Andy Reid's Great Awakening

Austin J

Facing fourth down with a yard to go from the San Francisco five yard-line in the first quarter of Super Bowl LIV, Andy Reid had a decision to make — kick or go for it? Trailing by three points with nearly 47 minutes left in the game, the safest call would be to send on the kicking team. Harrison Butker would be automatic from 22 yards out, and the Chiefs would tie the game 3-3.

Reid had a compelling case to play it safe. At 61 years old, in his 21st season as an NFL head coach, Reid was playing for his legacy. Arguably the greatest coach in history without a Super Bowl title, Reid knew as well as any man alive what was at stake in this moment. After reaching the big game at 46, in his sixth year as head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles, it took 15 seasons, 11 starting quarterbacks, and a move to Kansas City to get back here — standing on the edge of the biggest spotlight in sports, squinting into a future that held either immortality or ignominy.

Kicking a field goal would postpone that future. The game would reset. The Super Bowl would be won or lost on decisions still to come, not the decision of the moment.

The television broadcast went to commercial. During the TV timeout, Reid sent on the kicking team.

Then, he changed his mind.

We may never know exactly what caused Reid to send his offense back onto the field. Perhaps quarterback Patrick Mahomes, whom NFL Films cameras caught campaigning for a chance to get the first down — “Let’s do it, let’s go! Give me my helmet!” — persuaded Reid.

Perhaps it was offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, who would later be acknowledged as the mastermind behind the Chiefs’ play call, “Shift to Rose Bowl Right Parade.” 

Or perhaps it was Reid himself, who, after two decades of mostly conservative coaching, decided this was the moment to let it all hang out.

Whatever the reason for Reid’s change of heart, the Chiefs’ offense returned to the field, pirouetted in near-perfect unison, and snapped the ball to running back Damien Williams, who plunged forward for a first down. Two plays later, Mahomes darted into the end zone for a touchdown. The Chiefs went on to win their first Super Bowl in 50 years for a coach that had waited more than 20.

Seven months later, Reid, with a Super Bowl victory on his resume and a ring on his finger, stood on the sidelines again, in a stadium mostly emptied by a global pandemic, coaching the Chiefs against the Houston Texans in the first game of the 2020 NFL season. On the second drive of the game, the Chiefs stalled at their own 34-yard line with three minutes left in the first quarter. Again facing 4th and 1, Reid again had a decision to make.

This time, his offense never left the field.

The Chiefs handed the ball off to fullback Anthony Sherman, who bullied his way through the Texans’ defensive front for a two-yard gain and a first down. Seven plays later, Mahomes found Travis Kelce for a six-yard touchdown pass and the Chiefs tied the game 7-7. They went on to build a 31-7 lead in an eventual 34-20 win.

Reid’s decision to go for it on fourth down last Thursday received far less attention than “Rose Bowl,” but mathematically, it was a far bolder decision. The Chiefs were inside their own territory; a turnover on downs would have given the Texans the ball already in field goal range, with a chance at an easy touchdown on a short field. In the first quarter, in the first game of the season, it would have been an easy call for the Chiefs to punt the ball away.

How easy? Since 2018, teams faced these fourth down situations — first quarter, inside their own 40-yard line — 746 times. They punted the ball 745 times: 99.86%. Reid's decision to go for it wasn't one in a million, but it was two in 747. This was a shockingly aggressive call.

Before Thursday night, only one team since 2018 had gone for it on fourth down in the first quarter inside their own 40-yard line. It was not Kyle Shanahan’s Niners or Sean McVay’s Rams, nor John Harbaugh’s Ravens, who became the darlings of the analytics community in 2019 by going for it on fourth down 21 times.

It was Andy Reid’s Kansas City Chiefs.

On October 1, 2018, facing an identical situation to last Thursday night’s game — 4th and 1 from their own 34 — the Chiefs handed off to Kareem Hunt against the Denver Broncos, who gained two yards for the first down. Instead of punting, the Chiefs eventually picked up three points on a Harrison Butker field goal, winning the game by just four points, 27-23. The aggressive call paid off, as it would again in Super Bowl LIV, and again last Thursday night.

That 2018 call proved to be an aberration, not the start of a trend. Despite being incredibly proficient on fourth down under Andy Reid — since 2013, the Chiefs have the second-highest fourth-down conversion rate in the NFL at 57.3%, a full eight percent better than the league average of 49.3% — the Chiefs have been the opposite of aggressive under Reid. Since 2013, Reid’s first year as head coach of the Chiefs, KC has attempted just 82 fourth-down conversions, tied with Pete Carroll’s Seahawks for the lowest total in the league. In 2019, the Chiefs attempted a league-low nine fourth-down conversion attempts in the regular season, all while Lamar Jackson and the high-flying Ravens attempted 21, en route to a league-leading 531 points, an NFL-best 14-2 record, a unanimous MVP award for Jackson, and a Coach of the Year award for John Harbaugh.

Then came the 2019 playoffs.

The Ravens continued to go for it on fourth down — racking up four attempts in their first and only postseason game against the Tennessee Titans. After converting at an astonishing 71.4% clip in the regular season, they failed to convert a single attempt against Tennessee, digging themselves a 28-6 hole from which they could not escape.

The Chiefs, meanwhile, attempted three fourth-down conversions in three games (not counting a 4th and 25 heave by Mahomes in the Super Bowl to run out the clock), nearly doubling their regular-season attempt rate. They converted all three, with two drives ending in touchdowns, and the third in a field goal. They defeated the Texans, Titans, and Niners and won a Lombardi Trophy.

And on Thursday night, Andy Reid kept the pedal down. In the first quarter of the first game of the season, in his own territory, he kept his offense on the field.

Reid's aggressive call could have been a blip, a tease, a one-off. Reid has coached for decades, and his conservative approach to fourth downs is as enduring as his affinity for cheeseburgers and Tommy Bahama shirts. But if "Rose Bowl" marked the awakening of a more aggressive Andy Reid, if Thursday night was a sign of things to come to — the rest of the NFL should be terrified. 

It was hard enough to stop Patrick Mahomes and Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce and Clyde Edwards-Helaire (and, yes, Anthony Sherman) for three downs. Good luck doing it for four. 

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Comments (2)
No. 1-2
Jordan Foote
Jordan Foote

The sky truly is the limit for this offense. Great article, Austin.

Tucker D. Franklin
Tucker D. Franklin

Editor

Great look at these numbers, Austin. Aggressive play calling coupled with Mahomes and company will be scary for any defensive coordinator in the league. I’d love to see more aggressive play calls. Hopefully that enables them to ice games better than they did last season.


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