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Is Chiefs coach Andy Reid too conservative? Testing narratives

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In the fallout of the Chiefs’ close loss to the Titans, there have been quite a few narratives that are being passed around. Alex Smith isn’t good enough, Spencer Ware has regressed, the run defense is doomed, etc. One narrative I’ve seen that’s widely accepted goes something like this:

“Andy Reid is way too conservative in the 2nd half of games with a lead. He goes into a shell with his play calling and the offense suffers.”

I have seen many, many people say this over the course of the season, and the calls have only gotten louder since Sunday. I’ve actually joined in with the group making this claim, as it certainly appears to me that Andy’s play calling gets more conservative once the team has a lead.

Then I realized I was doing precisely what I at times criticize others for doing: jumping to a conclusion based on nothing but gut feeling. I had no real proof that Andy was in fact being more conservative in the 2nd half against the Titans. What was the run to pass ratio? What about on first downs? How many routes were being run down the field in the 2nd half as opposed to the 1st half? What about plays that were “killed” at the line of scrimmage? How many single read plays (essentially screens of various kinds) were being run?

I didn’t know the answers to any of these questions, so I did the only thing I could do: opened up NFL Gamepass and got out a pen and piece of paper to start charting stuff. I wanted to know the answer to a simple question: was there some kind of quantifiable difference in the offense in the 2nd half versus the 1st half against the Titans? To figure this out, I tracked the following in each half:

  1. Throws on 1st down vs. runs on 1st down (throwing on 1st down being obviously more aggressive than running on 1st down).
  2. Single read plays (a big complaint from many is that Reid is trusting scheme over personnel by calling too many single-read plays and limiting the choices for the offense).
  3. Pass plays with 2+ routes more than 10 yards down the field (this one is pretty obvious. The higher percentage of plays you have multiple receivers 10+ yards down the field, the more aggressive you’re being. I didn’t track targets because that would bring the QB into play. By tracking the routes themselves we can isolate the QB from the play call).
  4. Percentage of run vs. pass plays
  5. Plays “killed” by Smith (audibly yelling “kill” is the only way I can tell this) and what kind of play was run after the kill.

I very much understand there are probably a bunch of other things I could have tracked, but I had to draw the line somewhere. In my opinion, using the first four stats (or whatever you want to call them) we can at least get an idea of whether things looked different from half to half. And by tracking kills we can take Alex Smith out of the equation. I was also interested in how successful plays were when Alex killed the initial play call.

All right, enough explanation. Let’s look at the numbers and see if we can take anything away from them.

First Half

Throws on 1st Down: 5 (55.6%)

Runs on 1st Down: 4 (44.4%)

Single Read Plays: 3 (16.7% of passing plays)

Pass Plays w/ 2 routes 10+ Yards downfield: 10 (55.6% of passing plays)

Running Plays: 10 (35.7% of total plays)

Passing plays: 18 (64.3% of total plays)

It should be noted that Alex Smith, from what I could observe, killed two plays in the first half. Both plays were killed into passing plays, one of which was the 4th and 1 conversion to Travis Kelce, the other resulted in a completed pass. Now, it’s impossible to know what plays Smith killed and whether they were pass or run, but that’s at least worth noting.

The Chiefs definitely passed the ball way more than they ran in the 1st half, a stat that’s heavily influenced by multiple pass plays (and zero running plays) to close out the half when the Chiefs were racing the clock to score (which they did, getting a field goal). I was also surprised at the (relatively) low number of single read plays, given how Andy Reid scripts the first 15-20 plays of a game.

All right, moving on to the rest of the game...

Second Half

Throws on 1st Down: 3 (30%)

Runs on 1st Down: 7 (70%)

Single Read Plays: 5 (35.7% of passing plays)

Pass Plays w/ 2 routes 10+ Yards downfield: 6 (42.9% of passing plays)

Running Plays: 16 (53.3% of total plays)

Passing plays: 14 (46.7% of total plays)

Alex Smith killed three plays in the 2nd half that I counted, and all three were killed into runs (two 7 yard gains and a 3 yard gain), so that (again, without knowing the initial play call) could mess with the results here a bit. Keep that in mind.

I was somewhat surprised by the results I found. I expected a couple of the numbers to skew in favor of more conservative offensive play, with the remaining being somewhat similar. What I did NOT expect was for every single indicator to point towards a more tightly-controlled (much higher percentage of single read plays) and less aggressive (more runs on 1st down and in general, as well as fewer plays with multiple routes down the field) offensive approach.

Now, let’s remember that this is a pretty small sample size of plays. When you’re talking about 28 plays (first half) and 30 plays (second half), even a few snaps will wildly skew the results. Also, some of this stuff is situational (3rd and short, etc). However, it’s also a fact that the Chiefs’ failure to punch in in on 4th down occurred in the 1st half, not the 2nd half. Which means that there was a drive in which the Chiefs ran the ball four consecutive times in the 1st half, and we still ended up with the numbers weighing heavily in favor of a more conservative 2nd half approach.

Going into this I believed Andy Reid called a more conservative game in the 2nd half. Now I’m virtually certain of it. Now, does that alleviate the players (the offensive line and Alex Smith, in particular) of their obligation to execute? Absolutely not! The offense still had some chances to get it done and failed to take advantage. However, the number of chances they had, in my opinion, was lowered by Reid’s shift into an offense that favored running the ball over the pass, and favored single read plays or conservative routes when the offense DID pass the ball.

We’ll see how the offense looks against a tough Broncos defense this upcoming week. I have faith in Reid to recognize what the offense is doing well (oddly enough, they’ve looked better as of late pushing the ball into intermediate and deep zones) and begin to increase the volume of those types of plays. In the meantime, the narrative that Reid took his foot off the gas a bit against Tennessee absolutely holds up under review. Just be mindful of what that does mean (that Reid needs to work on this aspect of his play calling) and what it does not mean (that Smith and company are absolved of their failures to execute).

Here’s hoping the team performs so well against Denver that this all feels like a distant memory come Monday.