I have always considered football the ultimate team sport. Players can execute their individual responsibilities — but if one or two of them fail, it doesn’t matter how the rest of their teammates did.
Every position’s ability to succeed depends on another position. That isn’t true of all sports: In baseball, a batter’s ability to hit does not directly benefit or hurt any of his teammates’ abilities. In basketball, an individual can take over a game with minimal assistance. The significance of smaller details in the physical and intellectual nuances of playing football make each player’s role important.
In other words, football is all about the little things — and the Kansas City Chiefs have shown a lack of focus and effort in executing the fundamental aspects of the sport. Some examples of this are more noticeable than others.
The fumbling issue is glaring. The Chiefs have fumbled 17 times this season — which is the fourth-most in the league. Nine of those fumbles resulted in a turnover — which is the third-most in the NFL. The worst part about these turnovers is their timing. Six of the lost fumbles occurred in the second half of the game — and the three that happened in the first half turned out to be crucial: Running back LeSean McCoy’s fumble in the Indianapolis Colts game, quarterback Patrick Mahomes’ strip-sack right before halftime against the Houston Texans, and running back Damien Williams’ fumble that was returned for a score by the Tennessee Titans.
The most frustrating part of this trend is the fact that the Chiefs are the only team in the NFL to have thrown fewer than two interceptions. They still have the fourth-lowest percentage of their possessions ending in a turnover at 7.6%. The skill positions’ lack of ball security wastes the advantage of having a quarterback that avoids giving away the ball.
The fumbles are constantly tagged with a comment about how good of a play the defender made — but that is not a valid excuse. Contenders do not lose fumbles at this rate. The Chiefs average .9 fumbles lost a game. The last three Super Bowl champions had a combined rate of .56 fumbles lost per game in their championship seasons.
The other hair-pulling trait of the Chiefs is the amount of penalties they draw. According to nflpenalties.com, there have been 92 total flags thrown on the Chiefs — which is the fourth-most of any team in the NFL. The combined record of the three teams with more than them is 11-16-1. Contending teams are not typically toward the top of this list.
While all phases of the game have struggled with penalties, the defense shoulders most of the blame. The unit has been called for 14 defensive holding penalties this year — five more than any other NFL team. Cornerbacks Bashaud Breeland and Charvarius Ward have the two top spots among individual defenders being called for holding in the league.
The special teams unit deserves mention here. They have been called for the second-most penalties out of all special teams units in the league.
As a group, the special teams are an embodiment of focus and effort. No one thinks twice about their performance when they are executing — and Chiefs fans have not had to question the unit since 2013. Special teams coordinator Dave Toub has been widely regarded as one of the best at his position in the league — but this season has not seemed as consistent.
Whether Toub deserves heat for their performance or not, there have been multiple special teams miscues. The obvious ones to point to are the two lost fumbles by rookie wide receiver Mecole Hardman on kick returns. There is also the issue of punts being fair caught too deep in Chiefs territory. Spectators often cite an unwritten rule that punts landing inside the 10-yard line should not be fielded because the ball may bounce into the end zone — but both Hardman and former punt returner De’Anthony Thomas have ignored that recommendation.
Obviously we don’t know if Toub is instructing the returners to do this or not — but a shot of the sideline after Hardman downed a punt at the 4-yard line in Week 10 suggests that Toub was advising against it.
Toub and Hardman after Mecole fielded a punt at the 4 yard line pic.twitter.com/CqwjIuTJ6O— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) November 13, 2019
If so, it’s vital that Hardman gets more comfortable with fielding punts and stops pinning the offense back so far.
Then, there is the two botched field goal attempts against the Titans. The first being an unexpected snap and the second being a well-timed jump by a defender to block the kick. Things like the mistimed snap happen and will be fixed with practice — but the blocked field goal was a product of having the same cadence all game.
I’m not an NFL coach — but a change of cadence seems like a very simple and important thing to implement for a play where timing the snap is so crucial for the defense. I think that’s a bad look for Toub if he hasn’t worked on that — but we will probably never know.
Other fundamental issues include tackling. Chiefs fans have gotten used to the bad tackling skills— but it is still extremely frustrating. Professional football players are expected to have that part of the game down by the time they get to the league. This team could use a few drills to practice the basics.
Rookie safety Juan Thornhill cannot be expected to be perfect in his first season — but his inability to tackle showed up against Tennessee. He is now the team-leader in missed tackles — and has the 15th most in the NFL, according to PFF premium stats.
Dropped passes have not been as frequent as in past Chiefs seasons — but they are coming at the worst times. The team has the eighth-most drops in the league, with 18 so far. Wide receiver Sammy Watkins had a couple potential catches against the Titans that fell incomplete in crucial situations. They would have been tough grabs — but there is an old adage, “if the ball hits your hands, you should catch it.”
One aspect of offense that does not get enough mention is the ability of receivers to block downfield. Success in these situations can be the difference between a 10-yard gain and a 60-yard touchdown. While it might be nit-picky, I did notice a few missed opportunities due to a receiver not staying engaged with his defender.
This had the potential for a huge play if Robinson keeps his block. Sammy dominated his dude. Would've left Reek with one man to shake pic.twitter.com/82O9Ip97DT— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) November 12, 2019
A lot of the little things in football truly come down to effort and focus. Fumbling is a product of not focusing enough on keeping the ball high and tight to your chest. Penalties can be both — high levels of focus and effort eliminate situations to draw flags. The special teams miscues seem to be made without focus. Missed tackles are fundamentally a product of bad effort. Dropped passes can be chalked up to little focus. Downfield blocking is more likely to be successful the higher level of effort a player gives.
The good news with these things is that effort and focus can be improved. The bad news is that the team has consistently made some of these mistakes through 10 games — so there is no legitimate reason to believe it will change. With Mahomes back, this team has a shot to win any game at any time — but the little things will dictate whether the Chiefs can achieve their ultimate goal or not.