just whipped up a new blitz on the sideline during the game. And if you hadn’t spotted it during your film studies, don’t feel bad. Because Spags just made it up – coming up with a blitz the Chiefs hadn’t used before.
It’s been much the same way in Kansas City’s 3-0 postseason. The Spagnuolo defense has allowed an average of 13.6 points per game. The Buffalo Bills gave KC trouble in the divisional round, scoring 24 points. But the Chiefs shut out the home-team Bills in the fourth quarter and pulled out a 27-24 victory. The Dolphins and Ravens managed only 16 combined points in their two losses to the Spags defense.
If you’re playing the Chiefs you’d better score lots and lots of points in the first half and then hope your defense holds up. Because the Chiefs won’t give you much – at all – in the second half.
Average points allowed in the second half this season during the regular season: 7.4 points per game.
Average points allowed in the second half in the three postseason games: 2.3. That’s right. Kansas City’s defense has conceded only seven points – a third-quarter touchdown at Buffalo – in three playoff games.
Combining the regular-season and postseason, the Chiefs have yielded an average of 6.6 points in the second half.
That’s the No. 1 reason why Reid went with a modified style of offense. The Kansas City passing attack has been better in the postseason. They’ve put more points on the board early, averaging 15.3 in the first half. And the quick-start timing is important.
With a fierce and swarming Kansas City defense that’s so ruthless in the second half, Reid can line up those tight ends and go with a ball-control approach that greatly reduces the risk of turnovers.
In eliminating the Dolphins, Bills and Ravens, the Kansas City gave up one touchdown and one field goal in 14 second-half possessions. Nine opponent possessions resulted in a punt, turnover or loss on downs.
In the three postseason victories the Chiefs have averaged 30 rushing attempts and 127 rushing yards per game. Isiah Pacheco has carried the ball 30 times for 254 yards and three touchdowns. During the regular season KC had fewer than 30 rushing attempts in 14 of 17 games.
Reid’s strategy is right on time. He basically gave the Chiefs a new offensive identity for the postseason, and it’s working. Mahomes is still Mahomes – only more efficient than what we saw during the regular season. In his team’s three postseason wins, Mahomes has completed 68 percent of his passes with four touchdowns and no interceptions. His postseason passer rating (100.7) is better than his mark (92.6) during the 2023 regular season.
With Spagnuolo as defensive coordinator – Reid hired him in 2019 – the Chiefs are 63-20 for a .759 regular-season winning percentage. During his five seasons the Chiefs rank sixth in the NFL in sacks, seventh in fewest points allowed and have limited opposing quarterbacks to an 88.4 passer rating.
While warming up before the AFC title game, Kansas City’s defensive players donned “IN SPAGS WE TRUST” t-shirts. From there, the Spags defense vanquished the Ravens and their presumptive MVP quarterback.
“It’s the same story,” safety Justin Reid told reporters after the game. “We made adjustments that we haven’t practiced all week. We change things and it holds up for us. We have a plan for everything. Spags is a magician, man, the way that he sees the game, his feel for the game, his timing of the calls and when to bring pressure and when to fake a pressure and drop back into coverage.”
With Spags in charge of the defense, the Chiefs are 13-2 in the postseason and can flash their two Super Bowl rings. If Kansas City prevails over San Francisco, Spags will win his third Super Bowl ring as a defensive coordinator. His most famous triumph – as the NY Giants’ defensive coordinator – was coming up with the pass-rush frenzy that felled Brady and the Patriots in the Super Bowl to ruin their attempt at a perfect season. In his years with the Giants and Chiefs, Spagnuolo’s defense has played a huge role in the teams’ extraordinary 17-3 postseason record. Spags may be the finest defensive coordinator of his time.
The 2023 KC defense is the youngest in the NFL. That adds prestige to Spagnuolo’s coaching accomplishments this season.
“We had this influx of new young guys and what he did with them I thought was great teaching,” Reid told reporters earlier this week. “They did a great job of teaching, and the kids were receptive to it, and you’re seeing the rewards of that now.”
The Chiefs have returned to another Super Bowl. Only this time, they’ve gotten there with Spagnuolo’s defense setting the itinerary.
Thanks for reading …
A 2023 inductee into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame, Bernie hosts an opinionated and analytical sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS. It airs 3-6 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 4-6 p.m. on Friday. Stream it live or grab the show podcast on 590thefan.com or through the 590 The Fan St. Louis app.
Please follow Bernie on Twitter @miklasz and on Threads @miklaszb