As NFL teams go, the Kansas City Chiefs were an anomaly in 2018.
First-year starting quarterback Patrick Mahomes defied expectations and performed as well as any signal-caller ever has in a single season. The Chiefs arguably had the worst defense in the league — and were still able to earn the number one playoff seed in their conference. Plenty of analysts claimed a young quarterback and a terrible defense couldn’t get to the Super Bowl — yet the Chiefs were literally inches from doing so.
No, I’m still not over it. I’m looking at you, Dee Ford.
The 2018 season produced confidence within the fan base and the organization that the 2019 team can break through — but they will have to do it as an outlier among recent Super Bowl winners.
It sounds crazy to say a team with an elite quarterback and a potential Hall of Fame head coach would be outside the status quo of championship teams, but I found multiple aspects of the 2019 Chiefs that make them different from recent Super Bowl champions.
Strength of Schedule
Based on their opponents’ 2018 records, the Chiefs will be facing the fifth-toughest schedule in the NFL. Just one Super Bowl winner from the past ten seasons had to face a schedule that difficult: the 2012 Baltimore Ravens — who also played the NFL’s fifth-toughest schedule.
The 2018 Chiefs led the league in scoring by averaging 35.3 points per game. Their failure to win the Super Bowl added them to a surprising list. Of the last 19 regular season scoring leaders, only one team went on to win a championship — the 2009 New Orleans Saints.
This list includes some of the most prolific quarterback seasons ever.
- The 2004 Indianapolis Colts were led by MVP quarterback Peyton Manning and his NFL-record 49 passing touchdowns, but were held to three points in their divisional round playoff loss.
- The 2007 New England Patriots didn’t lose a single regular season game behind MVP signal caller Tom Brady’s 50 touchdown passes, but were held to their lowest scoring output of the year in their Super Bowl loss.
- Peyton Manning outdid himself in 2013 and threw 55 touchdowns for the Denver Broncos. They averaged an astounding 37.9 points per game before being held to just eight points in a title game blowout.
The Chiefs offense isn’t expected to take any steps back in 2019. They’d be a smart bet to once again lead the NFL in regular season points — but history says that doesn’t necessarily translate to a ring.
During the offseason, Chiefs general manager Brett Veach was aggressive in his pursuit of defensive improvement. 2018’s 24th-ranked scoring defense was in need of a major personnel overhaul — and Veach did just that. So far, the unit’s performance in training camp has local reporters (and fans) excited.
While there should be improvement, history suggests it would need to be a dramatic one in order to help the Chiefs’ Super Bowl chances. The past six championship teams boasted a defense that ranked third or higher in Pro Football Focus’ team defensive grades. For reference, the 2018 Chiefs ranked 18th in this metric. Even if the unit gets better, it will be hard to raise their performance that much.
Cornerback is one of the most important positions contributing to team success. Five of the aforementioned six title winners had a cornerback that finished the season with an 83.3 grade or higher — and the only team that didn’t still had All-Pro Chris Harris Jr.
Chiefs cornerback Kendall Fuller is supposed to be the best cornerback on the team, but he finished 2018 with a 72.4 PFF grade. In limited 2018 action, free agent signee Bashaud Breeland had a PFF grade of just 58.5. Cornerback is currently the weak link of the team — and would need to drastically improve for the 2019 Chiefs to keep up with modern history.
Team chemistry is an underrated aspect of title contenders. It’s built over multiple years of teammates playing alongside each other. The Chiefs can boast continuity in their offensive and special teams units — but not on defense.
Of the 11 players that saw the most defensive snaps for the Chiefs in 2018, only four remain on the team. Pass rushers Justin Houston and Dee Ford are among the seven that departed, and they owned two of the top three individual PFF grades on the Chiefs defense.
The last ten Super Bowl champions have all brought back more than half of their defensive personnel from the previous season. In fact, only one of those teams returned with fewer than eight of the 11 with the most defensive snaps in the previous season.
Obviously most of these teams didn’t do what the Chiefs did: bring in big-name players like safety Tyrann Mathieu and defensive end Frank Clark — but the point still stands. The defensive overhaul the Chiefs are undergoing is an unprecedented move for a title contender.
There is, however, one historical aspect of that overhaul that bodes well for the 2019 Chiefs. Excluding the New England Patriots’ three championship runs, the other seven recent Super Bowl winners all had defensive coordinators in their first or second year at the helm. Four of those coaches were in their inaugural season as the head of the defense — just like Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo will be. This indicates that these teams recognized a coaching change was needed to put them over the top. That’s exactly what Chiefs fans hope Spagnuolo can deliver.
Understand: these aren’t reasons to feel negative about the Chiefs’ chance at hoisting the Lombardi Trophy this season. But there are interesting patterns in the way previous title winners were structured and how they performed.
That being said, if this team can meet the expectations placed upon them by the media, fans (and themselves) it will be as unprecedented a Super Bowl championship as we’ve seen in modern NFL history.