When we last left the Kansas City Chiefs, they had won a Super Bowl behind a brilliant pass heavy attack called by Andy Reid and helmed by Patrick Mahomes. The offense, even without Mahomes at 100% for some of the season, was one of the league’s best and it ran through all opposing defenses, especially the Houston Texans in the second half of their Divisional Round game.
With the unique offseason, there was a question about what football would look like on opening night. Kansas City still put up an impressive performance against Houston, but it was nothing we could have imagined because it looked nothing like anything we’ve seen from the Chiefs during the Patrick Mahomes era.
On Kansas City’s first drive, Mahomes dropped back and fired a deep pass for what looked to be a 36-yard touchdown pass to Demarcus Robinson and it appeared the Chiefs had picked up right where they left off. But the play was reviewed and it was clear Robinson dropped the pass. That ended up as the only throw Mahomes attempted of at least 20 air yards.
The Chiefs offense has been built around big plays during the Mahomes era, it’s an effect of having one of the best quarterbacks in the game with a cannon arm and deadeye accuracy.
There has only been one other regular season game in which Mahomes attempted just one pass over 20 yards, per Sports Info Solutions — last year’s Week 16 game against the Chicago Bears. He’s only had two other career regular season games with as few as two deep attempts.
Part of this was a cause and effect from the Houston defense, a unit that didn’t want to get continually burned as they had in the past. The Texans were the third-best defense by DVOA against deep passes last season, but the threat of Mahomes’s arm still loomed over their game plan. Last week Houston defensive coordinator Anthony Weaver said the goal was to keep everything in front of the secondary and limit the explosive plays.
But there was more to the Chiefs’ offensive construction than that. This wasn’t Mahomes sitting back in the pocket, reading the coverage, and checking it down. Kansas City had a deliberate plan to attack quickly.
Per NFL Next Gen Stats, Mahomes’s average pass traveled just 4.7 yards beyond the line of scrimmage and his average time to throw was 2.35 seconds. Both were career lows for Mahomes, who has made a lot of special plays by sitting back in the pocket and allowing plays to develop deep. (Mahomes led all quarterbacks in EPA on deep passes last season, per SIS.)
Here is how much of an outlier Mahomes’s performance was. Below is a chronological plot of both average time to throw and average depth of target for every game in which Mahomes has attempted at least 15 passes, per NFL Next Gen Stats.
This was Mahomes’s first game with either an average time to throw under 2.4 seconds or an aDOT under 5.0. Last season, Mahomes averaged 2.82 seconds to throw with an 8.6 aDOT, both above the league average.
The closest game to the 2020 season opener might actually be the 2019 opener against the Jacksonville Jaguars. But even that was slightly different. The Chiefs were up 17-0 in the first quarter and Mahomes was still 2-of-3 on passes over 20 yards in the game, which included a 49-yard deep touchdown to Sammy Watkins on a designed Leak play. Then, the next week, Kansas City went full-on attack mode against the Raiders, when Mahomes went 7-of-11 for 257 yards and four touchdowns on deep passes.
Andy Reid, who has been a master schemer and known to throw a few wrinkles into games in which he has time to plan didn’t do much of that against Houston — at least not big shot plays we’ve been accustomed to seeing from this offense. The should-have-been touchdown to Robinson was a nice design that stressed the middle of the field safety by running two vertical routes at him. There was also the motion screen for a touchdown to Watkins, which saw him lined up outside of trips with fullback Anthony Sherman (42) and tight end Nick Keizer (48) inside.
Of course, there was another Reid screen special thrown in. Late in the first quarter, the Chiefs motioned Mecole Hardman into the backfield, faked a handoff to the back, pumped a swing to Hardman, all to set up a screen to Travis Kelce for a 15-yard gain.
For what the game plan was, Mahomes and the Chiefs pulled it off. The quarterback still finished with a 90.0 QBR (meaning a team would be expected to win 90% of the time with a performance like Mahomes’s) and there were still magical throws, though they came closer to the line of scrimmage. The 6-yard touchdown throw to Kelce featured unreal anticipation for the tight end to clear a bunch of defenders in the end zone.
Here is where Kelce was in his route at the moment Mahomes released the ball:
(also of note, don’t rush 3 against Patrick Mahomes)
Of course, what might be the biggest shift of Mahomes era is that Mahomes wasn’t the offensive player talked about after the game. That was rookie running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire. Last season, the Chiefs had the seventh-highest passing rate in the league on early downs, but they gave the ball to their rookie runner quite a bit in the season opener.
Edwards-Helaire had 10 carries in the first half and while those runs had come on early downs, none of those attempts came against 8-man boxes, per Next Gen Stats. So while the Chiefs were perhaps establishing the run, they weren’t forcing it. Last season on early downs, the Chiefs had the highest rate of runs into light boxes of six or fewer defenders and the second-lowest rate of runs into stacked boxes.
That’s something that should continue and can allow Edward-Helaire to have more success on the ground. The rookie finished the game with 36% of his runs against boxes of eight or more defenders, but those came in the second half with the Chiefs leading and with a number of goal line attempts.
There were also no receptions on just two targets for Edwards-Helaire in the passing game, which is a surprise based on his collegiate performance as a receiver and Kansas City’s designed quick attack. But even that’s potentially good news because the Chiefs were still able to score 34 points without big plays in the passing game and without Edwards-Helaire involved in that aspect at all.
We might see some weird football to start the 2020 season. In relation to what the Chiefs have done in the past, this was the most un-Chiefs-like game we’ve seen since Mahomes took over. But what should be scary for the rest of the NFL is that it still worked and this is potentially a new tool in the bag for an offense that already has countless ways to score at will when it’s clicking.