Beginning on Tuesday, the Kansas City Royals will be playing in the World Series with a chance to bring a championship home to Kansas City. For a team that had not even made the playoffs in 29 years, and had been the laughingstock of the league for much of that time, this whole experience has been awesome and exciting and incredible and just a whole lot of fun.
The Royals have gone 8-0 in postseason games this year. Eight games played, eight games won. With that statistic comes a bizarre parallel- the Kansas City Chiefs, neighbors across the parking lot, have gone 0-8 since their last playoff win. Eight games played, eight games lost, most in painful fashion.
That statistic raises a good question. How is it that the Royals can be so incredibly incompetent for so long and then suddenly win win win no matter what, while the Chiefs can’t win a playoff game to save their lives despite fielding relatively good teams?
The easy way out here is luck. The sport doesn’t matter- any team can get hot once they reach the playoffs. In the 2010 Stanley Cup Playoffs, the Eastern Conference Finals were contested between the #7 and #8 seeds. The New York Giants went into the 2008 playoffs as a wild card and beat the undefeated Patriots in the Super Bowl. The Miami Heat didn’t win a championship every single year they had their "Big Three". Crazy things happen in the postseason all the time.
But it’s tough to blame the Chiefs’ struggles on luck, because the odds are so stacked against their improbable run. The Chiefs have been 1-seeds and 6-seeds, but the odds of winning a game in the postseason are always about the same: 50-50. In reality, it should be closer to 55-45 in favor the home team, but you could make the argument that every playoff game in every sport is essentially a coin flip.
The odds of the Chiefs losing eight playoff games in a row is about the same as flipping a coin heads eight times in a row. Go ahead, give it a try, I’ll wait. Unless your name is Rosencrantz, you didn’t do it. The odds are 0.3 percent, or about ten times worse odds than the Royals coming back from the 7-3 deficit in that aptly-named Wild Card game.
And, of course, that means the odds of the Royals winning eight games in a row to start the postseason are also 0.3 percent. There’s something really weird going on in Kansas City. Royals fans call it magic, Chiefs fans call it evil sorcery.
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Let’s assume that the Chiefs are not the victim of an evil spell. What can the Chiefs do to finally end their playoff drought? Two Kansas City sports teams have reached a championship round in the past year. Perhaps the Chiefs could start taking cues from them.
There’s one big thing that Sporting KC and the Royals have in common: unforgiving defenses. During their championship run, Sporting allowed less than a goal per game to get by now-retired goalkeeper Jimmy Nielsen. Meanwhile, the Royals’ defense is on full display in the playoffs, and if you haven’t seen their gravity-defying plays yet, just Google "royals defense 2014 postseason" and clear your schedule for the next 30 minutes.
"Defense wins championship" may be clichéd, but it’s also held true in sports in recent years. Sporting KC did it to win the MLS Cup. The Seahawks did it to win the Super Bowl last year. And it’s looking like defense is going to win the World Series this year. (The Royals’ most likely opponent, the Giants, have a similarly strong defense, though theirs is led by pitching.)
It shouldn’t be too surprising, then, that there’s a common thread in each of the Chiefs’ playoff losses, post-Schottenheimer: a frightening lack of defense. The 2006 loss to the Colts was the only one in which the Chiefs allowed less than 30 points (they lost 23-8).
On average, the Chiefs have given up 34 points per playoff game since 2000. To put that into perspective, last year’s Minnesota Vikings- the worst defensive team in the league- only gave up 30 points per game.
Is it any coincidence that through the first half of last season, the Chiefs almost looked like a championship team? Regardless of who they were playing, they won nine games in a row on the back of a monster defense. After the bye, the defense collapsed, and the team regressed, despite the improved play of Alex Smith and the Chiefs’ offense.
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This isn’t to say that defense is always going to win championships. The rebirth of defense is indicative of a more important lesson: You don’t win championships by joining the current trend. You win championships by defeating the current trend.
In baseball, the current trend is offensively-minded. It’s all about power offense: home runs and strikeouts. Go big or go home. The Royals have made the World Series by doing the exact opposite. They never hit home runs, but they also never strikeout, and they play great defense and run really fast. American League opponents called it "small ball" in a derisive manner… until the Royals ended up being the last team standing.
The Royals were never going to keep up with the big sluggers in Boston or Baltimore if they tried to emulate them. But Kauffman lends itself well to a speedy, defensive team, and it keeps most hits inside the stadium. So the Royals built a team to play on those strengths that could beat the power offenses, and it worked.
In football as well, high-powered offenses are the order of the day. Fans love to see their teams light up the scoreboard, and the elite quarterback who can quickly move the ball down the field is synonymous with the phrase "championship rings," (except when it isn’t)
The Chiefs could try to keep up with the trend. They could try to groom Tyler Bray or Aaron Murray into a top quarterback, or they could try to trade for or sign an elite veteran. But without the complete package, which can take lots of years and lots of money to assemble, it will be impossible to compete with the Peyton Mannings and Aaron Rodgerses (Rodgeri? Rodgerses.) of the world. Go ahead, try to get into a shootout with Peyton Manning. He’ll beat you every time.
Or, the Chiefs could buck the trend- and find a way to beat it. The blueprint is already there. The Seahawks did it last year with a shutdown defense and a serviceable offense. They won a championship.
The great news for the Chiefs is that they’re almost to that point. Their defense is almost shutdown. It’s just missing a few key pieces (some of which are injured right now and will return next year.) Their offense is almost serviceable. It just needs to get more consistent.
There’s going to be frustration along the way. Royals fans dealt with so much frustration through The Process™. But now it’s paid off for them big time. We’ve had to deal with frustration as Chiefs fans too, but our process is almost complete. Kansas City might have three big winners in a few years. And then, like David Glass, Clark Hunt will have a trophy of his very own that he’ll be able to take hold of and never ever give up ever.