We all had the pleasure to enjoy football in its purest form yesterday. The two most physical teams in the NFL. A true heavyweight fight. All that was missing was the bell.
The beautiful brand of football on display from the Kansas City Chiefs and Seattle Seahawks on Sunday died soon after the 2003 AFC Championship game, when the New England Patriots beat up the Indianapolis Colts so bad that the league changed its rules (the first of many times doing so for Peyton Manning) leading to the brand of football we've become accustomed to over the last decade.
And while it's hard to complain about a product as truly great as the NFL, I was born and raised on Kansas City Chiefs football in the 1990s. I like running the ball. I like defense. Believe it or not, I like conservative, field position football (I just don't believe it's the most effective way to win). Hell, I still have a Tamagatchi and play Pogs for keeps. I just loved the 90s, OK?
All of which made yesterday's Chiefs/Seahawks clash my favorite football game in years.
The cycle of the NFL
There's a phrase you'll often hear in hindsight, that's very difficult to diagnose while it's actually happening: The NFL is cyclical. The league goes through trends just like I did as a kid in the 90s. You see the cool kid doing it (the Super Bowl champs), naturally you're going to want to do it too (3-4 defense, do-everything QB, The Patriot Way, the read option).
Yesterday left me wondering if the NFL in the midst of a cyclical change right now.
The Seattle Seahawks won the Super Bowl last season behind a great running game and the league's best defense. The 49ers advanced to the last three NFC Championships behind the league's best running game and a great defense. The Chiefs and Cowboys, two teams left for dead this season, have risen to power behind their running games.
But how could that happen? Well...
Picture the NFL as a pendulum. The rule changes brought about in 2004 swung it in the direction of a passing league. Passing numbers skyrocketed. Peyton, Brady and Brees put up numbers that our past selves thought were only possible in Madden. 300 yard passing games became 400 yard passing games. 3,000 yard passing seasons became 4,000, and even 5,000 yard passing seasons.
So the NFL began to adjust. Defensive linemen got smaller and faster to improve their ability to rush the passer. Safeties started playing linebacker (Lavonte David is one of the league's best and weighs 233 pounds). Cornerbacks were moved to safety (Tyrann Mathieu plays safety at 186 pounds!). Everybody loaded up on speed, while defenses literally shrank in size.
Teams did this because they had to. If you can't stop the pass in today's NFL, you don't stand a chance. You might as well take the ring against Clubber Lang.
Look no further than the transformation of the Chiefs defense from 2013 to 2014. They lost two defensive linemen who specialized in stopping the run (Tyson Jackson, Mike DeVito). Allen Bailey, who's much better against the pass than the run, was inserted into the lineup, and was rewarded this week with a hefty contract. Ron Parker switched from cornerback to safety for a few weeks. Husain Abdullah brings
better everything more speed than Kendrick Lewis to the safety position. Eric Berry, one of the team's best run defenders, was hardly missed during his six game absence. And defensive coordinator HeisenBob completely altered his defensive scheme, all for the sake of stopping the big passing play.
All of these moves were made in effort to boost the pass defense at the sacrifice of the run defense (something my podcast mate, Ryan Scott Hall, was clamoring for all offseason). And it has totally worked! There's no question the 2014 Chiefs have fared better against the league's top offenses than the 2013 Chiefs did, despite being decidedly worse against the run. Teams across the league are doing the exact same thing.
Defenses are becoming less and less equipped to handle an old school, hit 'em in the mouth, power running game. The Chiefs are one of these defenses. They currently rank 31st in yards per carry allowed. I was terrified going into yesterday's game, because I thought Seattle might run right through them. And while they did to an extent, the Chiefs held up just enough to escape with a win.
Meanwhile, the Seattle Seahawks came into yesterday ranked first in the NFL in yards per carry allowed, but they couldn't slow down the Chiefs one bit, as they ran roughshod over them (just as the Cowboys did earlier this season).
Even the top rushing defenses in the league can't handle the league's top rushing attacks. It reminds of the old adage in baseball: Good pitching always beats good hitting (see: Madison Buttgrabber).
Well, in today's NFL: Good rushing offenses always beat good rushing defenses.
In fact, the Chiefs have put up productive rushing days on the 2nd, 4th, 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th, 12th, and 14th best run defenses in the NFL this season. (So, of course, the 29th ranked Titans shut them down.) I can't offer you more definitive proof that the Kansas City Chiefs can run on any team in the league.
So many teams climbed aboard the NFL's pendulum, as it swung further and further in the direction of the passing game, that they weren't / aren't / won't be prepared for when it starts swinging back, in the NFL's latest cycle.
I believe, based on everything I've written, it's already swinging back. The question is, how far? In no way am I suggesting the NFL is a running league now. It's just headed in that direction.
All of which is fantastic news for the Chiefs. They have found their loophole. Their niche to succeed in today's NFL without an elite QB.
On top of that, there are but a few teams in the NFL built to truly take advantage of this tectonic shift within the league: The Cowboys. The Seahawks. The Patriots when they want to. The 49ers, maybe. And, of course, the Chiefs.
If I'm right, and we are in the beginning stages of yet another cyclical change in the NFL, then few teams are in better position to take advantage than the Kansas City Chiefs.
Here's the strangest part of all: It's Andy Reid out in front, leading the charge on the NFL's newest trend of running the football. The same Andy Reid who has taken 15 years of abuse from fans for the way he favors the passing game over the running game. The same Andy Reid who dialed up 16 pass attempts yesterday, the fewest of his coaching career.
So, I guess, what I'm trying to say is: If the Chiefs can change ... and Andy Reid can change ... everybody in the NFL can change!