Between now and 7:30 pm on November 17, there will be plenty of time to discuss what is wrong with the Kansas City Chiefs offense - and plenty of people ready to raise the subject. In fact, I would like to publicly express my thanks to the NFL, CBS and NBC for flexing the Chiefs-Broncos game to Sunday Night Football, which will give us another seven precious hours to talk about it before the showdown in Denver!
But my purpose today is to discuss the historical significance of the success of the 2013 Chiefs defense. And it is more significant than you may have realized.
By now you have probably heard this little tidbit: the Chiefs have the first defense to have held their opponents to 17 or fewer points for the first nine games of the season since the Atlanta Falcons did it in 1977.
Let's put 1977 in perspective. Jimmy Carter was President. A first class stamp cost thirteen cents. (People bought these so they could send letters through... you know... the mail!) Gasoline prices had risen sharply after Arab oil embargo of the early 70s. Even so, you still heard people say, "I'll WALK before I pay a dollar for a gallon of gas!"
And on average, NFL teams scored 17.2 points per game.
I can hear what you're thinking: "So through the first nine games of the season, the Falcons held their opponents to fewer points than NFL teams scored on average for the season? That doesn't sound like a big deal."
But it was.
In 1977, Atlanta held their opponents to 129 points in 14 games. That's 9.2 points per game, and 8 points fewer than the league average. Until Week 10 - when they gave up 21 to in a loss to the Saints - they never gave up more than 14, and gave up six or fewer five times! Through nine weeks, the Falcons had allowed just 62 points for an average of 6.9 points per game - 10.3 points less than the league average for the year.
So far in 2013, the Chiefs have held their nine opponents to 111 points - that is, 12.3 points a game. Compared to the Falcons 1977 season, that doesn't sound very good, does it?
But there is an important difference: the 2013 Chiefs are playing in a league where teams are averaging 23.1 points a game! So through nine weeks, the Chiefs are holding their opponents to 10.8 points less than the league average. That's half a point better than the 1977 Falcons through nine games.
Let me tell you something else about that 1977 season. That 17.2 points per game scared the hell out of the NFL. It was the lowest number of points scored per game since 1942, and was down significantly from the 1966 mark of 23.1.
The NFL's owners were worried that too many teams were copying the success of the 1972 Miami Dolphins. Don Shula's squad had gone undefeated through the Super Bowl with a suffocating defense, coupled with an offense averaging 211 yards per game rushing and just 160 yards passing. As more teams copied this formula, the owners worried that all this rushing - and so little passing - was making the game too boring for TV audiences. They wanted more passing and more scoring - and they wanted it right now!
So following the 1977 season, the owners instituted what became known as the "Mel Blount Rule." Named for a Steelers defensive back known for mauling downfield receivers, it actually should have been named the "Made For TV Rule," because its sole purpose was to open up the passing game - and therefore create more scoring - in order to make the game more exciting on TV.
The rule change was simple enough: defensive backs could no longer make contact with receivers more than five yards downfield. This rule - not the later emergence of Joe Montana or Tom Brady - began what became known as the NFL's "modern era." Passing yardage - and the percentage of passing plays - began to increase almost immediately. An increase in scoring followed. And with this, the NFL was well on its way to become America's national pastime.
Interestingly enough, scoring dipped a little again during the 1990s, but otherwise grew steadily. Even so, it didn't reach all the way to the 1965 level until the current season.
Even if the Chiefs manage to defy expectations by winning Super Bowl XLVIII on the strength of their historically strong defense, few teams are likely to follow their example; it won't be necessary for the NFL to fiddle with the rules to keep the game exciting. The NFL now controls the "message" at a level unimaginable in 1977. The NFL web site and TV network set the tone for media coverage of the league, and other media outlets follow dutifully along. Super Bowl champions like the 2000 Ravens are dismissed as anomalies, and offensive stars like Peyton Manning, Drew Brees and Calvin Johnson are promoted endlessly; you can't absorb any kind of NFL coverage for 20 minutes without coming across terms like "pass happy" and "quarterback driven." Or my personal favorite: "elite"
Never mind that Peyton Manning's team has lost to the only .500 team it has played - he's on pace for 6000 yards! And sure... those Chiefs have a pretty record right now, but they can't win in the playoffs without offense! It doesn't matter if it's the truth or not. The only thing that matters is that the audience believes every game will be an exciting contest between the offensive stars it has come to love.
So even if the Chiefs manage to prove the pundits wrong - and other teams follow their example once in a while - the message is clear: success rests on offense. The kids who have grown up on this message - and who are growing up on it now - become players, then coaches, and finally analysts. The NFL's formula is safe.
So what of the 2013 Chiefs? Do they have a chance to win it all with their historic defense - and a somewhat anemic offense led by game manager Alex Smith?
Who can say?
We know that the 1977 Falcons never had a chance. They were 5-4 after nine weeks, and finished the season 7-7 - because out of 28 teams, their offense ranked 25th. In contrast, the Chiefs rank 10th out of today's 32 teams. We can't even see how well the Falcons defense did against the league's top scoring offense; Atlanta never played the Dallas Cowboys, who were that season's offensive powerhouse and eventual Super Bowl winner.
The Falcons did, however, have a division opponent they faced twice in 1977. That team wasn't very good in those days, but it had a pretty snappy quarterback. His wife Olivia was at home with one year old Peyton as Archie Manning won 21-20 in New Orleans, and lost 35-7 in Atlanta.
(OK... those games between the 1977 Falcons and Saints have little bearing to anything that might happen in 2013. It is, however, fun to think about old Archie splitting his games against a very tough Falcons defense while Peyton was sucking down some Gerber!)
But if it will make you feel better, I can give you some more modern comparisons:
Four of the last six Super Bowl winners have ranked 10th or below in scoring - as the Chiefs do now - and only two of those were ranked even close to the Chiefs in points allowed. Make no mistake: It will be hard. The odds are long. But it can be done - even in the pass happy, modern NFL.
So if it interests you, be my guest: worry and argue about the offense for the next two weeks. I may even join in from time to time. But for now, I am satisfied to enjoy this improbable, scary and exhilarating ride. I shall keep calm... and chop on!