KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — There was a moment back on Christmas Day, long before the Kansas City Chiefs could even start thinking about playing in the Super Bowl again, when Patrick Mahomes broke the huddle in a game against the Las Vegas Raiders.
His team was in total disarray. Players were coming off the sideline, then racing back, only to turn around and rush back onto the field. Nobody knew where to line up. And all the while, the play clock was quickly clicking down to zero.
That moment may have changed the course of the entire season for Kansas City.
In the midst of that deflating loss to the Raiders, their fifth in eight games, Chiefs coach Andy Reid and his offensive brain trust came to the realization that their famously complex offense had grown — well, too complex. There were too formations. Too many motions. Too many route concepts. In fact, there were too many words, often more than 15 to spit out a single play.
So the Chiefs simplified everything. And they haven't lost since.
While their offense still may not be the juggernaut that carried the Chiefs to three previous Super Bowls in four years, it has at least become efficient, and that's all it needed to be alongside the league's No. 2 defense. The Chiefs gained more than 400 yards in a wild-card win over Miami, or more than 100 than they did that day against Las Vegas, and put up enough points against the Bills and Ravens on the road to earn a spot opposite the San Francisco 49ers on Feb. 11 — in Las Vegas, of all places.
“When you see some of the things that happened on tape, like that game where we had trouble getting in and out of the huddle, whether it's personnel or what we have in the play call — I think it is a combination of all that," Chiefs offensive coordinator Matt Nagy said. "So sometimes that stuff makes you look back and think, ‘What can we do different to help these guys out?’”
In some ways, the decision to pare back everything goes against common sense.
Shouldn't an offense that is more complex be more difficult to defend?
It also seemed to go against the instincts of both Reid and Mahomes, who relish designing creative plays and share the same go-for-broke attitude. When rookies show up to training camp each July, they are hit with the entirety of the offensive playbook, and it usually leaves their eyes spinning like slot machines and their brains feeling like mush.
“It's a complex offense. It's hard for young guys to do,” Mahomes admitted.
There are unusual formations. A wide range of personnel groups. Lots of shifts and movements, designed to both confuse the defense and provide a tell as to what it might do. There are ghost motions. And even when a wide receiver knows the route he is supposed to run, it could change mid-stride depending on what the secondary is doing.
No wonder the play calls themselves get long-winded. In fact, former quarterback Alex Smith used to warn his teammates in the huddle that he had “a doozy” so that they could pay attention as he delivered the entire word salad.
“There's so much verbiage in this playbook and so much dialogue,” Chiefs general manager Brett Veach acknowledged last fall, “and there's so many tweaks to every assignment in regard to where they align and how they look at coverage and how they alter routes. It's super complicated.”
Fast forward to Christmas Day. One of the problems the Chiefs had against the Raiders was the time it took to get plays into the game. Reid is usually calling them from the sideline, but it is Nagy whose radio is connected to Mahomes' helmet.
So, those long-winded plays were repeated four times: from Reid on the sideline to Nagy in the coaches' box, back to Mahomes on the field, and one last time to the rest of the team in the huddle. By the time they broke it and got to the line of scrimmage, there were just a few seconds left on the play clock and the Chiefs were rushing to get the snap off.
By simplifying things, the Chiefs have gotten to the line of scrimmage in the playoffs with 15 or 20 seconds on the clock, and that has given Mahomes time to survey the defense, change protections or audible to an entirely different play if necessary.
“Nobody took offense to any of it,” Nagy said. “We said, ‘How can we get better?’ And we started with that. There's a lot of other things that go into it, with execution and play design and everything, but put it all together and see what happens.”
What happened was back-to-back wins to clinch the AFC West and the No. 3 seed in the playoffs. And three more wins there, including the past two on the road — the first road playoff games of Mahomes' career — when the decibel level inside the opposing stadium should make communication for an offense even more challenging.
“I don't like losing any games, so every loss I feel like is tough," Mahomes said, "but we always had everything we wanted in front of us, and we had that mindset, and Coach Reid preaches that every day we come into the building. No one hung their head. Everybody was ready to go. And now, we're going to the Super Bowl, and like I've said, we're not done."
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