With back-to-back Super Bowl appearances, the most talented quarterback in the NFL and a combined 26-6 record the last two years, it’s easy to assume the Kansas City Chiefs are by far the best team in the NFL.
But the Chiefs played in way more close games last year than you might remember.
In 2018, the Chiefs led by 6.9 points on average at halftime and held 11 halftime leads.
In 2019, the Chiefs led by 7.5 points on average at halftime and held 11 halftime leads.
But in 2020, the Chiefs led by only 3.5 points on average at halftime and held only nine halftime leads.
With games far more in doubt at halftime in 2020 than in prior years, the Chiefs had to do two things they haven’t done in decades.
First, their defense (behind defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo) had to hold opponents to only 1.75 ppg in the third quarter. Researching back 30+ years, the Chiefs have never held opponents to such futile production in the third quarter. In fact, Kansas City’s third quarter defense was not only the best in the NFL, but it was the second-best third quarter points allowed since 2010 and the 11th best of any team of the last 30 years.
Second, their offense had to score 8.5 ppg in the fourth quarter. No Chiefs team in the Andy Reid era scored that many fourth quarter points. The last Chiefs team to score as many points in the fourth quarter was back in 2004. The 2020 Chiefs posted their franchise’s third-best fourth quarter points scored of the last 30 years.
The Chiefs had to do both of those things just to play in the exact same number of one-score games as they did in 2019. The difference was the 2019 Chiefs went 5-4 in those one-score games. The 2020 Chiefs, thanks to their third quarter defense and fourth quarter offense, went 8-1 in those games.
To expect the Chiefs defense will be as good in the third quarter is unlikely considering the historic nature of the point totals allowed. After all, they allowed 9.2 fourth quarter ppg, fifth-most in the NFL. We might expect the Chiefs offense to continue to put up points in the fourth quarter like they did in 2020, but considering it was the best of any Andy Reid team, it’s hardly bankable.
The better solution – the one that would take pressure off the offense in what is going to be a historically long season and give Reid and Chiefs' fans fewer gray hairs – is to work on being more productive in the first half like they were in 2018 and 2019 so they are leading games at halftime by larger margins and have less pressure on themselves in the second half.
The goal is to reduce margin of error.
Because these results will not happen again in 2021:
The 2020 Chiefs went 5-0 in games decided by a field goal. That has almost no chance of happening again. Their great 2019 team that won the Super Bowl went 1-1 in games decided by a field goal and 5-4 in one-score games.
The last team to go better than 5-0 in one-score games was all the way back in 2003 (Panthers, 7-0).
It rarely happens, and the odds it happens in 2021 are very slim. Reducing the number of games decided by a field goal is critical, and to do that, jumping out to a larger, early lead is vital.
A great place to start will be not losing offensive linemen before the season starts. Starting guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif opted out shortly before the start of Chiefs' training camp because of concerns about COVID-19. Starting guard Kelechi Osemele (lost in Week 5) and starting tackle Mitchell Schwartz (lost in Week 6) were lost for the season with injuries early in the year. And in the AFC Championship Game, starting tackle Eric Fisher's season ended because of a torn Achilles tendon.
As a result, the starting lineup for the Super Bowl was:
LT Mike Remmers (who hadn’t played LT since 2016 and began the season as a backup)
LG Nick Allegretti (began the season as a backup, drafted in the seventh round)
C Austin Reiter (the only Week 1 starter in his position for the Chiefs)
RG Stefen Wisniewski (began the season on the Steelers and was cut by them in November)
RT Andrew Wylie (a UDFA who started the season, but as a guard)
We knew this could be part of the Chiefs undoing in the Super Bowl. Even though, from Week 1 of 2019 through Week 17 of 2020, Mahomes was the only quarterback in the NFL with positive EPA when pressured. But as I said in my Super Bowl report distributed the week before the game, “It’s not fair to assume Mahomes can keep this up at this pace … He’s pushed the boundaries of plays that can be made.” My primary key for the Chiefs winning the Super Bowl hinged on “how will the Chiefs offensive line hold up in pass protection?”
We know how that went. Mahomes was pressured the most of any quarterback in Super Bowl history — 29 of 56 dropbacks. Meanwhile, Tom Brady faced the fewest pressures (four) in any Super Bowl of his career. The Bucs were up 21-6 at halftime and coasted to a 31-9 win, not allowing a single touchdown. It was the first game in Mahomes’s NFL career that his Chiefs didn’t score a touchdown.
Knowing they have the NFL’s most talented quarterback and one of the best offensive coaches of all time, it had to frustrate the Chiefs to no end to see all the hard work they put into the season get them to the Super Bowl, but fail while there because the quarterback couldn’t drop back.
As soon as the Chiefs could do something about it, they did. Kansas City released Eric Fisher and Mitchell Schwartz. They then signed guard Joe Thuney in free agency for $16 million per year. Thuney, 28, became one of the best guards in the NFL during his time in New England. The Chiefs also signed guard Kyle Long from retirement and they’ll get the return of Duvernay-Tardif from his opt-out. Additionally, the Chiefs signed center Austin Blythe. Then, in the draft, the Chiefs completed the overhaul of the line. They sent pick 31 to the Ravens to land left tackle Orlando Brown Jr. and then drafted center Creed Humphrey in the second round, and they also added another guard in the sixth round.
The only thing the Chiefs don’t have going for them is continuity, but they have a brand new LT, LG, C and RG, as well as some added depth. This unit is significantly better than the one Mahomes was dealing with most of last season, particularly starting in Week 5.
It was clear: the focus of free agency? Protect Mahomes. The focus of the draft? Protect Mahomes.
If they can protect Mahomes, this offense is on it’s way to being the best in the NFL. And what is truly mind-blowing is the NFL’s best offense is also the fifth-cheapest. This was largely because the offensive line at this time last year accounted for $43 million and is now down to $27 million. And while Patrick Mahomes signed a $450 million contract, his cap hit this year is only $7.4 million.
But here’s the catch: While Mahomes's new deal counted just $5 million against the cap last year and $7.4 million this year, next year it’s up to $36 million. Moving forward, it’s $45 million on an almost annual basis. The Chiefs took their quarterback’s cheap four-year rookie deal which ran from 2017-2020, didn’t play him his rookie year, but were able to sign him after three years to a long-term deal which bought them one extra year (2021) of a cheap cap hit. Technically, Mahomes’s rookie-deal window was up when he signed that $450 million contract before 2020. But practically speaking, the Chiefs still have this season before that salary cap savings window closes.
With money being spent on the offense, the Chiefs were also able to make some moves to shore up the defense. In 2019, the Chiefs’ defense was fourth-cheapest in the NFL. Last year, it was sixth-most expensive. This year, it’s the second-most expensive defense in the NFL.
Sadly, the Chiefs didn’t get their money’s worth out of the 2020 defense. Even though it was $40 million more expensive, the Chiefs finished worse in total defensive efficiency in 2020 as compared to 2019, as well as in Early Down Success Rate (EDSR) defense, pass defense, third down defense, red zone defense, and the list continues. Hopefully, the additional money and personnel devoted to the defense will improve the efficiency to make life slightly easier on Mahomes.
By spending on the offensive line and on defense, the Chiefs are doing their best to increase the ceiling of what they can do this year from a personnel perspective.
From an execution perspective, there are a number of things the Chiefs can improve on as well.
Three things the Chiefs need to improve in 2021: their red zone offense, production on Mahomes' Level 3 throws, and efficiency when passing to running backs.
In 2018, the Chiefs scored touchdowns in the red zone 73% of trips, good for No. 2 in the NFL, a few tenths of a percent behind the league-leading Steelers at 73% as well.
In 2019, that rate dropped to 60%, and was 11th.
Variance in the red zone is to be expected. Dropping for two straight years from nearly the best rate in the NFL at 73% down to a league-average 59% that’s tied with a team with Dwayne Haskins at quarterback is a concern.
Mahomes Level 3 throws:
Sports Info Solutions defines throws based on trajectory, and Level 3 throws are high-arc passes that are usually reserved for deep balls (consider the term “launched”). Look at the splits on these passes in 2019 vs 2020:
2019: +0.81 EPA/att, 14.3 YPA, 42% success, aDOT of 29.2, 7.2% of total attempts
2020: -0.02 EPA/att, 10.1 YPA, 31% success, aDOT of 31.1, 4.8% of total attempts
I have confidence this will positively regress in the Chiefs favor. Deep balls do have more variance. Results are one thing – process is another.
In 2020, Mahomes had a 59% on-target rate with these passes. That was up from 46% in 2019.
The Chiefs receivers just did a worse job on their end. Like red zone touchdowns, I think these deep balls will result in more success in 2021, but that doesn’t mean the Chiefs won’t be working like hell this offseason to improve the results.
Running back passes:
Running back passes haven’t delivered results for the Chiefs in a few years now. YPA on RB passes from Mahomes have declined from 9.5 in 2018 to 6.1 in 2019 to 5.2 in 2020. EPA/att has declined from +0.63 in 2018 to +0.15 in 2019 to -0.02 in 2020. Like red zone production, this decline has been continual and immense. But these numbers have less variance than red zone production and must be improved by the Chiefs this offseason.
If the Chiefs improve in red zone efficiency (both per-play and conversion rate), improve production on deeper passes, and gain more efficiency on RB passes, this offense will undoubtedly take a massive step forward in 2021. That is extremely scary. That step forward will increase their average halftime lead and ultimately keep them out of one-score games. That will help take the pressure off Mahomes and this offense in late-game situations, which will be massive in the war of attrition that will be the 17-game season (forecast to win 12.5 games wit the over at +110 at PointsBet).
I project the Chiefs to face an easier schedule of both opposing offenses and defenses this year than they faced in 2020. They also rank fifth in net rest edge on the season, and are top-two in ranking of games with rest advantage and short-weeks for opponents. The Chiefs play five games this season where they have a rest edge over their opponent. They play four games this year where their opponent has less than a week to prepare for them. These may prove to be massive edges for a team that only needs a few tweaks and a healthy season to take another trip back to the Super Bowl. With the AFC competition getting better and better, such as the Buffalo Bills, Los Angeles Chargers and Cleveland Browns, it’s important during the final season with a cheap cap hit for Mahomes, that the Chiefs get the job done and hoist the Lombardi (+500 odds at PointsBet to do so).
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