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Finding the truth about Andy Reid blowing 18-point leads

Let’s take a detailed look at a common narrative about Kansas City’s AFC Championship loss.

NFL: Kansas City Chiefs at Los Angeles Chargers Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

After the Kansas City Chiefs lost the AFC championship game to the Cincinnati Bengals at the beginning of January, a narrative arose about Kansas City head coach Andy Reid: that he had blown more 18-point leads than any other NFL coach.

But is that really true? Let’s find out.

These games don’t happen very often. Since 1940 (which is as far back as you can go with Pro-Football-Reference’s Stathead service), there have been just 51 games (both regular and postseason) in which a team led by 18 points or more at halftime and then lost the game. Only eight of them took place before 1980: three each in the 1940s and 1950s and two in the 1960s. After the league merged with the AFL in 1970, a full decade passed before there was another such contest.

Since then, however, the frequency of these games has been greater. There were seven in the 1980s, nine in the 1990s, seven in the 2000s and a whopping 19 in the 2010s. This is likely due to the many rule changes (which began in the 1970s) that have made it easier to pass downfield; once teams could pass the ball more effectively, it became easier to erase a big halftime lead.

Still... even in the most-recent years, there are — on average — only one or two such games every season. So the idea that Reid has lost three of them over the course of a two-decade career sounds... pretty bad.

NFL: JAN 06 AFC Wild Card - Titans at Chiefs Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

But those three losses aren’t the ones you probably think they are. Going backwards, they are the Chiefs’ 22-21 loss to the Tennessee Titans in the 2017 postseason, Kansas City’s 45-44 loss to the Indianapolis Colts in the 2013 playoffs and the Philadelphia Eagles’ 25-24 loss to the Arizona Cardinals in 1999 — which also happened to be Reid’s very first game as a head coach.

Did we forget the loss to the Bengals? No... we didn’t. It’s not included because the halftime score in the AFC Championship was 21-10, not 21-3; while they were behind by 18 points in the second quarter, the Chiefs only blew an 11-point halftime lead to Cincinnati.

Why does that matter? Because if we’re making this comparison on the basis of the maximum lead that a team surrendered in a loss — so that we can include the awful defeat against the Bengals — then it wouldn’t take very long for someone to point out that in a playoff game just two seasons ago, Reid’s Chiefs trailed another team by 24 points in the second quarter — and won.

To make that comparison, we’d have to be able to access play-by-play data — which only goes back to 1994. But while their system does allow access to play-level data, Stathead’s tools don’t allow you to accurately identify when those situations occurred. (Believe me: I tried). So we’re stuck with the halftime score model.

But it still illustrates a basic problem with the whole narrative: it doesn’t take into account the games in which Reid’s teams overcame at least an 18-point halftime deficit to win. His squads have won two such matchups: Kansas City’s 33-27 overtime victory against the then-San Diego Chargers in Week 1 of 2016, along with Philadelphia’s 38-31 win over the New York Giants in Week 15 of 2010.

San Diego Chargers v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images

So to really make a fair, accurate comparison, we must treat this like a turnover ratio statistic, subtracting the games where a coach blew a big halftime lead from the games where the same coach came back to win against such a deficit.

Like 27 of the 79 coaches who have been involved in such games since 1940, Reid ends up with a -1 score — but he’s hardly the NFL’s worst coach in these kinds of situations.

Dan Quinn, Dennis Green, Ken Whisenhunt, Dan Reeves and Don Shula each have a -2 mark; both have lost two games where they led by at least 18 points, but have never come back to win a game where they trailed by that much. Tom Coughlin — the coach Reid defeated in that 2010 Eagles game against the Giants — has the worst score: -3. He also never came back to win from an 18-point halftime disadvantage.

At the other end of the spectrum, 35 of the 79 coaches have a +1 score, two (Bill Belichick and Marv Levy) have a +2 score and one (Chuck Pagano) has a +3.

And that brings us to another point that this study revealed. One of Pagano’s comeback wins was that 45-44 Colts win over the Chiefs in the 2013 playoffs. Another was earlier that very season: a 27-24 victory over the Houston Texans. The third was just the year before: a 30-27 win against the Green Bay Packers in Week 5. In both of those seasons, Pagano’s quarterback was, of course, Andrew Luck — and while the Texans were terrible in 2013, both the Packers and Chiefs possessed top-ranked defenses when they lost those games to the Colts.

Indianapolis Colts vs Kansas City Chiefs, 2014 AFC Wild Card Playoffs Set Number: X157394 TK1 R11 F12

This isn’t to say that Kansas City’s defense doesn’t deserve criticism for that playoff loss — it certainly does — but it suggests that the opposing offense might have played a bigger role in the second half of that game than Chiefs fans generally recognize. And this is not unusual: fans always tend to view success (or failure) strictly through the lens of their own team.

And speaking of playoff losses, it is true that of the 51 games in this sample, only four are in the postseason — and Reid was the losing coach in two of them. It’s possible to see this as an indictment of Kansas City’s head coach. But it’s important to remember that the postseason is different than the regular season. Teams are more evenly matched — and everything is on the line. It stands to reason that if a team somehow manages to build a big lead through the first half of a playoff game, the opposition is more likely to be able to come back from it.

So is this narrative about Reid’s multiple blown leads accurate? Yes... but it tells only half of the story. When the rest is revealed, Reid isn’t among the league’s top coaches in these kinds of situations — but he isn’t among the worst, either.

Unfortunately, this knowledge does nothing to salve the sting from Kansas City’s second-half performance in the AFC Championship. The Chiefs absolutely should have won that game — and as the head coach, Reid must shoulder a large share of the blame. But it’s not completely fair to characterize it as a pattern he has displayed.