It's now been a little over a month since the Chiefs season ended in Indianapolis. Now that we've all had some time to get past the sting of that defeat, I thought it might be time to try and get a little perspective on 2013.
Put the Pitchfork Down!
Blowing a 28 point lead to the Colts in the playoffs has helped to generate a lot of talk about whether defensive coordinator Bob Sutton is the right guy for the Chiefs. Much of this is based on the idea that after the bye week, Sutton lost the ability to make in-game adjustments... or that he stopped blitzing altogether... or that other teams "figured out" the Chiefs defense.
On the surface, this makes sense. The Chiefs were 9-0 before the bye, 2-5 afterwards, and started giving up a lot of points. Furthermore, the Chiefs pretty much stopped getting a significant number of sacks after week 7.
But let's take a closer look at the Chiefs 2013 schedule:
|Opponent||Record||Off Rank||Pts Allowed||Sack Rank||KC Sacks|
|B Y E|
For clarity, I've highlighted the Chiefs wins, and the above average records and rankings of opposing teams. We see what we already knew: that the Chiefs were 9-0 against teams below .500, and just 2-5 against teams that were .500 or better.
But what this table also shows very clearly is that the level of competition changed dramatically after the bye week. ALL the games the Chiefs lost were against teams with above-average offenses - and not for nothing, against quarterbacks named Manning, Rivers and Luck! The only above-average offenses the Chiefs handled all year were the Eagles and Cowboys, and the Chiefs had the good fortune to play both of those teams before they found their offensive rhythm - or, in the case of the Eagles, before they found Nick Foles.
In addition, also note that Kansas City's best sack numbers mostly came against teams that were ranked below average in allowing sacks, and the worst sack numbers came mostly against teams that ranked highly in preventing sacks.
Let's be clear: I'm not saying the Kansas City defense doesn't need some improvement. It clearly does. Nor am I saying that Bob Sutton is good at making in-game adjustments. (I honestly have no idea if that's true or not) I'm simply saying that Kansas City's defensive performance after the bye week can just as easily be explained by the teams they were facing.
Don't believe me? Suppose the first games against the Chargers and Broncos had occurred in weeks 1 and 5, and the games against the Jaguars and Titans had happened in weeks 10 and 11. Would the outcome of any of those games been any different? I doubt it. With that schedule, the Chiefs would have reached the bye at 7-2, and finished the season 4-3. And nobody here would be talking about how other teams "figured out" Bob Sutton after week 9. Instead, we'd just be talking about the truth: the Chiefs defense just needs help in the secondary and the defensive line.
By the same token, while it is tempting to characterize the Chiefs defense as terrible because they blew that 28 point lead in Indianapolis, to do so is to ignore the fact that Andrew Luck was on the other side of the field.
Luck still has a lot to learn - he did, after all, throw three interceptions in that playoff game against the Chiefs - but the kid clearly has heart and talent to burn. As I pointed out in a comment the week after the game, if Alex Smith had led a 28 point comeback for a playoff win after throwing three picks, nobody in Kansas City would be talking about the Colts "defensive collapse." Instead, we'd be talking about Alex Smith's heart and character, and his coolness under pressure.
Again, this is not to say that the playoff game didn't illustrate defensive problems the Chiefs need to fix. It certainly did! But let's give credit where credit is due: the Chiefs blew that lead to Andrew Luck - not Terrelle Pryor.
Finally... some have gone as far as to compare Bob Sutton to Greg Robinson. C'mon man... seriously?
In his three seasons as the Chiefs DC, Robinson's teams were ranked 23rd, 28th and 19th. He took a bunch of aggressive players that Gunther Cunningham had brought in, and tried to turn them into thinking machines obsessed with assignments. Pretty much the opposite is true of Bob Sutton. He installed a scheme better suited to the talent he had on hand, and brought the team's defensive ranking from 25th to 5th in a single season.
I'm not going to return to the week 9 meme and say that Bob Sutton is a defensive god, but neither am I going to deny the man his accomplishments. Is he perfect? No. But the Chiefs haven't had a defensive ranking this high since 1997. That's sixteen years ago! If the Chiefs revert to a talented (but average) defense in 2014... OK, fine. Then it will be time to talk about Bob Sutton. Until then, he's earned the chance to stick around.
Pick the Pitchfork Back Up!
It's just amazing what a passer rating of 119.7 in a playoff game can do, isn't it? Until that playoff game in Indianapolis, there were still plenty of people who weren't ready to buy in to Alex Smith and the Chiefs offense. But a recent polls says that more than 95% of AP readers now approve of Alex Smith. I'm among them, and I have been for a while now. But let's not let this one game get us carried away.
Let's take another look at the 2013 schedule:
|Opponent||Record||Def Rank||Pts Scored*|
|B Y E|
|*excluding D/ST scoring|
As you can see, the Chiefs played only four games against above-average defenses in 2013, and only one against a team ranked in the top third of the league - a game in which the Chiefs scored their fewest offensive points of the season. It is also true, however, that the Chiefs offense put more points on the board after the bye week - and it did, of course, hang 44 on that same 9th ranked Colts team two weeks later in the playoffs.
If a recent statement by Alex Smith is to be believed, much of the Chiefs offensive playbook was left unused (or uninstalled) until later in the season, and it did seem that as the season progressed, Smith grew more comfortable with his receivers - especially on downfield plays. So while it was comforting to see the Chiefs offense grow in the season's late weeks, it's also true that the Chiefs 2013 schedule gave the offense the room they needed to grow. And more growth is needed. It's hard to imagine the Chiefs would have made the playoffs if they'd had to face teams like Seattle, San Francisco or Carolina early in the regular season - and of course, the Chiefs will play two of those teams in 2014.
I'm not trying to say that the Chiefs offense is in greater need of improvement than the defense. I'm only saying that as much improvement as we saw in the offense during the closing weeks of the season, it's still an offense that has yet to really prove itself consistently against good defenses. Whether it's through FA or the draft, I expect the Chiefs to make as many moves in offense as they do in defense before the first snap of 2014.
The Turnover Turnover
It's often said that turnover differential is the single most predictive statistic to determine whether a team wins or loses a particular game. In fact, in all NFL regular season games between 2003 and 2012, the winning team had a turnover differential of zero or greater 83.8% of the time. So if all you knew about the this year's Chiefs team is that their turnover differential swung from -24 in 2012 to +18 in 2013, you wouldn't be surprised the Chiefs went from 2-14 to 11-5 in that same span. It wasn't the biggest single season swing in turnover differential in NFL history, but it was the biggest in 50 years.
What happened? Let's see:
Whatever faults Bob Sutton may have, he did mold the Chiefs defense into an aggressive, ball-hawking unit over a single offseason, with three times as many interceptions, and more than twice as many fumbles recovered.
But the biggest individual difference maker was Alex Smith. Not only did he have an interception percentage lower than all but two other QBs in 2013, he also fumbled just eight times in 15 starts. In contrast, Matt Cassel's 2012 interception percentage was three times higher than Smith's in 2013, and he fumbled just as many times in only eight starts! Do the math on that. Is there anyone who thinks the Chiefs would have had a winning season - much less made the playoffs - if Alex Smith had thrown 14 more interceptions, and fumbled the ball an additional seven times?
In retrospect, it's amusing to reflect on all the preseason arguments about whether Game Manager Alex Smith could carry the Chiefs offense with his arm. As it turned out, Alex knew a different way to do it.
Taking a Step Forward
Before the 2013 season began, the general consensus seemed to be that Chiefs fans would be happy with a step in the right direction - that is, a season where the team finished .500 or a little better, and maybe even had a chance to compete in the playoffs. Given these expectations, the euphoria so many of us felt after the Chiefs historic 9-0 start - and a near record 11-5 turnaround - was not at all surprising.
But when we get a little perspective on the season, we can see that our euphoria was largely built on a favorable schedule. Swap a few games around, and the Chiefs don't open the season undefeated. Play the NFC West instead of the NFC East, and maybe the Chiefs don't even have a winning season.
In truth, the Chiefs met our expectations quite well - just not quite in the way we expressed them. I don't recall too many people saying, "I just want the Chiefs to beat the teams that they should beat, and be competitive against the better teams." But in essence, that's what most of us were really saying - and that's exactly what the Chiefs did. In the regular season, the Chiefs were never beaten by an inferior team, and on only one occasion were they embarrassed by a better team. For this franchise, that's a big step forward.
Some may regard the playoff loss in Indianapolis as an embarrassment - and they are entitled to their opinion, of course - but I do not. I watched the game in Lucas Oil Stadium, and there were no Colts fans around me who thought the Chiefs embarrassed themselves. They felt lucky to have gotten out of that game with a win - and they were right.
Some say that the window of opportunity is small - that if the Chiefs cannot win a Super Bowl in the next season or two, we will miss the chance we have with this core group of players. They could be right. But this franchise is no longer run by Carl Peterson or Scott Pioli - one man who thought that young players deserved to be on the sidelines, and another who thought that his own judgement was infallible. In John Dorsey, I see a a man with the humility to see things as they are, and the understanding that building a team is something that you do every day of the year. With a man like that in charge, I don't think the window has to be small.
Some think that the Chiefs success cannot be duplicated against the tougher schedule we will face in 2014. And they may be right, too. But under the current scheduling system, it's nearly impossible to tell. Since teams within the same division now play nearly identical schedules to improve playoff tiebreakers, their records often reflect favorable (or unfavorable) matchups against the divisions they play. So to predict how difficult the following season's schedule will be, you now have to think about matchups between entire divisions - not just individual teams - and make that judgement without knowing how each team will deal with managing the salary cap, retaining (or obtaining) free agents, or getting players through the draft. Anything is possible.
So keep calm... and chop on!
Bang The Head Slowly
My final point isn't about the Chiefs, but about the NFL in general.
In the playoff loss to Indianapolis, no fewer than three Chiefs players left the field to go through the NFL's concussion protocol, and none returned. As you know, this left holes in the team that were difficult to fill. This isn't to make excuses for the Chiefs - NFL teams are supposed to win with the players they can put on the field at any given time - or to say that we ought to go back to the days when a player would run back on the field a couple of plays after having his "bell rung." It's proper for the NFL (and its players) to take concussions seriously.
But after seeing such an extreme example of this new reality in the Chiefs-Colts game, it occurs to me that in the NFL, roster depth is going to me a more important factor than ever before. If your starting QB gets a concussion in a postseason game, the odds are pretty good he's likely going to miss next week's game, too - presuming you're still able to win and move on. I've brought up the QB position (and the playoffs) because it's the most obvious situation where a starter who suddenly goes missing can make a big difference, but as we saw in Indianapolis, it is true of other positions, too.
I think it's time for the NFL to stop screwing around, and let every healthy player on the roster suit up for games - including the third string quarterback. If a player can be forced to leave the field for the rest of the game on the mere suspicion of a concussion, there's no longer any reason for half a dozen healthy players to be on the sidelines in street clothes; the coaches are going to need every player available to them on game day. If I may say so, Mr. Goodell, this is much more important than changing the rules about PATs. Please make it so.