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How did the Chiefs’ offense become so ridiculously fun to watch?

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Sure, the Chiefs’ offense is fun and amazing. But what are they actually doing that’s so unique?

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Mahomes did it again on Monday night, in a 27-23 win over the Broncos. He only threw one touchdown, but his heroics led the Chiefs to a comeback win. With the win, the Chiefs moved to 4-0 on the season, the only undefeated team in the AFC and, along with the Rams, one of only two in the NFL.

Granted, the Rams tried their best to steal this label away against Minnesota on Thursday night (and granted, the Rams also play a little defense), but through most of four weeks of the season, Kansas City remains the NFL’s Team Most Likely to Make You Yell “DAMN!” in Your Living Room.

The Chiefs’ offense is explosive, creative, and physically dominant, replete with maybe the most strong-armed passer in the league (Patrick Mahomes) and the fastest player, period, at any position (receiver Tyreek Hill).

Add to that a dynamic tight end (Travis Kelce), a resurgent veteran (Sammy Watkins), and other potentially explosive players who haven’t really been asked to do much yet (running backs Kareem Hunt and Spencer Ware, receiver Chris Conley), and you’ve got the pieces of an offense that both a) is averaging damn near 40 points per game and b) hasn’t necessarily hit its ceiling yet. The run game has been pretty mediocre; it’s a pretty scary thought if the run can get rolling before opponents figure out how to slow down the pass.

Because Mahomes’ right arm is Mahomes’ right arm, and because the Chiefs have been pretty open in their willingness to embrace creativity and explore spread concepts, they have become must-see TV early in the season. And now they get the national spotlight, traveling to Denver to finish Week 4 on Monday Night Football (8:15 p.m. ET, ESPN).

We know Kansas City is fun as hell — our eyeballs tell us that. But what are the Chiefs actually doing on offense that’s so fun? What makes them stand out in a crowd of quite a few fun NFL offenses in 2018?

1. “Spread concepts” = spread formations

We’ve beaten the term “spread” into the ground at this point. It’s lost most of its meaning.

When the spread offense came into vogue in college football, it basically meant sometimes sacrificing an extra blocker for an extra receiver, splitting the linemen a little further apart, and throwing more. There was a lot of this, for instance, using Joe Tiller’s old “basketball on grass” offense with Drew Brees at Purdue in the late-1990s as an example...

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... but there was also still a lot of this.

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It was a tendencies thing as much as a “This is our identity at all times” thing, at least until coaches like Texas Tech’s Mike Leach began winning football games with a more orthodox, this-is-everything-we-are approach.

The NFL is more Tiller than Leach at the moment. NFL offenses have been expanding their passing repertoires a little but still have a ways to go to reach 2000 Texas Tech-level spreadiness. According to data provided by Sports Info Solutions, NFL receiver formations include a slot receiver on 26 percent of passes and trips (three receivers on the same side) on 25 percent. Still, the most common overall receiver formation is a balanced one.

Most common receiver formations in the NFL through three weeks:

  1. Balanced (1x1 or 2x2): 24.4 percent of passes
  2. Slot Right: 13.4 percent
  3. Trips Right: 13.3 percent
  4. Slot Left: 12.4 percent
  5. Trips Left: 10.7 percent
  6. Spread (3x2 or 2x3): 8.2 percent

Kansas City flips those numbers around. They only use a Balanced receiver formation 8.5 percent of the time, but they line up in Slot Right or Slot Left on 38 percent of passes. They use Trips Right or Trips Left for 26.4 percent of passes — add that up, and they use the slot or trips about 15 percentage points more than the league average — and they go full-on spread for 17 percent of passes, more than double the league average.

This isn’t anything crazy, mind you. They’re not going 2x2 90 percent of the time or something. But when we say that head coach Andy Reid has “embraced spread concepts” or use a phrase similar to that, we’re basically just talking about that tendency.

2. Yes, they utilize Mahomes’ cannon

One of the ways Art Briles was able to put his own spin on the college spread at Houston and Baylor was by finding strong-armed quarterbacks who could throw darts from sideline to sideline, then truly spreading defenses from sideline to sideline. That created immeasurable stress on defensive backs in space, and it also opened up room for the run game.

Reid’s got that option if he wants to use it — he really hasn’t yet — because Mahomes’ arm is truly something spectacular. My favorite Mahomes throw of the season (so far) came in the first quarter of the Week 1 win over the Chargers. It was a pretty neat run-pass option, but the design of the play wasn’t what made me yell “DAMN!” in my living room.

Mahomes gets hit right after he throws the ball, so he gets no real follow-through.

The ball still basically teleports 16 yards in 0.01 seconds, leaving a bunch of Chargers defenders flat-footed and helpless.

Five defenders all saying, “Wait, WHAT?” at the same time.

That’s the visceral side of the Chiefs’ offense, but the data backs up the simple fact that Kansas City knows what it’s got in Mahomes and isn’t afraid to use it. Again according to Sports Info Solutions data, 27 percent of Mahomes’ passes have traveled at least 15 yards downfield, compared to the league average of 20 percent. And because Mahomes is unfair, those passes have produced a 56 percent success rate compared to the league average of 39 percent.

One of the biggest (and most obvious) differences between college and pro football is that, in effect, the field shrinks because the players are bigger, stronger, and faster — it’s harder to create the same type of space that you can in college, and when you do, it can vanish pretty quickly. Kansas City gets around that with a quarterback who can create vertical space with his hand cannon.

There is a secondary effect to this, too. When a defense is stretched and stressed, it begins to take its collective eye off of concepts it would typically be more than prepared to stop.

League-wide, 15 percent of passes are thrown behind the line of scrimmage, generating 4.7 yards per play and a 36 percent success rate. Kansas City has thrown 15 percent of its passes behind the line, too. They have generated 7.4 yards per play with a 67 percent success rate.

Variety has helped here, too. Ware and Kemp have caught two of these passes for 19 yards, but blocking backs Anthony Sherman and Damien Williams have caught three for 27, Kelce has caught two for 17, Hill has caught four for 37, and De’Anthony Thomas caught this fun, short touchdown.

The 21-yarder was more explosive than this super-easy score; this play, however, has been more indicative of how Kansas City is scoring so many damn points at the moment.

3. Destroy worlds in the red zone

There are plenty of good offenses in the NFL at the moment. (There are plenty of really bad ones, too.)

Heading into Week 4, the Buccaneers and Rams were both averaging more yards per play than the Chiefs, and the Saints, Rams, Chargers, and Raiders all had higher success rates. The Rams have even generated a higher percentage of scoring opportunities (first downs inside the opponent’s 40), and hell, there are even a couple of teams lining up in shotgun more than the Chiefs — according to Sports Info Solutions, the Packers have done so 96 percent of the time to the Steelers’ 81 percent and the Chiefs’ 80 percent.

Statistically, the one area where the Chiefs have truly stood out at the moment has been the area near the opponent’s goal line.

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Heading into Week 4, 11 offenses had created at least 18 scoring opportunities. The 10 teams not named Kansas City had attempted 65 field goals, 6.5 per team. The Chiefs have only given poor Harrison Butker two attempts, however, because they’ve been too busy scoring touchdowns.

In all, 74 percent of the Chiefs’ scoring opportunities have resulted in touchdowns so far. The Bengals (63 percent) and Seahawks (62 percent) are the only other teams above even 60 percent. Teams like the Browns (32 percent) and Lions (28 percent) had created plenty of chances but finished very few of them, and the poor Titans (25 percent) had neither created nor completed many.

What’s been the secret weapon here? Extreme variety. Kansas City’s red zone touchdowns:

  • Hunt has two one-yard scores
  • Hill 1-yard reception (above)
  • De’Anthony Thomas 1-yard reception (his only catch of the year)
  • Demarcus Robinson 3-yard reception (his only catch of the year)
  • Conley 4- and 15-yard receptions (two of his five catches have been scores)
  • Hunt 5-yard reception (his only catch of the year)
  • Watkins 12-yard reception
  • Demetrius Harris 13-yard reception (his only catch of the year)
  • Kelce 19-yard reception
Kansas City Chiefs v Los Angeles Chargers
De’Anthony Thomas is one of four Chiefs with one reception and one receiving touchdown
Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

While the passing game has almost entirely revolved around Hill, Watkins, and Kelce between the 20s (aside from the occasional behind-the-line pass to a blocking back), everyone gets involved near the goal line. Defenses have a massive space advantage near their own goal line; it appears the Chiefs are attempting to counter this by using everyone and every possible inch of space. It’s working.

It’s almost impossible to describe how much of a weapon this is. Even without getting into kicker quality, when you’re converting scoring chances into touchdowns this well, your opponent needs about three or four scoring opportunities to match what you’re producing in two or three. And when even the best teams are creating only six or seven opps per game, you see just how quickly a game can get away from you against an offense like this.

So how do you stop this?

Granted, Kansas City has been so good at red zone execution that it’s probably unsustainable. Even if the Chiefs remain the best in the league at turning chances into touchdowns, their advantage over the rest of the league will probably shrink a bit.

Plus, at some point the god of bounces will turn on them — they’ve turned the ball over only once in three games. That is massively unsustainable.

Staffs of well-paid coaches and very well-paid players are probably going to figure some things out, too. They usually do; just ask the 2017 Chiefs — Kansas City averaged 33 points per game during a 5-0 start last fall but topped 30 points just twice the rest of the year.

Now, thanks to Mahomes’ arm, this team has more physical upside than last year’s did. Perhaps that will allow them to maintain more of their advantages. But defenses will still adjust.

NFL: San Francisco 49ers at Kansas City Chiefs
Tyreek Hill has had plenty to strut about in 2018.
Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

That said, is there anything we can glean from what the Chiefs have faced so far this year? Is there any alignment or tactic that works better than others? Here are some general defensive alignment stats, again from Sports Info Solutions.

How teams are choosing to defend the Chiefs:

Chiefs vs. NFL defenses (alignment)

Defensive alignment Pct. of snaps vs. Chiefs League avg.
Defensive alignment Pct. of snaps vs. Chiefs League avg.
3-3-5 27% 17%
4-2-5 20% 33%
3-4 13% 10%
4-3 13% 15%
2-3-6 12% 4%

How that’s working out:

Chiefs vs. NFL defenses (success rate)

Defensive alignment Chiefs success rate League avg.
Defensive alignment Chiefs success rate League avg.
3-3-5 65% 43%
4-2-5 50% 41%
3-4 36% 40%
4-3 29% 40%
2-3-6 50% 34%

We are of course dealing with small samples here, but this data is the opposite of what you might have expected. This isn’t the early-2000s Mike Leach offense destroying old-school 4-3 defenses. Kansas City is doing most of its damage against defenses that are, in theory, designed to better handle spread formations and pass concepts. And defenses’ greatest successes thus far have come with, well, old-school defensive looks.

  • vs. Chargers: 51 percent success rate vs. 3-3-5 (33 snaps), 45 percent vs. 3-4 (11 snaps)
  • vs. Steelers: 58 percent success rate vs. 2-3-6 (19 snaps), 29 percent vs. 3-4 (14 snaps)
  • vs. 49ers: 50 percent success rate vs. 4-2-5 (38 snaps), 32 percent vs. 4-3 (19 snaps), 92 percent success rate vs. 3-3-5 (12 snaps)

Kansas City has faced defenses with either five or six defensive backs on 74 percent of its snaps and has mostly torched those defenses. But on the 26 percent of snaps in which they’ve faced lineups with only four DBs, their success rate is just 33 percent, seven percentage points below the league average. They are destroying more conservative Cover 2 or Cover 3 schemes (50 percent success rate or higher against any combination), but they have struggled against the more aggressive Cover 1 (36 percent success rate).

Some of this is situational — sometimes you almost have to go with five or more defensive backs — and it’s all small-sample, but if we’ve learned anything early on, it’s that defenses might have better luck just being themselves against this unit and not panicking and throwing extra DBs at a potential problem. Hell, Hill’s way faster than your DBs, anyway, so they’re not going to save you.

There is still an infinite number of hurdles for this offense to clear in 2018, and if the Chiefs’ defense doesn’t improve, the offense can’t afford to slip much. But this is fun as hell, and between the physical gifts and creativity involved, it should remain so even if or when regression to the mean sets in.