The Chiefs Didn't Need Analytics To Win Another Championship
Super Bowl LVII proved once again that the Kansas City Chiefs don’t need analytics. They win the old-fashioned way — with quarterback Patrick Mahomes and head coach Andy Reid creating massive advantages that render ill-advised game management and roster decisions meaningless.
Mahomes needs no introduction. And Reid is one of the most respected offensive masterminds in football, with a trademark being his deft play design. In the Super Bowl, that resulted in not one but two touchdowns by receivers with 10 or more yards of separation, just the fifth time that’s happened in any game since 2016. But Reid’s clock management, challenge decisions and passivity in going for fourth downs and two-point conversions — the modern ways we measure coaching — are all behind the times. And all of those were on display in the Super Bowl, too. Moreover, the Chiefs also won in spite of not building their roster in the way prescribed by analytics.
But in the end, there Mahomes and Reid were, hoisting the Lombardi Trophy anyway.
Let’s start with the roster-building. Going into 2022, Kansas City was staring at the bill for a bevy of questionable draft picks, trades and contracts, plus the fact that Mahomes’s cap hit was growing from $7.4 million to $35.8 million. So in March, the team was forced to let go of perhaps the game’s best receiver, Tyreek Hill, due to salary-cap woes. This was despite the value of franchise-caliber wideouts being generally viewed as highly as ever.
Trading Hill became necessary because the Chiefs were paying market-value deals for a left tackle (Orlando Brown) and defensive end (Frank Clark) who were themselves acquired for first-round picks on the cusp of requiring massive contracts. While Brown was arguably worth the money, Clark was graded as just the 69th-best defensive end by Pro Football Focus despite the $104 million contract he was instantly awarded by the Chiefs in 2019.
And yet, despite losing the NFL’s best playmaker, the Chiefs actually scored more points and gained more yards than in 2021, leading the NFL in both categories. That was with no Chiefs WR finishing in the top 20 in receiving yards or top 30 in receiving touchdowns. Who needs impact WRs, the NFL’s hottest new cheat code, when you have Mahomes?
Of course, trading first-round picks for veterans making market money is preferable to using them on running backs — something the Chiefs also did with Clyde Edwards-Helaire in 2020. Edwards-Helaire was a healthy scratch in the Super Bowl, usurped by a seventh-round rookie (Isiah Pacheco). The Chiefs passed on Jonathan Taylor (a second-round pick) to take Edwards-Helaire, who had a consensus mock-draft ranking nearly a round later than where Kansas City drafted him. Ignoring consensus rankings at a position of perceived need was a mistake K.C. made the year before as well, when the team picked Mecole Hardman over D.K. Metcalf despite Metcalf having a consensus draft ranking 62 spots higher. The Chiefs could have had both Taylor and Metcalf on rookie deals since 2019 if they just went chalk in the draft.
But none of those count as the biggest face-plant by the Chiefs when it comes to roster management. That honor goes to handing out one of the league’s biggest contracts to a kicker, Harrison Butker, who graded as one of the worst in the league in 2022. And Butker even helped to enable some questionable game management by Reid in the Super Bowl.
The first instance was with the score tied 7-7 in the first quarter and the Chiefs facing a fourth-and-3 from the Philadelphia 24-yard line. Analytical models say to go for it. (And that’s generally speaking, so not even factoring in that Butker is not a good kicker while Mahomes definitely is a great quarterback.) On third and fourth downs with from 2 to 4 yards to go in 2022, the Chiefs were 6 percentage points better than average at converting. Since 2020, they’re the best in the NFL and also 10 points better than average.1 Yet Reid predictably opted for a field goal, which Butker missed, basically resulting in a turnover that led directly to an Eagles touchdown.
Then, in the fourth quarter, the Chiefs took a seven-point lead after the Eagles (of all teams, given their usual fourth-down aggressiveness) opted to punt in their own territory on fourth-and-3. Instead of going for two to potentially make it a two-possession game, the Chiefs opted to kick the extra point to go up eight — a margin the Eagles would knock down to zero within five minutes.
That was hardly a surprise. Despite how badly Butker struggles with extra points (92.4 percent over the past three years, versus an NFL average of 94.6 percent), the Chiefs go for two just 5.4 percent of the time, the second-lowest rate in football since 2018. That’s despite converting two-thirds of the time when they do go for two, the second-highest success rate in the NFL. At those rates, had they gone for two after every TD instead of kicking, the Chiefs would have scored 116 more points (or 23.2 more per year).
In 2021, ESPN surveyed analytics staffers across the NFL and, when asked to name the top five teams in analytics, the Chiefs did not receive a single vote (16 teams did). To be fair, no one named them the least-analytically savvy team, either, but what analytics professional would want to name a perennial Super Bowl favorite like the Chiefs an analytically inept team?
They’d basically be admitting that it’s not enough to master all the little things, like the Eagles generally do and did (for the most part) during the Super Bowl. That it simply does not matter that the Chiefs are doing those things wrong in the eyes of the numbers. Because the big things in Kansas City, the playmaking genius of Mahomes and the offensive innovation of Reid, will always be right.