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This is the Chiefs best chance at a Super Bowl in the Andy Reid-Alex Smith era

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Before I started writing at Arrowhead Pride I was working towards my master’s degree with an emphasis in sports data science, particularly the NFL. Needless to say I’ve studied countless Super Bowl winning teams and what made them tick.

Given my experience, I’m here to tell you this is the Chiefs best chance at winning a Super Bowl since Andy Reid has come to Kansas City.

This doesn’t mean the Chiefs have a good chance, it just means this is their best chance.

Some History

In all my studies I’ve found there are essentially three eras in NFL football: The era before illegal contact existed, the era from the late 60s to 1999, and 1999 to present. Each of these eras saw changes in the way NFL teams approached the game.

In the first era, NFL quarterbacks did not put up great numbers because it was difficult to throw to receivers who could be mugged by defenders before the ball was thrown.

In the second era, the NFL saw strong rushing attacks and defensive football win the lion’s share of Super Bowls.

In the third era, a strong rushing attack was no longer needed to win a Super Bowl. Instead, teams must utilize a great passing attack or have a great passing defense to win a Super Bowl. The 1999 Rams revolutionized the way teams passed the ball and the Patriots would later go on to further that progression with including slot receivers as a key component of the offense.

Why do these eras matter in regards to this article? It’s because we’ll be using data only from the most recent era.

Some Data

Since we just explained why we’ll be using the data from 1999 onward, let’s talk about what data we will look at.

I wanted to be simple, yet effective. I decided the best, most clear, and simple stat to gauge the effectiveness of an offense and defense would be to examine yards per pass and run play.

A great defense shouldn’t allow many yards per play, and a great offense should lead the league in yards per play. Both of these stats are very solid indicators for offensive or defensive success.

Here are the ranks for each Super Bowl winning team over the past 17 years in terms of offensive and defensive yards per pass/run.

Super Bowl Winner NFL Ranks in Offensive Yards/Play and Defensive Yards/Play

Team Year Run Offense Pass Offense Run Defense Pass Defense
Team Year Run Offense Pass Offense Run Defense Pass Defense
Rams 1999 2 1 4 5
Ravens 2000 8 24 1 6
Patriots 2001 23 13 21 19
Buccaneers 2002 26 20 3 1
Patriots 2003 30 12 6 1
Patriots 2004 17 7 10 9
Steelers 2005 12 3 1 3
Colts 2006 16 1 32 13
Giants 2007 3 22 4 10
Steelers 2008 29 20 1 1
Saints 2009 5 2 24 19
Packers 2010 25 3 28 3
Giants 2011 32 4 22 19
Ravens 2012 12 15 7 14
Seahawks 2013 12 5 7 1
Patriots 2014 22 15 8 11
Broncos 2015 11 17 1 1
Patriots 2016 24 3 8 6

I really enjoy this table. There is so much information which can be drawn from it, but a few things stand out the most to me:

  • Some teams have gotten to the Super Bowl without having dominant offenses or defenses. I consider these teams to be lucky in a way. Since this is the Chiefs we’re talking about we may as well go ahead and throw the luck factor out the window. We all know the Chiefs aren’t getting any lucky calls or bounces in the playoffs as we’ve been made aware of this countless times through history.
  • Almost every team that has won a Super Bowl in the past 18 seasons has had either a top 10 passing offense and/or a top 10 passing defense.
  • All but five of the 18 teams had a run defense that was also top 10 in the NFL.

The key is, if you can stop the run and are efficient with the passing game either on offense or defense, then you have a shot.

You don’t need to have a good rushing offense to win a Super Bowl, but it doesn’t hurt to have one. What you need is a good passing offense and/or a good passing defense.

The Chiefs with Andy Reid and Alex Smith

Now let’s take a look at where the Chiefs have stacked up the past several years with Andy Reid at the controls.

Chiefs Offensive and Defensive Yards Per Play Rankings

Year Run Offense Pass Offense Run Defense Pass Defense
Year Run Offense Pass Offense Run Defense Pass Defense
2013 4 23 24 14
2014 3 23 30 3
2015 3 16 16 4
2016 16 14 20 17
2017 1 6 23 23

Leading up to 2017, the Chiefs never had a top 10 passing offense. However they have had two teams with top 10 passing defenses. Both of these teams suffered from a lack of a solid run defense and the help of a strong passing attack. The 2013, 2015, and 2016 Chiefs teams fell short because their run defense could not make up for their offensive shortcomings.

Long story short, the Chiefs had a solid defense in 2013, 2015, and 2016 but their offensive passing was not good enough. Perhaps if the offense and/or defense had performed better it would be a different story. But simply put, the defense couldn’t make up for the offense’s shortcomings and vice versa.

But look at the 2017 season, the Chiefs have a top 10 passing attack and a top 10 rushing attack. Suddenly the Chiefs are looking pretty sexy on offense if you ask me.

Of course it’s impossible not to notice the glaring defensive issues, but both of those come with a caveat.

The Defense is Evolving

There’s no doubt the Chiefs defense has been struggling in 2018, but there is very, very serious reason for optimism.

The Chiefs defense has turned things around during the season, and it’s not because of scheme, it’s not because of imaginary dragons or fairies, it is because there are actual players on the field that weren’t there earlier in the year who are making positive impacts.

The Chiefs are currently ranked 23rd in yards per rushing attempt allowed. That’s a glaring hole right? They can’t possibly win a Super Bowl with that run defense. Wrong! If you look at the trends, the Chiefs run defense is playing quite well.

Right now, we should be thanking a lot of people for the Chiefs run defense improvement, but two people deserve the majority of the praise: Brett Veach and Reggie Ragland.

What about the pass defense? Well the same thing could be said about the pass defense...

The Chiefs passing defense is improving as well.

Normally I’d stay away from trends, but in this case it is unwise to ignore the Chiefs recent defensive improvements because there are actual tangible players who are causing the change: Ragland and Revis.

Right now the Chiefs are playing defense much better than their 23rd ranking would tell you, and this is yet another positive mark in the Chiefs favor.

Turnovers

I wanted to touch on turnovers very briefly, and I believe the Chiefs reliance on turnovers has been a small part of their downfall in years past.

From 2013 to 2016 the Chiefs relied heavily on turnovers and special teams scores for their success. This is a fatal flaw in the playoffs.

The playoffs house great teams who take care of the ball. If forcing turnovers is your team’s strength, then you are probably going to lose in the playoffs. The reason being is that good teams typically take care of the ball and it’s a lot easier to force a turnover against a bad team than a playoff team.

Relying on turnovers or special teams scores in the playoffs is a good way to get eliminated early.

The 2017 Chiefs are still near the top of the league in turnover differential, but they don’t rely on turnovers and special teams scores to win games. In 2017 the Chiefs have been relying on their offense.

Injuries

In the 2013 post season the Chiefs had to deal with injuries to the following players: Justin Houston, Brandon Flowers, Donnie Avery, Jamaal Charles, and others.

In 2015 the Chiefs were dealing with injuries to Justin Houston, Jeremy Maclin, LDT, Mitch Morse, and others.

In 2016 the Chiefs were relatively healthy, so there is no excuse there.

In 2017 the Chiefs are essentially missing one player on defense: Eric Berry. The Chiefs have had ample time to find a way to scheme around that loss. The Chiefs are heading into the playoffs relatively healthy and the starters should be well rested after taking the week off before the wild card game.

The Top AFC Dogs

We always talk about them, and for good reason. The Chiefs have to get past the Patriots and the Steelers to make it to the Super Bowl, and they have to do it on the road. I don’t think that’s such a bad thing.

In the Graham Bensinger one on one interview with Alex Smith, Alex says it can be stressful playing at home in front of all the fans; Smith’s numbers reflect this.

It’s important to note that the Chiefs have played a significantly better slate of pass defenses at home than on the road. So take the above information with a grain of salt. The average DVOA of pass defenses the Chiefs faced at home was 13.75 and the average DVOA of pass defenses the Chiefs faced on the road was 20.86. That’s a pretty sizable difference and does account for some of Alex Smith’s better numbers on the road.

While opponent strength does play a role in the home/road split, I do believe there is still truth in Smith being more comfortable on the road. I say this because the home/road stats are so far apart it would be difficult to pin all of that on opponent’s passing defenses.

Of course the Chiefs won’t benefit from Arrowhead’s effect on the defense when they play on the road, but my personal preference is I’d rather go with a QB who is comfortable. Besides, what good is the age old saying “defense travels” if we don’t get to use it?

What about the Steelers though? The Chiefs haven’t been able to beat the Steelers and they probably never will. Hold that thought though, because I have something I believe is a very interesting and under discussed angle for the playoffs.

The NFL is a copy cat league and other teams copied what the Steelers did against the Chiefs. Needless to say by the time the Chiefs may reach the Steelers in the playoffs they will be well practiced against zone defenses.

The Steelers have played zone schemes year after year after year. I don’t really believe the Steelers will change their scheme for the Chiefs like they did against the Patriots in week 15. This gives the Chiefs an opportunity to show what they learned.

In regards to winning in New England, it will always be incredibly difficult. The Chiefs have done it before though and the precedent is there.

Expectations

My expectations for the Chiefs may be different than some, but given everything I have seen from the Chiefs this season, the improvements on defense, the excellent play on offense, and the history of the NFL, I would be disappointed if the Chiefs did not make it to the AFC Championship game.

I stand by my statement this is the Chiefs best chance of winning a Super Bowl in the Reid/Smith era. This doesn’t mean the Chiefs are likely to win the Super Bowl. All that it means is the Chiefs have a better shot this year than any other in recent memory, probably going all the way back to 1993.