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Winning in the NFL is hard, especially if you're playing the Chiefs

I have kept "Stay the course" in my signature line for the past few months because it is more clear to me than anything that the Kansas City Chiefs are a superior football team capable of beating anyone in the league more often than not, and who have a definite chance at a Super Bowl, even when they lose Hall of Fame-level starters on both sides of the ball. John Dorsey finds such immense talent in the draft, in free agency, off the street, and Andy Reid and defensive coordinator Bob Sutton do a great job of plugging them in and finding them a role where they can thrive. We have legitimate Rookie of the Year candidates on both sides of the ball. This after claiming DROTY last year.

This staff also does a tremendous job of keeping their locker room inspired and on the same page:

  • Lose an unbearably tough playoff game to the Colts? Come back two years later and punch the Texans in the face in their own stadium.
  • Start the season 1-5? Roll off 10 straight wins in an unprecedented comeback-season to reach the playoffs.
  • Play a whole year without a wide receiver touchdown? Go out and get Jeremy Maclin and put him up for 1,000 yards.
  • Lose Justin Houston? Jamaal Charles? Derrick Johnson? Lose irreplaceable superstars and humble, hungry human beings? JUST. KEEP. WINNING.

I could go on. And on. And on. And so will Andy Reid's Chiefs.

Baseball Vision

Before I do go on, however, let me explain Baseball Vision. Which is a term I introduced in October when the Chiefs had just been whooped on national TV by the Pittsburgh Steelers. The post was called, "Stay the Course. Again."

Baseball Vision is the view of the world baseball fans cannot escape, but we football freaks are privileged enough to enter and leave as we please. It’s the understanding that everything is okay because nothing is ever okay. Our team is really good and that means they suck. They are going to win in heart-warming ways because of their general awesomeness, and then they are going to lose in the stupidest ways because of their general incompetence. A lot. Not as much as some other, slightly bigger losers. But enough to remind you that you are a fool.

Baseball Vision is an important perspective to maintain when your favorite football team, which also happens to be among the best in the NFL, loses a game.

Margin of Victory

Let's take a look at a list, in no particular order, of things that had to go wrong for the Chiefs to lose:

Andy Reid calls a timeout and gives the kicker a free kick. The Titans aren't stopped one yard shy of that point, because, if so, they would have simply tried a Hail Mary. Alex Smith throws an INT when he should have targeted Kelce. DAT doesn't transfer the ball to his left hand and across the goal post. Hill touches the ball once. Hill drops a pass. Smith launches some balls way too high. DAT drops a pass. The Titans stuff Spencer Ware, a human cannon ball, at the goal line. Twice. Eric Berry misjudges his jump on what would have been an easy pick.

All that had to go wrong for the Chiefs to lose by two points on a last-second, 53-yard field goal that was missed the first time. Oh, there was also another big mistake that cost the Chiefs three easy points, and would have won the game:

Reid is aggressive and goes for it on fourth down when, in a cold weather game at home against an inferior opponent, three points would have been the right call.

Wait. What?

"Reid is aggressive and goes for it on fourth down when, in a cold weather game at home against an inferior opponent, three points would have been the right call."

See, I don't particularly buy the idea that Andy Reid would prefer to win games by two points instead of 20. Why? Well, one, because it makes zero intuitive sense. Playing to win games by two points is a great way to lose about half of your games. You are essentially saying you want things to come down to a coin toss. That's not "conservative". That's incredibly risky.

But, aside from it being an illogical assumption, it's also empirically, flat-out wrong. Since Reid came to Kansas City, the Chiefs have won games by 20-or-more points 10 times. Only the Patriots, Broncos, Colts, and Seahawks have more blowout wins. That's pretty good company.

Now, what is an "ultra-conservative" head coach who "hates winning big" doing winning so many big games? It's because he isn't ultra-conservative. Head coaches in general are pretty conservative in some senses, but there's no reason to believe Reid is any more conservative than the rest of them. Also, Reid doesn't hate winning big. Reid likes to win, by any margin, big or small. Again, no different from any other head coach.

The only difference, really, between Andy Reid and most head coaches in the NFL is that Andy Reid wins big more often than 90 percent of them over the last four seasons.

At the very least, this statistic makes me suspicious of anyone who thinks he should be unequivocally canned.

Then there's the flip side. The Chiefs have only lost one game by 20-plus points since Reid came to town. That's tied for first with more familiar company: the Broncos, Patriots, Seahawks, and this time the Bills get in.

So, in both tables, we have the Kansas City Chiefs, coached and quarterbacked by the biggest losers of all time, in the same company as the last three Super Bowl winners.

Running out the clock

So, yah, Andy Reid wins a lot. You get it. But still. The Titans? At home? In December? There must be some other narrative.

Well, sure. The run game has been off most the year, especially up the middle. The horizontal element is all they have, which is why Reid relies on it time and time again to try to relieve the struggling offensive line. Even when the sweeps work, and even when Smith completes deep passes, none of it is enough to make up for the fact that the Chiefs are one of the worst between-the-tackles running teams in the league.

And that's not because Kansas City is facing stuffed boxes. It's to the point where Reid is rarely calling play-action with Alex under center. Instead, we rely on sweeps and screens and misdirection and quick-read plays primarily out of the pistol or shotgun. Or our play-action involves Smith on a bootleg. It's clear the Chiefs have to move things outside the tackles and outside the pocket as often and as quickly as possible.

Because the Chiefs have weapons on the outside, Smith is throwing the ball more, and running it less. This is good. His sack rate (6%) is down from the previous three years (8.2%) by a large margin. This is because Smith has options this year to get the ball out quick, as opposed to 2013/14, when Kansas City fielded Dwayne Bowe and Donnie Avery, and Smith was forced to scramble. So the fact that Smith is scrambling less this year is a sign of better receiving options. And, besides, you don't want your rushing stats dependent on QB scrambles.

What's a better narrative for why the Chiefs are having a tough time this year finishing on offense? (A) Andy Reid is conservative. (B) The Chiefs don't have much of a running game. It worries me that we basically need jet sweeps using the fastest dude in the NFL to be effective on the ground.

Still, the Chiefs have a few come-from-behind wins this season, in which the offense looked amazing. But that wasn't the running game. It was Alex Smith, in do-or-die mode, with a lot of control at the line, typically in hurry-up, and throwing the ball.

But it's different when the Chiefs have the lead, and they want to run, or even need to run, and just can't. The Chiefs don't score points in the second half when they have these leads. They let the other team hang around. Inevitably, that turns the game into a coin toss. This defense is very scary, and can ruin any quarterback's day (or career). But teams can put up yards on this defense, and those yards can turn to points on a long enough timeline. Kansas City gave that timeline to the Titans on Sunday. And it cost them.

Until the offense can run the ball more effectively, it will be tough to close out games when we have the lead. But, hey, at least we can be less nervous this year playing from behind! Right!? Right...?


Football cliches

Now, what are some non-legitimate concerns being offered this past week?

One of them is that Reid is conservative. I hope I've handled that. Another is that Kansas City had just won three close games against top-of-the-league opponents, two of them on the road, and another on a short week. Doesn't that mean they were due for a "let down" game, or for an "emotional hangover"?

Well, first of all, what do those statements even mean? And, second, Andy Reid's entire squad is well-coached. They don't look past opponents. They play week-by-week and prepare week-by-week for the next one. They aren't like you and I, fans who get a huge rush one week from a win and then sit and relentlessly ponder on it for six days. Or, vise-versa, have our whole week ruined by a loss. There's no time for that kind of attitude. These are well-paid, well-trained professionals who are the best in the whole world at what they do. And have you seen the talent and dedication on this Chiefs team? The focus? The never-say-die attitude? The coaching? A tough loss to a resilient and inspired Titans team does not even enter my radar for concern.

That's because I have my Certified Baseball Vision Goggles. And Baseball Vision tells me the Chiefs are gonna occasionally lose games, always in some ridiculous and heart-breaking fashion, because that's the nature of football. I mean, have the Chiefs ever lost a game that wasn't ridiculous and heart-breaking? Not that I can recall. Every single loss really, really stung.

Remember Denver last year in prime-time? Wow. Remember that Chicago Bears game? U-G-L-Y. And the Titans in the 2014 season opener? The Chiefs sure know how to keep their losses interesting. We got full on duds, embarrassing prime-time massacres, heart-breaking last-minute turnovers, once-in-a-generation statistical anomalies. We got everything, baby. Or, hey, what about that other time the Chiefs lost on a last second field goal when Andy Reid decided to ice the kicker in freezing temperatures! What a joke! I remember that one like it was just last Sunday!

Baseball Vision tells us the Chiefs are a big bunch of losers. But it also tells us that they lose less often than most the other losers in the league. And that makes them winners. Nice job, Chiefs!

Which brings me to the title of this post.

Winning in the NFL is hard

Andy Reid isn't trying to win by two points. He'd like to win by 20. It's just that it's honestly kinda difficult to win by 20. There are other men on the other side of the field who are also among the most dominant in the world at what they do. So winning by 20 points is hard. Sadly, however, winning by two points is also pretty hard.

So Reid tries for the harder achievement: win by 20 points. But even though Reid manages the harder achievement more than 90 percent of the NFL, he has to mainly settle, against his own will, for the unreliable achievement: win by two points. Inevitably, the unreliable achievement turns into a failure at the worst possible time (usually around the time when the clock hits 0:00), and the Chiefs lose by two points.

Still, despite winning in the NFL being hard, the Chiefs win fairly often. Here are two fun facts for your Christmas Kool Aid:

  1. The Chiefs have won five games in a row four times since 2013. No other team has done it more. And that includes a nine- and 11-game streak. (The Chiefs are the only team to have two streaks over nine games since 2013.) This is good news because, if all goes according to plan, the Chiefs only need five more wins to bring the Lombardi to Kansas City.
  2. Did you know the Chiefs have won 41 regular season games since Andy Reid came to town? The only teams with more wins? The Patriots, Seahawks, and Broncos. It sure does seem that this Andy Reid fella consistently has his team in the same conversation as the last three Super Bowl winners...

You can confirm that data here, in this table, which is not organized by most wins, but by Point Differential. Point Differential tells us the collective Margin of Victory. In this instance, it tells us who is winning by more points, and losing by less points, over the last four seasons of football.

Once again, the Chiefs rank fourth, behind only the last three Super Bowl winners: the Broncos, Seahawks, and Patriots. By the way, these same Chiefs have beaten those three teams, and can beat them again.

Even this Sunday (Denver). Even in Foxboro (New England). Even for the Big One (Seattle?).

Because winning in the NFL is hard.

Especially if your opponent is the Kansas City Chiefs.

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