Andy Reid changed his pass happy ways - and it led to the Chiefs Super Bowl win
March 11, 2020
Do a Google search for the phrase, “Andy Reid clock management” and you will find a litany of articles detailing Reid’s issues in this area, with headlines such as “Andy Reid’s history of clock mismanagement in the NFL playoffs”, “Does Andy Reid Really Not Understand How to Manage the Clock”, and “Andy Reid still doesn’t know how to manage a clock, and it costs the Chiefs another playoff game”. Even famed satire site The Onion got into the act with its headline, “Andy Reid Furious At Self For Poor Clock Management At End Of 72-Oz. Steak Challenge”.
The common thread in all of these articles, besides the obvious, is that people believe Reid is set in his ways and won’t change his approach to these situations even when presented with evidence that his ways aren’t working.
Whatever potential inflexibility Reid has in the clock management area, it’s important to note that he showed a willingness to change his playcalling ways this past season and that was a major factor in leading Reid to a Super Bowl win and returning the Lombardi Trophy to Kansas City for the first time since 1970.
To truly understand the modification, let’s go back to his early years in Philadelphia.
Air Reid takes flight with McNabb and Owens
Reid joined the Eagles the same year the organization drafted Donovan McNabb. After sitting on the bench for most of the 1999 season, McNabb took over as the full-time starter in 2000 and the Eagles had a run of four straight playoff berths from 2000-03, with the last three ending with NFC Conference Championship game losses.
Philadelphia operated a fairly balanced offense at that time, but that all changed when they traded for Terrell Owens in March 2004. The addition of Owens helped the Eagles place in the top 10 in net yards per pass attempt for the first time in Reid’s head coaching tenure (they finished 19th or worse in that category in the first five seasons under Reid).
That passing game success led the Eagles to finally win the NFC title game after the 2004 campaign and it also seemingly led to a sea change in Reid’s offensive philosophy. Owens played in only seven more games in Philadelphia, but his departure didn’t stop the Eagles from placing eighth or higher in pass attempts in each of the next four seasons. I can’t find the specific quote, but at one point during this time frame Reid told ESPN’s John Clayton something to the effect that if he could find a way to throw on every down he would.
Reid did this in part because he believed in the power of getting receivers open via playcalling, and that faith was bolstered greatly when the Eagles made the NFC Championship game in the 2008 season while placing fourth in pass attempts despite having a receiving corps consisting of DeSean Jackson (in a rookie campaign where he posted the second lowest YPC mark of his career), Kevin Curtis, Jason Avant, Hank Baskett, Reggie Brown, and Greg Lewis to go along with a tight end corps of L.J. Smith (who averaged only 8.1 YPC) and Brent Celek.
Alex Smith grounds Air Reid, then Patrick Mahomes gives it supersonic flight
This confidence in the passing game didn’t falter in his last four years in Philadelphia, but when Reid took over in Kansas City in 2013, he did so with Alex Smith under center. Smith had proven that teams could win with him at quarterback, as the 49ers had a 19-5-1 record with Smith as a starter in 2011-12, but he also generated so little faith in his ability to lead a pass heavy offense that even with Reid as his coach, Smith never threw more than 508 passes in his five years as the Chiefs starter. Smith’s limitations were such that Reid’s first four Kansas City clubs finished 20th, 28th, 29th, and 25th, respectively, in pass attempts.
Reid was only operating a run-heavy offense because circumstances dictated it, so when the Chiefs had an opportunity to draft Patrick Mahomes, it was only a matter of time before Reid started revving up the pass playcalling engine.
With Mahomes leading the way, Kansas City threw 583 passes in 2018, a total that ranked ninth highest, and Reid had the best receiving corps he’d ever had in the form of Travis Kelce, Tyreek Hill, Sammy Watkins, and Demarcus Robinson. When Kansas City drafted Mecole Hardman and his 4.33 40-yard dash time (tied for third highest among wide receivers in the 2019 NFL Combine) in the 2019 NFL Draft, all of the parts looked to be in place for Reid to have the most pass happy team of his NFL career.
But Reid didn’t go that route, as Kansas City finished 15th in pass attempts last year. As to the reason for this, my theory is Reid realized the Chiefs had a problem in 2018 in high scoring games that had to be solved if they were to win a title.
The 24-plus point barrier
The 2018 Chiefs were one of 24 teams in NFL history to score 500 or more points during the regular season. Those clubs had a combined overall record of 351-84-1, or an 80.8 percent win rate (playoffs included), and scored an average of 33 points per game.
As dominant as these offenses were, when these clubs allowed 24 or more points their win rate dropped to 59.8 percent and that number is largely skewed by four 500-plus point teams that fared exceptionally well in those contests (2007 New England, 2009 New Orleans, 2011 Green Bay, and 2015 Carolina had a combined 22-3 mark in games of this nature). Take those clubs out of the equation and the 500-plus point teams won only 54.9 percent of games where they allowed 24-plus points.
The 2018 Chiefs fell right around that latter win percentage, as they were 5-5 in games allowing 24-plus points, with one of those losses occurring in the AFC Championship against New England.
I think Reid realized that though he had a combination of aerial talents that would make even the most conservative coaches strongly consider channeling Mouse Davis in their playcalling, a Super Bowl win was going to be difficult to come by if the Chiefs didn’t find a way to keep from allowing 24-plus points in over half of their contests.
That mindset led Reid to hire Steve Spagnuolo as defensive coordinator this past offseason. Spagnuolo has a mixed track record in terms of points allowed marks as a defensive coordinator, but his 2016 Giants defense ranked second in the league in points allowed and he therefore looked to fit into Reid’s plan of preventing 24-plus point games.
The 2019 midseason change
The 2019 season didn’t start well in this area, as the Chiefs gave up 24-plus points in six of their first ten games and sported a middling 6-4 mark at that time. From then on out, however, Kansas City did not allow 24 or more points in a regular season game on their way to closing out the campaign on a nine-game win streak.
They won the only two games where 24-plus points were scored against them in that span, one being the AFC Divisional playoff contest against Houston where special teams errors cost the Chiefs 14 points (on the blocked punt that was directly responsible for one Texans touchdown and the lost fumble on a punt return that set Houston up for a quick four-yard touchdown drive). The other was the AFC Championship battle against the Titans that technically fell into the 24-plus points allowed category, but Tennessee posting a touchdown with 4:24 left in the game to close to a 35-24 score indicates the Chiefs already had that game salted away before the Titans hit the 24-point mark.
The points allowed decline occurred concurrent with a drop-off in pass attempts. Mahomes started the season throwing a ton, as he had 156 pass attempts in the first four games and thus was on pace to throw more than 600 times, but by late season Kansas City was slowing things down to the point that over the last nine games the Chiefs had fewer than 200 net passing yards in three contests and tallied 300-plus net passing yards in only two games.
It might be tempting to chalk the change up to Mahomes not being quite at full strength due to knee and ankle injuries, but the record-setting point burst against Houston in the Divisional round, Mahomes accounting for four touchdowns against Tennessee in the AFC Championship, and the 21-point fourth quarter explosion against the powerhouse 49ers defense in Super Bowl LIV all indicate this offense was still perfectly capable of operating at a skyrocketing pace when the situation called for it. Reid just didn’t call for it because he knew his offense and defense needed to work in conjunction to prevent the 24-plus point allowed games.
Even if the postseason didn’t offer Reid any opportunities to change the perception about his clock management prowess, his willingness to adapt his playcalling to a system that would best protect his defense and keep low percentage high scoring games from happening shows that Big Red was more than flexible enough to do whatever it took to bring a title to Kansas City.