Before a recent practice, Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith pondered the question for a moment –– but not too long.
In his mind, the answer –– when asked what’s the biggest difference between the Chiefs’ offense in 2017 and the others he’s guided during his five-year tenure –– is a simple, two-pronged one.
“Two things –– No. 1, the personnel ... it’s clearly changed,” said Smith, who is currently the caretaker of the NFL’s highest-scoring offense (32.8 points per game, up from 24.3 a year ago, which ranked 13th). “Not to compare, it’s just different. And across the board, we’ve got a lot of guys that have that kind of (big-play) ability.
“And (No. 2), the second year for (offensive coordinator Matt Nagy). Obviously, Coach (Andy) Reid has been consistent and is always involved and is obviously a huge chunk of this, too, as he continues to evolve with the personnel that we’ve had. But I certainly think Nags’ imprint as well, especially here year two ... coach is comfortable with him and his views and he’s put his footprint on this as well, utilizing the personnel in ways (we haven’t). We do a lot of stuff that wasn’t in the West Coast playbook five years ago.”
Offense has been the name of the game this season for the Chiefs, who remain the league’s lone undefeated team at 5-0. Along they way, they’ve used all sorts of fun offensive concepts –– the shovel pass, the fly sweep, run-pass options, misdirections –– that were never in the traditional West Coast offense ... until now.
Reid still plays a significant role in the play calling and game plan –– it’s his baby, and he takes all the blame when things go wrong –– but he, like Smith, credited Nagy for adding some spice to the Chiefs’ playbook.
“It’s brand new stuff we’re trying out,” Smith said. “I feel like we’ve definitely grown more, in a unique way, for sure. I think we’ve got a lot of guys that can play in space. We’re trying to space the field out and have guys that are multidimensional, and then incorporate that, via run and pass.”
Indeed, the improvement of the Chiefs’ offense –– which can now best be described as a cross between west coast, spread and college-style run-pass option concepts –– reflects on the stat sheet.
The Chiefs are rushing for 156 yards per game, which ranks second in the league and is up from a mere 109 yards per game a year ago. They also lead the league in runs of more than 20 yards with nine –– three more than the next closest team –– and are throwing for 258 yards per game, which ranks eighth in the league and is up from 233 yards per game a year ago.
In many ways, the offense is downright explosive, a far cry from past iterations of the Chiefs’ offense under Reid. Just compare it to the 2014 version, for instance, when no wideout scored a receiving touchdown.
“It’s night and day,” guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif said with a laugh. “Even last year and the year before, it used to be like, when you go for a drive on the field and if you want to score a touchdown, it needs to be at least 10 plays. And now, if I just recall the Patriots game, first play of the drive, boom –– 80-yard touchdown. Last game against the Chargers, you want to close the game. Four-minute situation, everybody knows you’re going to run the ball. And you run for a 60-yard touchdown. It’s great.”
Many players point to the personnel upgrades the Chiefs have made since then as a reason for improvement. That wideout-starved 2014 team didn’t have anyone close to possessing the electricity of the team’s current No. 1 receiver Tyreek Hill, who might be the NFL’s fastest man. And while Pro Bowl tight end Travis Kelce –– a matchup nightmare who is too shifty for linebackers and too big for defensive backs –– was on the roster back then, he was essentially a rookie, still playing a reserve role behind Anthony Fasano.
And don’t forget third-round rookie running back Kareem Hunt, the NFL’s leading rusher who has managed to match the production the Chiefs got from Jamaal Charles that year, back when the future Ring of Honor member was at the peak of his powers.
Add them all together, and you get a triumvirate of playmakers that defenses must account for at all times. Problem is, stopping three stars on one side of the ball at the same time is practically impossible –– teams might be able to take away two of the Chiefs’ three stud options on any given play, but they can’t take away all three. Hence the Chiefs’ offensive success, which Nagy himself attributes to the swath of talented playmakers the scouting department has added over the last few years.
“It’s huge,” Nagy said. “Obviously, the more of that (talent) you have, the easier it is to scheme, because you can start putting pieces of the puzzle in certain spots and say ‘OK, we think we’re going to get this or that defense.’ And then the rest of that is on them on game day.”
For defenses, stopping a runner like the elusive, hard-charging Hunt is difficult, especially in the Chiefs’ zone-running scheme, which is the foundation of the offense. Hunt is extremely adept at biding his time behind his linemen and exploding upfield with one cut when he sees a sliver of daylight. Defenses can play him correctly and he can still gain positive yards because of his remarkable elusiveness and contact balance, so teams often try to contain him by adding an additional defender to the box and generally attempting to put bodies around him.
The problem with that strategy, however, is that opens up the 1-on-1 opportunities in the Chiefs’ passing game for Kelce and Hill, who can each take it the distance.
“They can’t just lock in on one thing to stop and make us one-dimensional,” Hunt said. “It’s a pretty tough challenge for the defenses, and honestly, it’s very helpful for us.”
If teams get it in their minds to stop Kelce –– Smith’s de facto security blanket –– they will often attempt to do it by chipping him or placing a linebacker or safety on him, heads up. And when they play zone coverage, underneath defenders sometimes suck in toward Kelce –– think of a vacuum –– when he’s running his pet short routes.
This, still, is hardly an ideal plan of attack for most defenses. Focus too much on Kelce, and Hill –– whose blazing 4.24 speed makes him one of the NFL’s fastest men –– can burn you, too. Teams are terrified of letting Hill get behind the defense for a quick six, so it’s not unusual to see them shade a safety over the top, which opens up the rest of the field for Kelce and Hunt.
Throw in the three playmakers with the creativity and ability of the Chiefs’ primary playcallers –– Reid and Nagy –– to decipher what defenses might be trying to take away based on down and distance, not to mention the brains of a quarterback in Smith who is terrific at audibling out of troublesome plays, and it equals the best offense of Reid’s five-year tenure in Kansas City, and one of the best in the NFL through five games.
Considering the way the Chiefs lost to their next opponent in last year’s playoffs — Pittsburgh beat them 18-16 at Arrowhead Stadium in the divisional round in January, largely due to lots of missed offensive opportunities –– the Chiefs’ offensive improvement couldn’t be more on time.
“Any time you play an opponent from the recent past, you are looking at that stuff,” Smith said. “Certainly, when they have had success as well, are they going to repeat some of that stuff against us? How are they going to combat it? Certainly, I think we know that we are a different team at this point as well. So you kind of relish the opportunity. You definitely look at it. It definitely brings back a lot of missed opportunities.”