"To win this game, they need to keep Patrick Mahomes on the sideline."
A football adage as old as time, keeping the elite quarterback "on the sideline" has been a go-to line for many announcers over the years. Recently, however, there has been pushback on this line of thinking, and for good reason.
The primary goal against elite quarterbacks should be to score early and often.
This line of thinking seems as obvious as "score more than the other team," but it is still the plain truth and makes more logical sense than focusing on a comparatively insignificant statistic like time of possession. Unless a coach is confident they can stop an elite offense helmed by an elite quarterback for a full 60 minutes, trying to win the time of possession game is a fool's errand. The basic flow of an NFL game dictates this.
In the NFL, teams are always afforded a possession after the other team scores or punts, unless the receiving team turns it over or an onside kick happens. This ensures that the vast majority of the time, teams simply take turns. A team’s opponent will always have an opportunity to answer any possession with a possession of their own.
What does this mean for the time of possession debate? It means that no matter how long a drive is, Patrick Mahomes will have the opportunity to answer that drive.
One would think, then, that the Chiefs would have fewer drives in games they lose the time of possession battle. However, this just isn’t the case.
In the Chiefs’ 10 worst games by total time of possession under Mahomes, the Chiefs averaged 10.2 drives per game. In the Chiefs’ 10 best games by total time of possession under Mahomes, the Chiefs averaged 10.7 drives per game. That .5 difference is not meaningful in any way. Mahomes still gets the opportunities even when the Chiefs' offense is on the sideline more.
What is meaningful is the Chiefs’ record in the low time of possession games. They are 5-5 in the bottom 10 time of possession games and 9-1 in the top ten time of possession games. If it’s not the drives that account for this record, then what does?
It is the performance of the Chiefs as a team.
It isn’t a revelation that playing poorly leads to losses, but when a conversation about why Kansas City lost meanders back to time of possession, perspective is lost.
Take, for instance, the Colts game from the 2019 season. A game that led many to believe a blueprint was found to beat the Chiefs: run the ball. But look closer.
When examining the Colts game, it’s hard to say Marlon Mack running at a clip of 4.6 yards per carry was the real reason the Colts won. It probably wasn’t their 36% conversion rate on third down (5/14) either.
The real reason the Chiefs lost was because of their own uncharacteristically poor offensive play.
In the Colts game, the Chiefs only scored on 30% of their drives (3/10) which was their lowest rate of the 2019 season and was 26th in the league when comparing it to 2019’s season scoring rates. Two of those scores were just field goals. Outside of the Chiefs’ three scoring drives, the other six drives of consequence (one drive was 10 seconds before the half) the Chiefs averaged 1:48 of possession and gained an average of 15.5 yards per drive. That was the reason the Colts beat the Chiefs, not "holding" them to an average number of drives.
The closest the Chiefs have come to losing because of situational time of possession in the Mahomes era came just after the aforementioned Colts game, losing 31-24 to the Texans.
The Texans controlled the ball for 13:46 of game time in the fourth quarter. It seems like the Chiefs never got a chance to win because of that, right? Well... no.
Just before the fourth quarter started, with the game tied 24-24, the Chiefs had a 15-second three-and-out. When the Texans went up 31-24, the Chiefs had another offensive possession and went three-and-out again. The Texans ran out the clock and ended the game on the next drive.
Is time of possession really the reason the Chiefs lost in this sequence? The defense failing to produce a stop was certainly not ideal and was a small reason for the loss, however, the Chiefs still had multiple chances to win the game late despite Houston having almost 40 minutes of time of possession. I’d argue the Chiefs going three-and-out twice during high leverage portions of the game was at larger fault for the loss.
The Texans game from 2019 is the most extreme example of time of possession being used against the Chiefs. Why is it not wielded more? Because it’s damn hard to execute a clock-chewing strategy.
To amass long, sustained drives, teams need to do so many things right that it’s almost impossible to do it over the course of a full game. They need to run the ball effectively, constantly. They need to have few to no penalties. They need to convert on an extremely high number of third and/or fourth downs. All of these outcomes then need to result in a touchdown.
Long, chain-moving touchdown drives are a wonderful ideal to strive for in theory, however, the opponent’s defense is being paid to stop you, and if you give them more chances to stop you, they are bound to do it eventually. One disruptive Chris Jones sack and the whole point of the drive goes up in flames.
If a team employs a long, sustained drive that ends in a field goal against the Chiefs, they are already behind the 8-ball. That drive is a failure. They have to pray the Chiefs are having an off game on offense, otherwise, they'll be down by four points two minutes later.
Most of the Chiefs’ losses have common threads: a combination of turnovers, uncharacteristically bad offensive play and poor defensive play that lets the opponent have breathing room in the margins. In other words, when the Chiefs play poorly or if the other team outplays them, they lose! It’s hard to say in any of their games that time of possession contributed at a meaningful level to the Chiefs’ loss. Their losses come entirely from them not capitalizing on drives like they usually do.
One team trying to maintain long, sustained drives barely impacts the number of drives in a game. This is made evident by the way the Chiefs have lost an average of just .5 drives per game from their best time of possession games to their worst. If the Chiefs don’t play along with the charade of a time of possession game, they aren’t worse off. In fact, they're probably pretty happy. They can still dictate the game. Patrick Mahomes still gets his chances to be special.
If the Chiefs offense is firing on all cylinders, no amount of Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt churning clock will lead to a Chiefs loss against the Browns on Sunday. For every eight-minute touchdown drive the Browns have, the Chiefs will have a chance to respond with a touchdown of their own. "Keep Patrick Mahomes on the sideline" at your own risk; in doing so, it might just be shortening the amount of time available to come back from the onslaught of touchdowns he and the Chiefs will score.