The most anticipated Chiefs team in decades, and maybe ever, will assemble for training camp in less than two weeks. The success or failure will depend on a million variables.
Some, like Tyreek Hill’s availability, are out of the team’s control. Others, like the health of Patrick Mahomes, are subject to whims of the football gods.
The plan here today, and throughout the 56 days remaining before the 2019 Chiefs officially begin their season in Jacksonville, is to examine the factors within their control.
The Chiefs’ hopes have largely been framed as so: Can a wretched defense get the hell out of the way enough for Mahomes and coach Andy Reid to boss around the league again?
We’ll talk plenty about the defense, even some in this column, but first, another way of viewing this: Can the offense possibly repeat what was basically a season-long magic carpet ride to within a coin flip of the Super Bowl?
Is statistical regression after a record-setting season inevitable, and if so, what can the Chiefs do to minimize the effect?
Let’s do this in four parts.
1. The gauntlet of history.
The Chiefs scored 565 points last year, the third-highest total in league history. Of the NFL’s all-time 10 highest-scoring teams before last season, only the New England Patriots repeated. They actually have three straight seasons — 2010-12 — in the all-time top 10.
Of the other seven, each scored at least 86 fewer points the next season and averaged 122 fewer. That’s more than a touchdown per game.
Beginning in 2008, 10 teams have been first or second in both yards and points. Only the 2008 New Orleans Saints repeated the feat. Five of the 10 fell out of the top five in one or both categories the next season. Four fell out in both categories.
Mahomes led the NFL with 50 touchdown passes and an 8.6% TD rate. Since 2012, every quarterback to lead the league in TD rate threw at least 12 fewer touchdowns the next season.
Here’s another way to do it. Mahomes completed the 11th season in NFL history of at least 4,500 yards and 40 touchdowns. Three missed significant chunks of their follow-up season with injury, so let’s throw them out.
The remaining seven averaged 463 fewer passing yards and 13 fewer touchdowns. What’s more, none improved upon either number. With the exception of Matthew Stafford, these are all legends, too: Peyton Manning (twice), Drew Brees (twice), Aaron Rodgers and Dan Marino. Brees is the only quarterback to top 4,500 yards and 40 touchdowns in consecutive seasons.
The explanations are varied, starting with the obvious: These are outlier seasons. By definition, of course they are difficult to repeat, and Mahomes’ standard is even more ridiculous. Manning is the only other man to throw for 5,000 yards and 50 touchdowns in a season.
If Mahomes were able to continue that level of production, he would be making a mockery of a difficult sport. It would be a little like what Babe Ruth did to home run marks in the 1920s and ‘30s.
It’s worth mentioning that statistical regression does not mean actual regression. Quarterbacks are the most influential athletes in American team sports, but they are still just one of 22 on the field. But the facts are clear:
If history is a guide then regression is not just possible but almost certain.
2. OK, but history doesn’t include this team. Why might this team regress?
Let’s start with the schedule.
Last year, according to Football Outsiders, the Chiefs’ defensive opponents ranked within 1% of league average. This season, they play each of last year’s top five defenses and have 10 games against the top 10. Of last year’s bottom 10, only the Oakland Raiders are on the Chiefs’ schedule.
The NFL is famously balanced, with team performances often volatile from year to year. So last season’s results don’t necessarily mean this season’s schedule is as difficult as it appears. But, still. That’s something.
Also, the NFL was simply not ready for the marriage of Mahomes and Reid. This is easy to forget now, but the Chiefs finished fifth in offense in 2017, when Alex Smith started 15 games and threw for 4,042 yards while leading the league in passer rating.
Smith is a representative top-half-of-the-middle-third sort of quarterback, but the jump in Mahomes’ talent caught everyone off-guard — Chiefs officials included. They expected rookie moments interspersed with superstar moments. Mostly, we only saw the superstar.
The NFL has never been tilted more toward quarterbacks, but even so, the league is too complicated and balanced to be shredded apart like Madden rookie mode. Defensive coordinators will have had eight months to think, and the most common brainstorm has almost certainly been What the H can we do to slow Mahomes?
If I knew the answer I would not be writing a newspaper column, but here are two guesses:
First, overwhelm with blitzes and pass rushers without letting Mahomes escape to his right and one of two things will happen. He’ll find a way to kill you with a Superman play, or you’ll catch him greedy or loose with his mechanics and maybe you can take advantage.
The former means a touchdown that would probably come anyway, and the latter might be the break you need. With a talent like Mahomes leading a juggernaut offense, the downside of the defense taking a risk is diminished while the upside is amplified.
Second, sell out for coverage. Bill Belichick, then defensive coordinator for the New York Giants, formulated a game plan against the Buffalo Bills for Super Bowl XXV so genius it is on display at the Hall of Fame. He guaranteed victory if Thurman Thomas rushed for more than 100 yards, sacrificing linebackers for defensive backs and punishing receivers over the middle.
Times have changed. Receivers can’t be hit the same way, and sub-packages are the norm. But a similar approach against the Chiefs would be logical, particularly with the solid Damien Williams replacing the often spectacular Kareem Hunt at running back and a possible suspension for star receiver Tyreek Hill.
3. Enough with your negativity, tough guy! Why might the Chiefs not regress?
This is actually fairly straightforward, and goes beyond Mahomes being part unicorn and part rocket ship.
Because defenses can come up with whatever they want, but the truth is we still haven’t seen a weakness significant enough to exploit. According to Pro Football Focus, Mahomes had more “big-time throws” under pressure than anyone else and was the most accurate passer into tight windows.
But, because of Reid’s scheme and the surrounding talent, he also threw the lowest percentage of passes into tight windows, according to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats.
Like, what do you do with that?
Mahomes’ first season as a starter bumped up against a glass ceiling of what quarterbacks have previously been capable of producing, but don’t we usually assume players get better as they gain experience?
Mahomes, Hill, Mecole Hardman, and Demarcus Robinson are each 25 or younger. Travis Kelce, Sammy Watkins and Williams are 29 or younger. The offensive line has been mostly together for years now. The oldest core member of the offense is lineman Mitchell Schwartz. Lineman usually age well, and besides. Schwartz only turned 30 last month.
You will hear some make the point that Mahomes’ and the team’s numbers dipped a bit after Hunt was released. And that’s true. But some context: The Chiefs’ running backs averaged 4.61 yards per carry with Hunt, and 4.59 without. It was a drastic change to the offense made on the fly, literally two days before a game, and what’s often lost here is the time of year.
Compared to the first 11 games with Hunt, Mahomes’ completion percentage, yards per attempt, yards per game, touchdowns per game and passer rating all decreased.
But league wide, as injuries and weather and tape tend to make things more difficult for everyone, yards per attempt dropped 10%, yards per game dropped 13%, and passer rating 7%.
Mahomes’ decreases were generally in line statistically, and that doesn’t account for perhaps his two hardest games coming without Hunt: Baltimore Ravens at home, and at Seattle on a Sunday night.
But the other part of history is that offenses have shown to be more consistent year-to-year than defenses. The only thing Mahomes has done in the league is dominate, and the only thing the Chiefs have done with Mahomes is score at a dizzying pace.
Their core is young, their offensive line improving and they used their first pick on another receiver. If you allowed yourself to focus just on the facts and not on what logic would deem possible, you might actually expect the Chiefs to improve.
And what has Mahomes’ career been so far if not exceeding what logic would deem possible?
4. So ... will they regress?
As much as anything, the answer might depend on something we haven’t talked about yet here and haven’t seen discussed much elsewhere, either.
We know the defense must improve. We know the personnel is vastly different and the coaching staff virtually entirely turned over. That’s usually framed as hope the defense can be un-awful enough that the offense can score 31 against the Patriots in the second half and actually win.
But think about it this way.
The Chiefs led the league in points while ranking 25th in possessions. The seven teams with fewer possessions ranked an average of 17th in points. Only the Rams ranked in the top seven.
The Chiefs faced 110 more plays on defense than snaps by the offense. Some of that is the offense’s efficiency, but the defense was eighth-worst on third down and tied for third-worst on fourth downs.
The offense is so good that the standard for the defense is this low: get off the field just one more time per game, giving the offense just one more chance.
A year ago, the Chiefs averaged 3.1 points per possession. Another 3.1 points per game would’ve made the Chiefs the highest-scoring team in league history, and another possession sure would’ve been helpful in the AFC Championship Game.