As Coach Tony D’Amato famously said, "I don’t know what to say really… Life’s just a game of inches, and so is football. Because in either game, life or football, the margin of error is so small, I mean, one-half a step too late or too early and you don’t quite make it. One-half second too slow or too fast and you don’t quite catch it. The inches we need are everywhere around us. They’re in every break of the game, every minute, every second. On this team, we fight for that inch. On this team, we tear ourselves and everyone around us to pieces for that inch. We claw with our fingernails for that inch… because we know that when we add up all those inches, that’s going to make the frickin’ difference between winning and losing, between living and dying" (only he didn’t use "frickin’"). The Chiefs only lost 3 games all last season. Some things they can’t improve upon much: HOF Coaches Reid and Spagnuolo, HOF QB, HOF TE, 1st team All-Pro DT, 1st team All-Pro punter. Other things you can, and very easily. Like what?
Regression to the mean on yards/penalty
This is a weird one. The Chiefs only committed 4.9 penalties/game (5th), yet they were 19th in penalty yards/game at 46.9 because they were dead last in yards/penalty at 9.7. League average was approximately 8. If they could get could cut down on their 15-yard penalties and their long DPI’s and get their yards/penalty around 8, that’d save them roughly 10 yards/game.
In addition, the Chiefs’ opponents were averaging only about 7 yards/penalty, 30th in the league. If that could regress to the league-wide average of 8, that’d be an additional 5 yards/game, the equivalent of an offsides penalty.
15 yards isn’t a ton over the course of a game, but it does add up, especially when you factor in…
Returning kicks and punts
Chiefs were 29th last year at kickoff returns averaging 19.2 yards/return. That’s roughly 4 yards shy of the league average. While touchbacks are common, if we assume 1-2 kickoffs get returned every game, that’d give the Chiefs 4-8 more yards/game. Not a big deal when you have Mahomes, but wouldn’t you rather have the yards than not? I know I would.
KC was 26th in punt return average last year at 6.7 yards. This was about 3 yards under league average. Not a huge number, but if you do force your opponent to punt, wouldn’t it be nice to get a great return also? We saw how powerful that was in completely shifting the momentum of the Super Bowl against the Eagles. Assuming 3-4 returnable punts/game that’s another 9-12 yards.
That means the Chiefs averaged a 15-20 yard special teams deficit in every game last season. Add in the 15 yards from penalties, and you’re conservatively looking at 30 yards/game. 30 yards could be the difference between a touchdown and a field goal… or a long field goal and a punt… or a missed long field goal and a makeable short field goal. Speaking of field goals…
Increase Butker’s FG%
Last year Butker made 18/24 FG attempts, only 75%, tied for 35th in the league. As there are only 32 teams, that’s bad. Really bad. Even Matthew Wright who filled in for Butker a couple of weeks was league-average. I like Butker. I think he’s an outstanding kicker. Now I want to see him return to form in 2023. And if there were issues with Townsend’s holding, I want them worked out OR I want someone else to take over those duties.
If he can make a league-average percentage of FGs this year on the same number of attempts, that’s 3 additional made FGs over the course of the season. No, that’s not crazy. It’s just 9 points over the course of a 17-game season, but when you lose 3 games all season by a total of 10 points, 9 points is kind of a lot. And it’s not just losing the points. While not counted statistically as a turnover, a missed FG is the strategic equivalent of a turnover. You get no points, and the other team gets the ball. What’s worse, 4 of Butker’s misses in 2022 were on attempts over 50 yards. And if you miss one of those, the other guys get the ball with a short field the same as they would on a turnover which reminds me…
Achieve 0 net turnovers
Leaving out missed FGs, the Chiefs were -3 in turnover margin, tied for 23rd in the league. Obviously average would be 0 as every giveaway is a takeaway for the opponent. Kansas City was bottom-10 in both giveaways (23-12 Mahomes interceptions and 11 fumbles, including 3 on Skyy Moore punt returns) and takeaways (20). Those 3 turnovers may not mean much in most games, but they mean something when you lose to the Colts by 3 with a -1 turnover margin, lose to Buffalo by 4 with a -1 turnover margin, and lose to the Bungles (sorry! Dang autocorrect!) by 3 with a -1 turnover margin. If you get those 3 turnovers back, you could be looking at a perfect season from the Chiefs even with the league-worst yards/penalty differential, the lack of return yards, and the missed FGs.
This is not only about the offense protecting the ball; it’s also about the defense generating turnovers: strip sacks, punching the ball out, falling on the ball once it’s out, getting your head turned around in coverage, making the catch when the ball hits you in the hands. There’s a reason Veach keeps investing in the defense on all 3 levels. He’s looking for guys who will make plays on the ball. He’s looking for game-wreckers and game-changers. Like Watson’s interception in the Chargers game, 1 play can be the difference between a win and a loss, a great season and a perfect season. One last note on the defense, if they could…
Regress to the Mean on Red Zone TD%
Last year, the Chiefs were close to league-average in opponent trips to the red zone, 3.3/game. But once the other team got there, they scored touchdowns over 65% of the time, basically 2 TDs out of 3 red zone trips every game. If the team that played the Chiefs every week was considered as its own offense, they would’ve ranked 5th behind Dallas, KC, Philly, and Detroit. Of course the idealist in me would love for them to hold teams to 0% and 0 points all season long, but this is the modern NFL. That’s not going to happen. The Rams were #1 last year at 44%, followed closely by the Saints at 45%. If the Chiefs could just close the gap by half, that’d put them around 55% which would be more than enough for Mahomes & Co. to work with on offense. In fact, their red zone TD% was 57% in 2021.
I’m sure some of this was rookies learning the system. Some may have been Spags keeping some tricks in his bag for the playoffs. Some may have been teams playing "their Super Bowl" against the Chiefs. Some may have been bad luck or blown assignments. Still, this defense was close to league average or above at pretty much everything except takeaways and red zone TD%. If they can get those 2 right, we’ll have a top 10 defense in KC for the first time in a while.
Who could step up?
For these numbers to improve, the players on the field are going to have to perform better.
· Yards/penalty: some of those long DPI’s could perhaps be avoided with better safety coverage deep. It seemed like the Chiefs’ corners last season generally didn’t trust the safeties to back them up to help make the play. I can’t remember specifics right now, but this seemed to be a theme of last year’s defense. Perhaps Justin Reid will be better his 2nd year in the Spags system. Perhaps Bryan Cook will take a step forward his 2nd year in the league. Perhaps Mike Edwards will play himself into a huge contract next year. Perhaps Chamarri Conner will be the safety version of L’Jarius Sneed.
· Returning kicks and punts: Let’s not dwell on Skyy Moore’s struggles. They were real. At the same time, he did have a great return in the Super Bowl. Then again, this could be the job of Richie James or Nikko Remigio. It could also be how the uber-hyped and uber-talented Justyn Ross earns his roster spot this season.
· Butker’s FG%: It seemed like by the end of the season, Butker was close to 100% again, and any holding issues with Townsend were smoothed out. Let’s hope it stays that way, and he gets back to his Pro Bowl form.
· Turnovers: Sometimes turnovers are just bad breaks. I want Mahomes to keep slinging the ball. It terrifies defenses. That’s what I want. As far as the defense goes, I don’t know that we need to be more aggressive in general, but maybe more opportunistic (aka selectively aggressive)? Maybe instead of waiting for teams to get in the red zone to unleash an exotic blitz, we could try it on 1st and 10 from their own 25. Let’s get the defense off the field right away and give the ball back to Pat. I would like to see the WRs, DBs, and LBs all spending extra time at the jugs machine this offseason.
· Red Zone TD%: Has anyone done a deep dive on this? I have no idea how the Chiefs’ numbers got so bad in one year. Was it a fluke? Is there something more to the story? All I know is, it would be huge if the defense could be league-average in this area this year.
Do a better job with turnovers, have fewer big penalties, and get a few things ironed out on special teams, and add in Mahomes AND a Top 10 defense, and we just might be parading through the streets with another Lombardi in 2024.
I love hearing from you Chiefs Kingdom. What do you think are the easiest ways for the Chiefs to get better next year?
(Statistics taken from TeamRankings)