The Kansas City Chiefs game-managed themselves to death last night.
I know we are all supposed to stop using the “game manager” term and give Alex Smith credit for being a good quarterback. But do you know why he gets called a “game manager” and it starts to carry a negative stigma? Because the dude never takes a risk, ever. He will never, ever risk turning the ball over. If you consider the examples from last night you’ll see what I mean.
Down 17-10, the Chiefs were granted an un-timed down from midfield going into halftime. Everyone in the stadium and across the country knew what was coming: a Hail Mary. Then something strange happened…
…Smith looked down the field, saw that his receivers were surrounded by orange shirts, and presumably thought, “Woah now, I’m Alex Smith, I don’t throw into coverage because I don’t turn the ball over. Better tuck it and run.” And that he did, ducking safely out of bounds after a nice gain that meant absolutely nothing. It’s called a Hail Mary (you know, like the prayer) because it doesn’t work very often. Why doesn’t it work very often? Because you have to throw it into a mess of about seven players, including guys from the other team. The horrors, right Alex? If he’s not going to take a “risk” there (and there’s zero risk anyway, except maybe a ding to his interceptions statistic), is he ever going to when the game calls for it?
Fast forward to the end of the game, when the Chiefs had the ball in their own territory, down two scores with a minute left and no timeouts. Smith was still going through his reads and checking down to the open guy. In that situation, desperation is OK; it’s encouraged, even. Throw it down the field man. If you see that your guy is double covered, throw it anyway. If you get lucky and pick up a meaningful chunk of yards, you might have a chance to pull off the miracle. Maybe the Chiefs won’t be losing enough for it to matter, but Smith’s inability to adapt his style of play to the circumstances of the game hurt Kansas City and helped the Broncos last night.
Along those same lines, Andy Reid faced a big decision in the 2nd quarter. On 4th and goal at the Denver one-yard line and down 17-7, he could “take the points” and kick a field goal or go for a touchdown. Bill Barnwell wrote about the decision for Grantland this morning:
Reid’s big mistake saw him kick a field goal on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line with 2:55 left in the second quarter while down 17-7. It was a brutal decision, given the team’s need to generate points and the context of that specific moment. I covered the simple logic of why going for it on fourth-and-goal is right in August, but it’s even more right in this moment. Kansas City’s offense is built around its ability to run the ball, and it will need touchdowns to keep up with Manning. Furthermore, by giving Manning a long field, it will likely force him to be conservative; the Chiefs then can use their timeouts to create a punting situation, just as the Saints did to Manning’s Colts when they went for it on fourth-and-goal and got stuffed just before halftime in Super Bowl XLIV. Since 1999,5 Manning has been at the helm of 21 possessions that began from his own 1-yard line, scoring on exactly zero of those drives. Given that a field goal and a kickoff would almost surely give the ball to Manning on the 20-yard line, that 19-yard difference in field position (were the Chiefs to be stuffed for no gain on fourth-and-1) is contextually enormous.
The Chiefs proved that they are on equal footing with the Broncos this season, but that doesn’t mean that they can just play the exact same style of play that works against teams like the Oakland Raiders or New York Giants and assume it will translate.
These teams meet again in two weeks at Arrowhead Stadium. It will be interesting to see if Reid, Smith and the rest of the Chiefs do a better job of playing to their opponent instead of forcing the same old plan onto the game.