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Shattering Myths: The Chiefs second half offensive failures

Kansas City Chiefs v Denver Broncos Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

Why do you believe what you believe?

That’s a pretty loaded question, make no mistake. But it is an important one. Why is it important? Because a belief is, in general, only as good as its consistency with the truth. Quite often, unfortunately, the truth can be difficult to ascertain (in life and in sports), and so we fall back to assumptions and narratives, and treat those as truth.

The Chiefs offense was abysmal in the 2nd half of the playoff loss to the Titans (as was the defense, but given I’ve already made my position on Bob Sutton needing to go clear elsewhere that’s for another day). There is no doubt about that. It was glaringly obvious.

What wasn’t obvious, and never is on broadcast viewing, is the “why.” Why did the offense go from looking nearly unstoppable to completely inept in the course of a single half? Was it adjustments by the Titans that blanketed the Chiefs? Did the play calling fall off the map? Did the players just stop being good? For me, the question of “why” is always the most important question, not the “what.” Because if we can’t answer the “why,” we can’t make a good determination as to what is next.

After the game, Twitter (and my mentions) became flooded with “fire Andy” and “Andy has to go” tweets. The general consensus was that Andy Reid simply cannot win in the playoffs, that he took over the 2nd half playcalling (or perhaps the whole game), that he went into “his conservative shell” with the lead, and that his coaching cost the Chiefs the game.

Those are all absolutely possibilities (though both Andy and Matt Nagy have tried to take the blame for the 2nd half failure, with Nagy claiming to have called every play and Andy claiming to have called “all the bad ones), and should be examined. So I asked people who were telling me that Andy Reid is to blame was this: what did he do in the playoff game that cause the Chiefs to lose?

The answers were almost universally the following:

1. The playcalling contained too many screens and horizontal passes.

2. There was no “killer instinct” to the play calls, and they were too conservative, with no shots down the field.

3. Kareem Hunt didn’t get the ball enough.

These all seem like legitimate possibilities (I have criticized Reid’s play calling with a lead in the past, and Hunt certainly didn’t touch the ball as much as I’d like), but what I found troubling is that no one I questioned could point me to specific instances (outside of a single play call) demonstrating what they were talking about. This lead me to question the validity of the points, so it became time to turn on the tape.

So I proceeded to review all 20 of the offensive snaps the Chiefs took in the 2nd half of the playoff game, and made a gif of each one for your viewing on Twitter (with the exception of several plays broken down by Brian Baldinger, which I RT’d with my own thoughts). If you would like to review that work (as I’m not going to put all 20 gifs here), this is a link to my Twitter’s “media.”

I’ll be blunt about what I found, then provide the supporting evidence: the narratives surrounding the 2nd half playcalling are by and large complete crap (though there was one awful call, the option on 3rd and short). I wish there was a nicer way to phrase it, but I found certain things to be true:

  1. There was not a single screen play called in the 2nd half. Not one.
  2. There was not a single “horizontal pass play” (which are often types of screens as part of RPO’s, but I thought I’d separate the two) ran by the Chiefs in the 2nd half. Not one.
  3. While Kareem Hunt’s usage was down, there were several RPO’s where it was Alex Smith’s choice to not give him the ball, not the play caller (whether it was Reid or Nagy).

Outside the final drive of the game, Hunt runs consisted of 40% of the play calls, which is pretty lock-step with his usage in the 1st half (and the season as a whole). It’s also worth noting that several of the plays Hunt did not get the ball were on 2nd and 11 and 3rd and 13, not ideal run situations. So while the fact that Hunt didn’t get the ball enough is true to an extent, when you evaluate the context of when the Chiefs had the ball and the context of the snaps (RPO’s, situation, etc) it becomes much less clear what specifically SHOULD have been done. And that’s the most accurate of the narratives that have been pushed since the game ended.

Again, the idea that the Chiefs ran a bunch of screens and horizontal plays is completely and totally untrue. Also untrue is the idea that the offensive failure in the 2nd half was schematic or playcalling in nature. Since many won’t believe me based on word alone, there’s no choice but to present every snap. If you’re on the fence, this should make you feel a bit better about Andy (or Nagy, I guess). If you’ve made up your mind either way, well, this will have no effect on you but will serve for informational purposes I suppose.

Snap 1: 1st and 10

So on the first snap, we see something that is going to be a pattern: an execution failure that kills the play. In this case, there are multiple failures.

The first is Witzmann getting beaten immediately, resulting in pressure immediately after the snap. Pressure like this limits a quarterback’s choices, and Alex has no option to go through reads and the routes have no time to develop. Instead, Alex has to throw to his bailout option, Albert Wilson. Unfortunately, the throw is high (though catchable), preventing much of a chance of YAC.

It doesn’t matter in the end, as Wilson can’t haul it in. The failure in protection doomed this play to an extent, but the poor throw and catch sealed it.

Play 2: 2nd and 10

Kareem Hunt is given the ball on what appears to be an RPO. (look here for the gif) with a decision made presnap as to whether the outside throw is an option. Hunt makes a solid 9 yard gain.

This is the type of play that you’d imagine they run again on 3rd down. Instead, what followed next was the biggest failure (from what I can see) in play calling of the day.

Play 3: 3rd and 1

This play call is inexplicable. Brian Baldinger broke it down very well here. There is some presnap action by Alex, but I don’t believe he checked into this play. This call (an option right to the short side of the field) had no chance from the very start, as the Titans played it extremely well.

Play 4: 1st and 10 (2nd drive after muffed punt)

One of the issues with an offense running so many RPO’s is that the final result of the play isn’t necessarily on the coach. Here, Alex (I believe seeing an unblocked ILB screaming towards him) doesn’t have a lot of great options.

While he could pull the ball back and hope the defender follows Hunt (Robinson is open on an in route at the top of the screen), in my opinion had he done so he likely gets creamed. I’ve watched this play several times and I think the defender did a nice job keeping his eyes on Alex and Hunt to see where the ball went.

What makes this play a loss of yardage is that Demetrius Harris is unable to get to the second level and either seal off the defender or at least get some push. Had he done so, there should be an edge for Hunt to and some yards to be gained. As it is, he’s forced inside into the teeth of the defense.

Play 5: 2nd and 11

I’ll let Baldy break this one down.

This is one of the plays that I believe had people saying “look, a screen!” when it is not.

Alex Smith has made that exact throw multiple times this season (to a TE curling around the shallow coverage before the S could arrive). He didn’t this time, and it cost the Chiefs. The play call was a good one that beat the defense. Instead, Alex checked down to Hill when protection (quickly) broke down, threw it high, and Hill couldn’t break loose. Loss of 2.

Play 6 (3rd and 13)

Another execution failure.

While Fisher gives up the edge, he’s able to force his man wide, and Alex has a very good pocket to step into.

Had he done so, he would have seen Albert Wilson open in the middle of the field right on the 1st down marker, with room to run if he gets even a remotely decent throw. Instead, Alex sees (he thinks) daylight with the defense in man coverage to try and run for the first down. Maybe he would have gotten there (though the S is already reacting), but the defenders see him scrambling and stop him at the line.

Again, look at the routes. This is not a playcalling issue. The play was there on one of the most important snaps of the game, which could’ve led to more clock being bled and at least an easier FG attempt (or even a touchdown). Instead, it led to a just barely missed FG, and Andy gets blamed for something he couldn’t control.

Play 7 (1st and 10, 1st drive in 4th Q)

With the Titans playing off man (and Tyreek Hill’s man bailing deep at the snap), Alex opts for a quick throw on a curl to Hill for a 5 yard gain. See the gif here.

This is one of Reid’s “use the passing game as a run replacement” plays that drive us crazy at times, but the reality is it worked.

Play 8 (2nd and 5)

The Chiefs spread the Titans out with 5 receivers, and Alex finds Albert Wilson on an out route for an 8 yard gain and a 1st down. See the gif here, the play did a nice job taking advantage of the coverage the Titans were running. I assume no one has complaints about that.

Play 9 (1st and 10)

On an RPO, Alex gives the ball to Hunt. 7 yards gained, not bad. Here is the gif. Again, Reid allowing Alex to make the call based on what the defense gives him, and in this case Alex makes the correct call.

Play 10 (2nd and 3)

This play was a 1 yard gain by Kareem Hunt. The unfortunate truth is that as great as Hunt has been this year, on this particular play he missed a cutback that would’ve led to a first down without any issue. Again, Baldinger broke it down in great deal (if you’re not following him on Twitter, I’m not sure what you’re doing with yourself).

It’s a sad sort of irony that in a play call the Chiefs fans likely loved, a failure of execution led to a stuff at the line of scrimmage.

Play 11 (3rd and 3)

This, for me, was arguably the real turning point of the game. The Chiefs had been marching finally and looked like they were going to move down the field, eating clock and eventually extending their lead. Then this play happened and suddenly everything was in doubt.

The protection is quite good on this play, and the route combinations defeat the defense in several places. Alex looks to his left, where Wilson is open but perhaps in a small window due to Hill’s defender being in the area (that’s still the throw I prefer). Hill is streaking to the defense’s second level, and had Alex waited a moment he would have come open on a deep crosser from all appearances, in between the levels of the defense.

However, Alex sees that Orson Charles has inside leverage (which he absolutely does) and chooses that throw. You’ve all seen that replayed up close. It’s not a great throw, on his back hip, but it’s one that was a pretty easy catch all things considered.

Of course, he didn’t catch it. He dropped it. Maybe he would’ve caught a more accurate throw, but that’s not what happened so we’ll never know.

The takeaway for purposes of what we’re researching? This was a GOOD play call on 3rd and short, and one that took advantage of the defense in multiple places. If you want to complain about playcalling, this isn’t the place to do it. The coaches won here, the players couldn’t deliver.

Play 12 (1st and 10, final drive)

A good route combo of Wilson and Harris flummoxes the Titans zone and leads to an easy 13 yard gain for the Chiefs. See the gif here. There’s also an illegal contact against Hill on an out and up where he would’ve roasted the defender. But oh well.

Play 13 (1st and 10)

Another massive turning point in the game, as Alex beautifully executes a read option and keeps the ball, leading to an 18 yard gain. However, an awful holding call on Demetrius Harris (which Geoff Schwartz discusses in detail here) sets the Chiefs back 15+ yards.

We can talk about the validity of the call but again, our purpose here is to evaluate play calling. This play call (and great execution) destroyed the Titans and should have led to the ball in enemy territory. Instead, the 2nd most questionable call of the day took that away.

Play 14: (1st and 9)

Hill had a rough game. He drops an easy 6-7 yard gain (gif here) after a year in which his hands were generally solid (he had 3 drops vs the Titans, and 3 the rest of the year by my count).

The play design here allows for some quick, easy yards. Instead, it’s a drop. Such things happen, and Hill may well have been out of sorts with a family tragedy recently. But again, for our purposes, the play call was effective.

Play 15 (2nd and 9)

In another execution failure, Witzmann misses a blitzer coming late and looping around the line. Alex had the bailout option to Harris, who had good separation, but pulled the ball down and trusted his legs instead. The Titans (who were keying on Alex’s scrambles) reacted well, and the play went nowhere.

Play 16 (3rd and 4 after an offsides)

On an utterly critical down, Smith and Harris come through to convert. Here is the gif. Not much to say here other than there was a shot to be had down the field to Hill, but in this situation (3rd and 9) I’m glad Smith opted for the safer (though still tough) throw to Harris. It’s also worth noting that Wilson was open past the marker on a quick out as well.

Play 17 (1st and 10)

This is where they start to really hurt to watch, just FYI.

Another read option look (I believe the pass option was discarded presnap, at least based on Alex’s movement here).

Much like the earlier play in which Alex took off and ran, the edge defenders crash harder on Hunt than they do Alex. Instead of keeping it this time, though, Alex hands it off to Hunt for a very short gain.

Obviously, there’s no saying for sure what that play would have looked like, but I would have loved to see Alex keep that one. I think he gets at the very least 5 yards there, which would’ve been critical at this point.

Play 18 (2nd and 9)

Good protection for Alex, a couple of deep routes drag defenders away, and Orson Charles has all kinds of room across the middle of the field. Alex could have thrown it his way or chosen to step up and let things develop. Stepping up would have also opened up the possibility of scrambling into a WIDE open area of the field.

Instead, Alex forces a quick throw to a well-covered Harris, who can’t haul it in. This is the type of non-statistically deadly decision that costs teams games, to be perfectly honest. A play like this goes down as nothing but an incomplete pass, so it doesn’t harm QB rating or basic stats much. But the failure to hit the much more open player in a hurry to get the ball out of a perfectly good pocket is much worse than a simple incompletion.

Play 19 (3rd and 9)

Pocket presence matters.

The Titans did a pretty nice job here, but Alex could have hit Hill on an out route (would’ve been a tough throw, but it’s one he’s made more than once), looked to Hunt shallow on an in route (bottom of screen) to gain a few yards, OR simply waited in a clean pocket and surveyed the field.

Instead, Alex panicked and tried to scramble, which is exactly what the spying LB was waiting for. Again, this is a play that doesn’t show up against a QB on the stats sheet, but kills drives.

It’s unfortunate if it appears I’m picking on Alex. I’m not. I’ve pointed out execution failures by multiple other players as well. But the reality is the last few plays featured calls that created opportunities and Alex did not seize them.

Play 20 (4th and 9)

The last play, and Andy (or Nagy) chose to go ultra-aggressive, which was a great call in that it forced 2 safeties to try and account for 3 vertical routes (worth noting Alex adjusted something before the snap that had everyone’s attention)

Alex had 3 vertical routes to choose from. Hill has separation but a safety bailing towards his side. I trust Hill in that situation, but it’s dicey (though I’d probably go that route given my trust in him).

Instead, Alex makes a decision that I also can get behind, throwing to Wilson down the numbers. Note the trajectory of Wilson’s route is taking him inside almost from the very start of the play. I ASSUME (but cannot know) that this is by design, forcing the deep safety to choose between him and the outside receiver.

The route works, and you can see the window to drop it in. However, instead of placing the ball down the seam, Alex’s throw drifts back outside towards the safety. Wilson, who isn’t known for his ball-in-the-air adjustments, tries to contort his body back and jump but can’t quite get there before getting creamed by the safety.

If you watch both gifs together, you can see the problem with the placement (it’s not an easy throw, so I’m not bashing Alex). Had that throw been placed down the seam for Wilson to run under, he has a much easier catch to make and doesn’t take a huge shot. It really is a game of inches. Or in this case, a few yards to the inside.

Takeaway

We’ve taken a long, long road to a short thought: the idea that Andy Reid or Matt Nagy should take the blame for the 2nd half performance by the offense is ridiculous. Outside of a single play call out of 20, the failures of the offense were those of blocking, receiving and quarterbacking. And it was not DIFFICULT things that were failed at by the players. Missed blocks, dropped passes, and pocket presence/reads were just bad on some plays.

Andy Reid is the head coach, and ultimately a loss falls on him. But the reality is that the plays called in the 2nd half gave the offense every opportunity to succeed. Saying otherwise is to ignore what actually happened on the field.

As I said at the beginning, it’s important to ask ourselves why we believe what we believe. I believe Reid is a good offensive coach because that’s what the film shows.