The surprise team of the NFL season was undoubtedly the Kansas City Chiefs, a franchise that went from being 2-14 in 2012 to starting the season 9-0 in 2013.
Though Kansas City dropped six of their final eight games when counting their playoff loss to the Colts, there’s plenty of good to take away from Andy Reid’s first season with the team. Let’s begin there.
No team in the league was better at defending the pass, even when adjusted for strength of schedule, than the Chiefs through the first nine weeks of the season. Even the Super Bowl champion Seahawks weren’t performing at Kansas City’s level, allowing over 27 more expected points through the air than the Chiefs did at that point in the season.
While plenty of fans will point to the fact that Kansas City hadn’t played anyone through their undefeated stretch, keep in mind that our Adjusted Defensive Passing Net Expected Points metric takes schedule strength into consideration. Even then, the Chiefs were the best secondary, by far, in the league.
After nine weeks, Kansas City’s Adjusted Defensive Passing NEP was -58.98 (a team in a similar situation would have allowed 59 more points than the Chiefs did through the air). This score, however, turned into a total of -37.58 at season's end, meaning they played far below expectation over the final seven games of the season.
Even still, the secondary ranked as the third-best in the league this year, led by safety Eric Berry and cornerback Brandon Flowers.
Another bright spot for the team was at the running back position. Jamaal Charles may have been MVP this year if not for Peyton Manning’s historic play, as he finished with the best Total NEP among all running backs. According to our metrics, it was Charles’ second best season in the NFL, only behind his monster 2010 campaign.
There are a ton of individuals on the Chiefs that you could place in “the good” section, honestly. Dontari Poe was consistently a monster on the defensive line, and linebackers Tamba Hali, Derrick Johnson and Justin Houston each had Pro Bowl seasons as well. As a result, the Chiefs had a top-15 run defense at the end of the season. And when added to their third-ranked pass defense, the team finished the year with numberFire’s fourth-best defense, behind Seattle, Cincinnati and Carolina.
Everyone seems to think that Alex Smith completely turned this franchise around, which is understandable because he’s a quarterback. But let me be real with you here: Alex Smith wasn’t that good in 2013.
The Chiefs ended the season with a passing attack that ranked 21st in the league when adjusted for strength of schedule, sandwiched between Miami and Oakland. And we all know, anytime you’re next to Oakland in any sort of ranking, you’re in trouble.
This wasn’t a volume thing, either. The Chiefs had a low(ish) pass-to-run ratio, but even when you look at their Adjusted Passing NEP on a per play basis, they still ranked 21st.
Yes, a lot of that was Alex Smith, but I'll give him the benefit of the doubt when I say that he was throwing to appetizers.
Dwayne Bowe was the team’s best wideout in 2013, but he ranked 43rd in Reception Net Expected Points. Yes, the best wide receiver on the Chiefs was worse than multiple number two (sometimes three) guys on other teams.
In terms of Target NEP, a metric that looks at how a player performs on all targets, it wasn’t any better. Donnie Avery actually ranked ahead of Bowe, but was still just the 35th-ranked pass-catcher in the league under the metric.
So it’s not like Alex Smith had a lot of help, outside of the aforementioned Jamaal Charles, I guess. Even still, his metrics weren’t nearly as good as his Pro Bowl status indicates. Despite a pretty weak schedule, Smith ended the season as our 18th-ranked passer, totaling a Passing NEP of 28.70. Ryan Fitzpatrick, ladies and gentlemen, had a higher passing efficiency score.
And, again, even when you look at things on a per drop back basis, it’s not any better – Smith is still a bottom-half-of-the-league starter.
I understand that he made some plays, especially against the Colts in the playoffs. But given his history – one that’s filled with quarterback play far below expectation – I’m not sure I understand why people think the Chiefs found a real answer at quarterback with Smith.
What Should They Do?
Kansas City doesn’t have the cap room to go out and get a big name guy (specifically at wide receiver). They need to re-sign (Branden Albert, especially) and restructure contracts, attempting to make a splash in the NFL Draft.
I’m sure that after making some cuts, needs will change, but as of now, which positions should they go for? They may try to improve their secondary, which dipped over the course of the second half of the season. But one glaring need, which is evident given our NEP data, is at wide receiver.
I won’t mention the fact that I don’t believe Alex Smith is the long-term answer for the team (I guess I just did, didn’t I?) because it’s been said that he’ll get an extension this offseason. He’ll be a Chief for at least a few more years, it sounds like. Great.
But overall, this is a team that can play great defense and has the tools to potentially do some damage again in 2014. It’ll be the first time in a while that we see a consistent Chiefs team coaching and personnel-wise from one year to the next, and that should bring good results.