Skip to main content

Free Yards: The Simple Genius of Andy Reid

Free Yards: The Simple Genius of Andy Reid

Free Yards: The Simple Genius of Andy Reid

Down 24-0 at home, the Chiefs were opening the playoffs in a fashion that is familiar to Kansas City’s fan base: sleepy, listless and heartbreaking. A long kickoff return from Mecole Hardman set Kansas City up in Texans territory, though, and on the second play of the drive, Patrick Mahomes lasered a ball to Damien Williams running a wheel route out of the backfield for a touchdown to begin what would be a 28-point second quarter avalanche to take the lead before halftime.

Williams started the play out wide with Texans linebacker Zach Cunningham in coverage. As Williams motioned in and moved to the other side of the formation, the Texans were forced by their coverage rules to switch the assignment. Instead, it was linebacker Jake Martin, mostly a pass rusher, who would have to cover Williams. Sammy Watkins ran a quick “in” route from his slot position, and Travis Kelce ran a “go” route straight up the seam that carried his man coverage defender, Justin Reid, with him. The Texans, who were playing a single high safety with everyone else within five yards of the line of scrimmage, could not afford to give up space. Because of the design of the play, Martin had to get past Watkins. Bradley Roby, who was in coverage on Watkins, had to chase him through Kelce. Cunningham had to chase the play from the other side of the formation through the other routes. Williams was so free that Matt Moore could have hit the pass.

In their win over the Texans, the Chiefs would generate 77 yards after the catch on passes thrown within two yards of the line of scrimmage. They hit a screen to Tyreek Hill against the Titans for a touchdown. While the 49ers held the Chiefs to just 51 yards after catch on passes within two yards of the line of scrimmage in the Super Bowl, Kansas City’s go-ahead score with 2:50 left was yet another play that showed how Andy Reid’s offense can overwhelm a defense.

On that decisive play, the Chiefs initially lined up in a set with three receivers to the left, then motioned Hill inside and to Mahomes’ right. Slot defender Jimmie Ward followed Hill, a strong indicator of man coverage. At the snap, the 49ers sent a six-man blitz with middle linebacker Fred Warner, and the Chiefs faked a handoff to Hill, running to Hill’s left. The running back, Williams, came over the top of that handoff and flared out to the right. Kelce, the lone receiver to the right side, picked Richard Sherman effectively, and Ward, the last coverage player on that side of the field, had to go over Kelce to get to Williams. With Kelce’s alignment not being very wide, there was just enough crease for Mahomes’ pass to lead Williams to the end zone, giving the Chiefs a lead they’d never relinquish.

It is very easy to say that the Chiefs won Super Bowl LIV because Mahomes is the greatest quarterback in the NFL. It’s mostly a true sentiment, because Mahomes is clearly special. Reid and his Super Bowl counterpart, Kyle Shanahan, really are neck-and-neck as far as creating easy offense for their quarterbacks — the major difference between those two teams on that day was that Mahomes is simply not limited in the same ways that Jimmy Garoppolo is. But if anything comes out of that win for the Chiefs that other NFL teams can slap on to their existing game plans, it has to be the way that Reid schemes easy yardage for his receivers through motion, screens and pre-snap discernment. You can’t create another Patrick Mahomes, but you can create enough easy offense to make life manageable for mere mortals at quarterback.

Image placeholder title

Reid has been using this approach for a long time. It was a staple of his offenses in Philadelphia; it was what he used to carry Alex Smith to the best production of Smith’s career. The statistical record shows that nobody in the game is as good at creating short-yardage space as Reid is, often with different types of designs from year to year depending on the strengths and weaknesses of his team. In 2018, with Mahomes in the backfield, the Chiefs ran more running back screens than all but the Lions and Eagles (by only one and two, respectively) and averaged 11.2 yards per pass. In 2013, with Smith as his starting quarterback, Reid’s running backs averaged 7.6 yards per screen, and the Chiefs ran 48 running back screens, more than anybody but New Orleans.

The biggest feather in Reid’s cap in the 2019 season was that the Chiefs were able to maintain home-field advantage in the AFC playoffs despite the fact that Mahomes missed games. Part of that was because the Ravens lost to the Titans, but getting the No. 2 seed and the bye in the first place mattered a lot. Since the 2012 Ravens won the Super Bowl, there hasn’t been a single team that has even made the Super Bowl, let alone won it, without a first-round bye.

And at no time was Reid’s skill in offensive design more important than when the Chiefs were forced into starting Moore for a two-plus-week stretch that included wins over Denver and Minnesota and a narrow loss to the Green Bay Packers.

Against the Packers, Reid was able to dial up a 25-yard pass at the 50 to get into field-goal range as time was running out in the second quarter. He had Hardman out to the left in a two-tight end set, with Watkins alone to the right. Hardman went into motion inside the formation, and, instead of going to the right side next to Watkins, scuttled back into a running back position. There was little motion in response from the Packers, which indicated a zone, but because Green Bay had started out balanced, the Packers had several zone defenders to the left side of Kansas City’s formation who were stuck with no real assignments.

Moore flipped the ball out to Hardman as a swing pass, with running back Williams acting as a lead blocker. It should have been a one-on-one opportunity for Hardman, but Williams flubbed his block a bit. Nevertheless, Hardman cut back towards daylight in the interior, leaving Packers rookie Darnell Savage overpursuing to the outside. With good blocking in front of him, Hardman was able to pick up enough yardage to get the Chiefs into field-goal range. After kicking that field goal, the Chiefs were up by three at halftime. And keep in mind — this was a fully healthy Packers team with a good defense, Aaron Rodgers and all the bells and whistles. They came into the game favored by five despite playing at Arrowhead. Per Football Outsiders, Moore finished with a 15.5 percent DVOA on 98 passing attempts — DVOA can essentially be read as the percentage above average the player played compared to the league, weighted by how strong the defenses he played were. If Moore had played enough snaps to get into qualified passer territory, that DVOA would have been among the league’s top 10, over players like Deshaun Watson, Matt Ryan and Carson Wentz.

It is quite tempting to be dismissive of the Chiefs winning the Super Bowl as coming on the back of a once-in-a-generation quarterback. But when you see that Reid can float even a mediocrity like Moore into a place where he’s performing empirically better than actual franchise quarterbacks, it’s something worth noting. The pipeline for easy offense to the NFL has been open for a long, long time. Don’t be surprised if whoever takes snaps for the Panthers benefits from what Joe Brady did to make life easier for Joe Burrow at LSU. Coaching offense in the modern NFL is more of a game of ideas than it’s ever been.

That’s the lesson we should learn from what the Chiefs did: Just by running motion, getting the ball to athletes in space and using disguises, they’re picking up uncontested yards near the line of scrimmage in a league where almost every running game struggles to do so. And because opponents are having to adjust to it, that opens up more passing lanes downfield and in the intermediate area. Which is all patently unfair when you already have Mahomes to erase bad downs anyway, but that’s just the cherry on top of the Chiefs sundae.

If Reid’s offense without Mahomes can get you 100 free yards per game, other teams need to start copycatting these concepts instead of lamenting not having Mahomes.

— Written by Rivers McCown (@riversmccown for Athlon Sports' 2020 NFL Preview.