There is a general trend for the passage of football seasons that I like to apply to various teams or players who appear "out of nowhere" and then either stick around and prove they belong, or prove their random early success was a fluke. The trend looks like this:
- Year 1: Surprise.
- Year 2: Regression.
- Year 3: Reality.
Surprise. Regression. Reality. You can probably think of some examples in your head already.
The Surprise Year is the year of exceeded expectations. It's the year where the new head coach or the rookie QB or the young defense perform incredibly well, better than anyone could have imagined, and lead the team to a successful season.
But is Year 1 the "real" team/player/coach? Perhaps they benefited from some luck or a soft schedule. Perhaps they won a lot of close games and so their record looks better than it might have been had a clutch field goal or fumble recovery gone down differently. Perhaps no one knew how to prepare for them, or what to expect. Or perhaps the team's starters managed to stay healthy all season while other teams suffered the usual injuries. Thus, the team or coach or player is a huge success, yes, but... is the success founded in a sustainable culture or skill? And, if it isn't, can the team make the necessary changes to base success in something sustainable?
Year 2 is the Regression Year. Otherwise known as the "Sophomore Slump." Almost all Surprise Teams have a Regression Year the following season. The questions are how much and why?
"Regression" is, of course, defined subjectively. While the team itself may play better than Year 1 in various metrics, they may also face a tougher schedule, or be less lucky, or suffer injuries. Various breaks that went their way in Year 1 turn against them in Year 2. They miss the playoffs despite playing better football. Or maybe the hype of Year 1 led to higher expectations, which means Year 2 is considered a Regression Year based on the new threshold for success.
Or, maybe they just flat-out play worse football. That's when you're really in trouble.
Either way, Year 2 is a let down. Depending on whether the regression is a part of playing worse football or having worse luck and a tougher schedule, the fan-base will be hopeful or cynical heading into Year 3 and some changes will have to be made.
Year 3 is the Reality Year. It's the year where we learn "the truth." It's the year where we answer the question: was the success of Year 1 founded in a sustainable culture or skill? Or is this team/coach/player likely never going to look as awesome as they did that first season?
Not all teams follow these paths, but I think enough surprise teams/players/coaches can be grouped into Year 2 Regression the next season, and then sorted further by their performance in Year 3, that it's an interesting model to keep in mind for the sake of building narratives. And that's what sportsing is. Sportsing is narratives.
What, then, is the narrative of the 2015 Kansas City Chiefs? More specifically, what is the narrative of this offense?
Well, at this point you have probably already begun plugging in the necessary nouns, adjectives, and verbs to make the story fit the model. Kansas City was nothing too flashy on offense in Year 1, however, behind a stout defense, the team took off to a 9 - 0 undefeated start. Then, despite the defense regressing in the second half of the season, the offense played much better and ended the year looking like a legitimate threat.
We have detailed the offense's second-half improvement in the 2013 season before. It turns out that comparing the second half of 2013 to the pre-Reid Kansas City offense of 2012 reveals the biggest, quickest points per game improvement in NFL history. No team had ever before managed such a turnaround. After the 2013 Bye week, the Kansas City offense averaged over 32 points a game. Wowzas. To quote:
The Chiefs spent 2011 and 2012 averaging about 13 points a game with the worst offense in the league. Suddenly, Alex Smith and Andy Reid show up and the team ends last season (2013) averaging over 32.
I can say, with much confidence, that this is the greatest offensive turnaround in NFL history. Nowhere else... did a team climb to such heights from such lowly lows.
Now that's all well-and-good, but it also happens to give us a textbook example of Year 1 surprise success: unbelievable over-achievement, from the basement of the NFL to a high-scoring power rivaling the Broncos and Packers, achieved, in part, due to something unsustainable. That unsustainable bit was that the Chiefs played the easiest defensive schedule in the league in 2013.
This sets the unit up nicely for regression in Year 2. The schedule will get harder and Reid will have to respond to the challenge and make the needed changes to continue basing success in something sustainable. Because easy schedules are unsustainable. Unless you play in the AFC South. And 32 points a game is unsustainable. Even the Broncos and Packers managed only 30 points a game last season. Last year's offensive line and receiving corps were also unsustainable -- assuming the Chiefs wanted to continue winning games and protect Smith from injury.
The offense, therefore, "regressed" in Year 2. They missed the playoffs, failed to score a wide receiver touchdown, put up utterly inept performances against the Titans and Raiders, and accumulated about 10 points per game less than they did in the last 8 games of 2013, regressing heavily from 32 points a game to a season-average of just 22.1, good for 16th in the NFL. Perfectly average. Much of the statistics surrounding Alex Smith last year were, likewise, average.
But that "regression" did not take place because Reid's boys played worse. In-fact, they played better. The rest of this post details the Kansas City Chiefs' upward trend heading into 2015 on the offensive side of the ball. These stats are part of why the hype is strong around AP this summer. And if Year 3 is the Reality Year, where we learn all we need to know about the success of Years 1 and 2, then let us hope the hype is real.
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#1 and #2 - It wasn't easy...
Most of the following stats are taken from Football Outsiders' (FO) very useful Drive Stats.
These first two stats are important for framing the rest. #1, SOS, means strength of schedule as measured by FO. #2 measures the starting line of scrimmage -- or the average position on the field where the offense started its drives. Both are NFL rankings.
As mentioned above, the Chiefs had the easiest offensive schedule in the league in 2013. They also had the most advantageous average starting line of scrimmage, thanks primarily to the defense creating tons of turnovers, but also thanks to the impeccable Dave Toub.
Taken together, Reid's Year 1 offense was benefiting from the best field position and the easiest schedule of any offense in the league. Hard not to look good in such a welcoming environment. The offense, for its part, responded as it should have, and finished the second half of 2013 averaging over 30 points a game.
But that changed in 2014. The Chiefs' offense had the 6th most difficult schedule, and their average LOS dropped a bit to 8th. The change in schedule toughness alone should have resulted in much less offensive production -- and, at first glance, it did. But the stats below reveal, despite playing a much tougher schedule and having slightly worse field position, the Kansas City offense played objectively better.
The much, much tougher schedule was the greatest obstacle Year 2 Regression could throw at Andy Reid, but he schemed and plotted his way, using 3-tight-end sets and no receiver touchdowns if need be, to better production. Hats off to our man in the Hawaiian shirt.
#3, #4, and #5 - Production per drive
Points per Drive is pretty straight-forward: it's the number of points an offense scores per drive, rather than per game. The Chiefs improved in this metric despite having worse field position on each drive, and playing tougher defenses.
What Points per Drive tells you, that points per game does not, is how efficient a team is at putting points on the board given its opportunities. After all, some teams will have more drives on offense than others. Kansas City, for example, had 187 offensive drives in 2013, and only 168 in 2014. 168, if you can believe it, was the second lowest amount of drives of any offense in the league. If you run a ball control offense, you are likely to see the ball less and therefore have fewer drives. Of course, this means you also limit your opponent's total number of drives.
The Chiefs also improved their TOP, or Time of Possession, per Drive. Whether a higher TOP is a good thing is a function of what kind of offense you want to have. Green Bay, Pittsburgh, and Dallas had high-scoring offenses with high TOP per drive. Baltimore, Denver, and Indianapolis were more prone to scoring fast. I have to assume, for Reid and Smith in this offense, that a higher TOP per drive is a step forward. Ball control is the name of the game.
The final stat, Drive Success Rate, didn't budge in terms of ranking, though it did improve slightly in terms of the actual percentage, from .689 to .702. All this stat measures is "the percentage of down series that result in a first down or touchdown." In other words, how often the Chiefs moved the chains. And even slight improvement looks good when you consider the tougher opponents.
#6, #7, and #8 - Turnovers
One thing that is predictable is that Alex Smith will not throw interceptions. As such, Kansas City has ranked the best in the NFL both seasons since Smith's arrival in interceptions per drive.
Fumbles, however, have been a bigger concern for this unit. They did manage slight improvement in 2014, but more ball security is crucial if this team is to get that extra win here or there to finish 11 - 5 instead of 9 - 7. A second straight year of missing the playoffs can only be seen as a huge disappointment. Last year was understandable, I think. This year, there are no excuses.
#9 and #10 - Football Outsiders' DVOA
DVOA is an efficiency stat that Football Outsiders measures. It includes an adjustment for opponent, so we don't need to worry about applying it ourselves.
The first stat summarizes in one number what the other stats say: the Kansas City offense took a small step forward in 2014.
The second stat summarizes what the rest of the stats below say: Alex Smith took a small step forward.
Can those small steps culminate into something bigger in Year 3?
#11 - 3rd down passing
This was an interesting stat I picked up while rummaging through Football Perspective. Smith jumped from 32nd in 3rd down passing to 11th; this as measured by the average length needed for a 1st down and how Smith would have been expected to do given the distance.
In 2013, he was 2.1% below his expected rate -- meaning, despite having 3rd-and-short or 3rd-and-reasonable, Smith wasn't converting 1st downs.
In 2014, he was 3% above expectation. Smith, on average, faced 3rd-and-7.9 last year, which was the fourth highest distance for any quarterback with at least 60 3rd down plays. Yet, still, Smith converted those into 1st downs more than expected. Again, the tougher defensive schedule makes this look that much better.
Here's to hoping, however, that the offense can do better on 1st and 2nd downs, and face 3rd-and-long less often.
#12, #13, #14, #15, and #16 - The Phoenix
As I embarrassingly wrote last year in a 4,000 word post just before the Chiefs tanked in the season opener, Alex Smith, #11, The Phoenix, was supposed to "take flight" in Year 2 under Reid.
That, uh, didn't happen.
The stats above show Smith going from slightly below average in some of the main QB metrics to slightly above it. Baby steps, sure, but not good enough.
From AY/A and ANY/A, to Pro Football Focus' QB ratings, to Football Outsiders' efficiency and productivity stats (DVOA and DYAR, respectively), Smith showed marginal improvement in each against a tougher schedule. But he did not show the degree of Year 2 improvement myself and others expected. We can blame that on whomever we like, but expectations can, and should, be higher for Smith entering 2015.
After all, as much as this may be the Reality Year for the Kansas City offense, and even for the entire team under Reid, it also feels strongly like the Reality Year for Alex Smith.