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 huge advantages that render ill-advised play management and decisions meaningless.
Mahomes needs no introduction. And Reid is one of the most respected offensive minds in football, with a trademark like his skillful play design. In the Super Bowl, it did not result in one but two touchdowns by receivers of 10 or more yards, only the fifth time that has 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 these were also on display in the Super Bowl. Moreover, the Chiefs also won despite not building their roster in the manner prescribed by analytics.
But in the end, there was Mahomes and Reid, hoisting the Lombardi Trophy anyway.
Let’s start with the roster building. Heading into 2022, Kansas City was staring at the bill for a slew of questionable draft picks, trades and contracts, plus the fact that Mahomes’ cap hit grew from $7.4 million to $35.8 million. Then in March, the team was forced to let go of perhaps the game’s best receiver, Tyreek Hill, due to the salary cap. This was despite the value of franchise-caliber wideouts generally being viewed as high as ever.
Trading Hill became necessary because the Chiefs paid market value deals for a left tackle (Orlando Brown) and defensive end (Frank Clark) who were themselves acquired for first-round picks on the verge of demanding massive contracts. While Brown was arguably worth the money, Clark was graded as only the 69th best defensive end by Pro Football Focus despite the $104 million contract he was immediately 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 without a 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 who make market money is preferable to spending 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, taken over by a rookie in the seventh round (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 KC made the year before, when the team selected Mecole Hardman over DK Metcalf despite Metcalf having a consensus draft rank 62 spots higher. The Chiefs could have had both Taylor and Metcalf on rookie deals starting in 2019 if they just chalked it up to the draft.
But none of those count as the biggest face plant of 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 ranked as one of the worst in the league in 2022. And Butker even helped enable questionable play handling 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 don’t even factor in that Butker isn’t a great kicker while Mahomes is definitely 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 the average at conversion. Since 2020, they have been the best in the NFL and also 10 points better than average. Still, Reid predictably opted for a field goal, which Butker missedwhich initially resulted 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) elected 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 whittle down to zero within five minutes.
It was hardly a surprise. Despite how badly Butker is struggling on extra points (92.4 percent over the last three years, against 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 despite converting two-thirds of the time when they go for two, the second-highest success rate in the NFL. At those rates, had they gone for two after every TD instead of punting, the Chiefs would have scored 116 more points (or 23.2 more per year).
In 2021, ESPN surveyed analysts 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 called them the least analytically savvy team either, but what analyst would want to call a perennial Super Bowl favorite like the Chiefs an analytically inept team?
They will basically admit that mastering all the little things, as the Eagles usually do and did (mostly) during the Super Bowl, is not enough. That it simply doesn’t matter that the bosses do those things wrong in the eyes of the numbers. For the big things in Kansas City, the playing genius of Mahomes and the offensive innovation of Reid, will always be right.