Kansas City were an ungodly force in September. They ripped through New England on opening day and crushed Philadelphia. They brushed aside the LA Chargers to close out the month and opened October by beating Washington before trampling the Houston Texans.
At 5-0 the NFL was at their feet, the AFC was theirs for the taking if they could beat Pittsburgh at home in Week 6. Only they didn’t. After averaging 32.8 points per game they scored just 13 in defeat. But that was just one loss. Which quickly turned into two when ill-discipline and poor defense cost them against Oakland. They bounced back in Week 8 though, winning 29-19 against the Broncos. They were back on track! Right until the next game when they got demolished by Dallas. A bye in Week 10 was the perfect time to set things right. Andy Reid is historically great after a bye, going 16-2, and they were playing the Giants! It was going to be easy. Until it wasn’t. 16-2 turned into 16-3.
What followed the loss to the Giants was a disgusting performance against Buffalo and then an epic implosion on Sunday against the Jets. Three straight losses to New York teams, with a combined 13-23 record, has seen the Chiefs slump from a 5-0 powerhouse to 6-6 and hanging on to the AFC West lead but the skin of their teeth. Where has it gone wrong?
A leopard can’t change its spots
Early in the season the Chiefs shocked the NFL with a whole host of new looks and scheme ideas. Pre-snap motions got the defense moving, run-pass options got them scrambling, and the power shovel option play got them pulling their hair out.
Andy Reid had seemingly spent the offseason blending together spread concepts with his traditional West Coast scheme to create football nirvana for fans. The new scheme utilized the talents of Travis Kelce, Tyreek Hill, and rookie running back Kareem Hunt almost perfectly, and all the smoke-and-mirrors allowed Alex Smith to make simple reads and drive the ball to wide open players down field.
Unfortunately, it is very rare that a coach can, once the heat of the season is upon them, truly change who they are at their core. Offensive line injuries made the endless power-pull-counter looks tougher to execute, so Andy Reid began reverting to more of his core West Coast plays. Teams got a look at the tape of those early weeks and put some sight adjustments into the front seven to try and clean up the assignment football that Reid had been taking advantage of. The big plays dried up.
After throwing for 278 yards a game and completing 76.6% of his passes with 11 touchdowns and no picks in the first five games, at a ridiculous 8.8 yards per attempt, Alex Smith came back down to earth with a bang.
In the three losses prior to Sunday’s game against the Jets, Smith had dropped to 231 yards per game, completed 68.2% of his passes for three touchdowns and four interceptions, and perhaps most important of all he his yards per attempt had plummeted back down to 6.3. The majestic wide-open Chiefs had given way to the conservative, slow, grinding offense of previous seasons.
Before Sunday’s game Reid handed over playcalling duties to offensive coordinator Matt Nagy, just as he had done in 2015 to Doug Pederson. That switch had sparked an 11-game win streak and won Pederson a head coaching job in Philadelphia. This time the switch resulted in taking advantage of the Jets #21 pass defense (by DVOA) to the tune of 31 points, but the defense was far too deficient to hold onto the lead.
When you score 31 points you should win. When you score 31 points on a Jets team led by Josh McCown, you expect to be romping to a comfortable victory. Instead, the Chiefs lost 38-31 on Sunday in a game that is just the latest frustration in their season.
It’s been a problem all season, but the early success of the offense masked it. Through that magical 5-0 run they were allowing 4.65 yards per carry and 7.01 yards per attempt. They gave up the fourth-most yards in the NFL over the first five weeks. And while some of that can be put down to playing the Patriots, they were struggling from day 1 defensively, we just didn’t notice until the blinding offense dimmed.
The loss of Eric Berry to a torn Achilles in Week 1, together with their inability to find even a league-average #2 corner exposed them against Pittsburgh and Oakland, when they gave up nearly 1,000 yards in the space of about 100 hours.
There have been times when the defense did turn up. They held the Chargers to 10 points in Week 3, and both the Eagles and Redskins were held to 20, but with the offense sputtering even the best defensive efforts have been wasted. They kept the Bills and Giants to just 28 points combined and lost both games. And then when the offense did score on Sunday the defense melted away like a snowman in a furnace.
Like two ships passing in the night, the Chiefs just cannot put together a complete game anymore. It’s a situation that came to a comedic head on Sunday when a pair of broken tackles allowed Jermaine Kearse to get to the Chiefs five. The defense held and New York kicked a go-ahead field goal, but a roughing penalty on Bennie Logan gave them a fresh set of downs. Again the Chiefs appeared to hold but a third-down holding flag on safety Steven Nelson gave New York three more tries. They eventually got in from the one-yard line on a QB dive. Cue a two-point conversion attempt that had Josh McCown spinning around like a drunk Russell Wilson some 20 yards behind the line of scrimmage. McCown heaved a pass well beyond the endzone only for a second holding flag on Nelson to be thrown giving the Jets a second try on a touchdown that had come on their third attempt.
It was all too much for Marcus Peters who hurled the flag into the stands and walked back to the changing rooms without being ejected.
The defensive meltdown meant the Chiefs needed a TD just to tie the game rather than a field goal to win it. Alex Smith’s answering drive stalled out at the Jets 19… When things aren’t going your way that’s the kind of scenario that is enough to make you tear up your season ticket.
Season hangs by a thread
Kansas’ lead in the AFC West is gone. The Raiders and Chargers both won, putting them in a three-way tie for the division lead with four games left to go.
The Chiefs will host Oakland this Sunday and then welcome the red-hot Chargers to town. You would expect them to win at least one of those games and then close out their season with two wins against Miami and Denver, but right now whatever can go wrong will go wrong for the Chiefs.
Alex Smith’s return to form under the calls of Nagy is a nice sign, especially given Oakland’s complete lack of defense, but if the offense doesn’t return to the white-hot ball of awesomeness it was early in the season then Chiefs seem set to repeat the Vikings’ feat of last season by opening the year 5-0 and then missing the playoffs. That was thought to be rare, but maybe lightning can strike twice. If it does there might be plenty of heads rolling in Kansas.
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