It's appropriate that the Kansas City Chiefs are on Monday Night Football next week, because their offense probably isn't suitable for afternoon television. Coach Andy Reid's passing attack laid waste to the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday, as Patrick Mahomes & Co. scored five consecutive first-half touchdowns to take a 35-7 lead en route to a 38-27 victory. Their performance was sadly overshadowed by the serious knee injury suffered by 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, but the Chiefs' offense is the most entertaining part of this NFL season through three weeks.
The numbers are truly staggering. Through three games, the Chiefs have scored 15 offensive touchdowns, tying them with the 1998 49ers and the 2013 Broncos for the most touchdowns through the first three games of the year since the merger. They join the 2007 Patriots as the only team since 1970 to score five or more touchdowns in each of their first three games.
Mahomes deserves his own section. He has become the first quarterback in league history to throw 13 touchdown passes over the first three games of a season. He is averaging 12.4 adjusted yards per pass over the first three weeks, which would be the second-best start to a season in league history for a player with 25 passes or more per game, placing Mahomes just in between seasons from Otto Graham (1953) and Tom Brady (2007). The fact that the Texas Tech product is pulling this off in his second, third and fourth career starts makes this even more remarkable.
Obviously, plenty of organizations across the league are looking enviously at the Chiefs and wishing their offense seemingly generated points at will. As much as they might imagine having Mahomes in their building, a good chunk of the league had its chance. Ten teams passed on their shot at drafting Mahomes, including the Browns, Bears, Jets and Bills, each of whom drafted a quarterback in the top 10 of the 2017 or 2018 drafts.
If they can't have Mahomes, the next best thing for an organization to do is copy what the Chiefs did to get their star quarterback and build a transcendent offense around him. Here are the lessons the NFL can learn from the Chiefs and their record-setting start to the season:
Don't be afraid of the spread
Not the gambling spread or the postgame spread, but the spread offense. Despite the fact that we've seen spread concepts infiltrate virtually every single college football attack over the past 15 years, the NFL has seen it more as a nuisance than anything else. While there have been exceptions (with the Patriots as a notable early adopter), there have been plenty of successful coaches around the league who were skeptical of both the spread and the read-option concepts that helped fill in its running game.
Bruce Arians called the read-option "a great college offense" in 2013 and followed up by suggesting spread signal-callers "weren't real quarterbacks" in 2015. Mike Tomlin called the read-option the "flavor of the month" in comparing it to the Wildcat. Ex-players and coaches have complained about the quality and technique of quarterbacks and offensive linemen coming out of college, suggesting it's responsible for a decline in the quality of NFL play last season. Even the general idea that the NFL used to be better goes back 25 years.
Reid, who spent his assistant-coaching career learning the West Coast offense under Bill Walsh disciple Mike Holmgren in Green Bay, could easily have been one of those coaches who relied on what he knew to continue working. Holmgren, for one, was skeptical of the development curve for spread passers heading to the pros, noting how they needed to adapt to playing from under center.
Instead, the former Eagles coach spent years building to this moment. Reid incorporated some spread concepts with Michael Vick during his final few years in Philadelphia, but the learning curve accelerated after the Chiefs hired former Vikings coach Brad Childress to serve as their spread game analyst and special projects coordinator in March 2013. Reid also hired former Nevada coach Chris Ault, who developed the pistol offense and launched Colin Kaepernick's career, to serve as a consultant.
Over the ensuing five years, the Chiefs integrated more spread concepts into their offense for Alex Smith, who played in the spread under Urban Meyer at Utah. The spread and the read-option aren't the same thing, but read-option statistics are a useful proxy for a team's comfort with spread principles. According to ESPN Stats & Information, the Chiefs used the read-option on 28 rushing plays in 2013. That number rose to 41 in 2014, 64 in 2015, 74 in 2016, and 87 last season. Ault left to go coach in Europe after two seasons, and Childress followed former offensive coordinator Matt Nagy out the door to Chicago this past offseason, but the Chiefs are quite clearly comfortable employing what they've learned.
The solution to Holmgren's concerns about employing a spread quarterback like Mahomes under center? Just don't put him there. Mahomes has thrown 85 of his 93 passes out of the pistol or shotgun this season, the fourth-highest percentage in the league among starting quarterbacks. The Chiefs have run 17 read-option plays through three weeks, putting them on pace for 90. Those runs have generated only 37 yards, but it has been a devastating short-yardage tactic, producing five first downs.
One of the ways to combat concerns about offensive line play is to terrify teams with five eligible receivers and dare defenses to get to the quarterback before he gets the ball out. Mahomes spent plenty of time working out of empty backfields during his time at Texas Tech under Kliff Kingsbury in the Air Raid. Mahomes has been an absolute demon out of empty sets this season. When he has been by himself in the backfield, he is 15-of-18 for 208 yards with three touchdowns, no interceptions and a passer rating of 154.4 without ever being sacked.
Reid also has popularized plays that saw success in college spread attacks at the professional level. Last year, it was the power read shovel concept near the goal line, a play that a handful of teams around the league were running by midseason. This season, the Chiefs have installed what is known perhaps most commonly as a "touch pass," which is essentially an end-around from a jet sweep, only with the motioning receiver running in front of the quarterback. While other teams have run the touch pass before in the NFL for a snap here or there, the Chiefs went to it for two touchdowns in Week 1. In the ensuing weeks, we've seen a number of teams add it to their playbooks.
It's fair to note that Mahomes doesn't fit the clichéd ideas of what failed spread quarterbacks from the past lacked. He had the freedom and responsibility to both define protections and change plays before the snap. He was capable of reading the entire field and making throws when his first two or three options weren't open. Crucially, though, he also has the arm strength to make the smallest of passing windows count and to scare teams that leave their cornerbacks on an island one-on-one downfield.
At the same time, the league is growing more comfortable with schemes and concepts that were once written off as gimmicky. The Air Raid was once a scheme designed to give Hal Mumme's Iowa Wesleyan, Valdosta State and Kentucky teams a chance to compete with bigger schools full of better athletes. When Kentucky quarterback Tim Couch failed to develop into a superstar after being drafted with the first overall pick, the league seemed to sour on valuing spread quarterbacks, reducing them mostly to late-round picks as roster filler. Exceptions such as Brandon Weeden and Kevin Kolb also failed to impress in larger roles.
Things are changing. The Rams used the first overall pick on Jared Goff after he excelled as an Air Raid quarterback at Cal, and while he struggled in his first season, Goff eventually rounded into an excellent quarterback under Sean McVay. The Eagles won the Super Bowl with a heavy dosage of mesh, the double crossing route concept that stands as the most notable play of the Air Raid offense. Their quarterback in that game was Nick Foles, who was an Air Raid quarterback at Arizona. He took over for Carson Wentz, who ran a spread offense at North Dakota State. The coach putting that all together was Doug Pederson, who was running what Broncos cornerback Chris Harris Jr. characterized as a college offense after the Eagles dropped 51 on Denver in midseason. And Pederson, of course, was a West Coast quarterback who taught himself the spread to coach in high school before serving as an assistant under Reid.
Get a quarterback of the future before you need a quarterback of the future
While there were rumors linking the Chiefs to Mahomes before the 2017 draft, it seemed like the sort of stuff we see around teams with veteran quarterbacks in their mid-30s every season. The Steelers, for one, also were linked to Mahomes. While Mahomes' upside was obvious, it was also a relatively controversial pick. Kansas City has been a perennial contender under Reid and was coming off a 12-4 season that saw it narrowly lose to the Steelers in the playoffs. Wouldn't it make more sense to grab another weapon for Smith, or a cornerback to play across from Marcus Peters?
Instead, the Chiefs moved up ahead of the Texans, Saints and Cardinals by trading up from the 27th selection to the 10th pick, sending the Bills their third-round selection and their 2018 first-round pick for the privilege. (The Bills eventually turned the 27th pick into Tre'Davious White and used the two other selections as part of their packages to move up and grab Zay Jones and Tremaine Edmunds.) They drafted Mahomes even as it essentially reduced Smith to lame-duck status with two years left on the veteran's deal.
The timing of the move actually played in Kansas City's favor, and it's a time frame teams should consider emulating with their own quarterback process. Instead of sulking and requesting a trade, as Sam Bradford did after the Eagles drafted Wentz, Smith responded to the challenge and delivered his best year as a pro. The Chiefs were then able to trade Smith to Washington for a third-round pick and Kendall Fuller, recouping some of the cost of trading up to grab Mahomes.
Furthermore, the Chiefs were able to give Mahomes a year to refine his mechanics and grow comfortable in the Kansas City scheme without having to take over a competitive team. He threw only 35 passes during his debut campaign, starting a meaningless Week 17 game against the Broncos without the benefit of Tyreek Hill or Travis Kelce. While Smith had his best professional season, the Chiefs resisted the urge to switch to Mahomes during the offense's midseason lull, with Reid instead turning over playcalling duties to Nagy.
Plenty of teams talk about wanting to give their first-round passer time to develop before inserting him into the lineup, but few organizations actually follow through with their plans in reality. Teams that draft quarterbacks generally don't have a viable option under center, so when their placeholder struggles, the roars of the crowd usually convince coaches to make a move. We've already seen four of the five quarterbacks taken in the first round of this year's draft make their move into the lineup, with 32nd overall pick Lamar Jackson as the lone exception.
It's impossible to come up with a best-fit plan that applies to every single quarterback, but it's also fair to note that first-round picks who spent most of their rookie seasons (or more) on the bench were able to hit the ground running when they did enter the lineup. When you look over the list of quarterbacks who threw 50 pass attempts or fewer during their debut season over the past 20 years, you'll find QBs like Mahomes, Aaron Rodgers, Philip Rivers, Daunte Culpepper, Chad Pennington and Carson Palmer, most of whom had instant success after entering the lineup for good. (You'll also see J.P. Losman, Brady Quinn and Johnny Manziel, because the Bills and Browns are the Bills and Browns.)
There's not a large enough sample to say with any authority that teams should use a first-round pick on a passer and superglue him to the bench for a year before ever letting him see the field. There's also the lost year of value with a rookie contract under the current CBA, given that part of the proposition in trading for a quarterback is to acquire a guy who can keep you competitive while making a fraction of the market value for passers.
At the same time, though, Mahomes has gone from looking like arguably the third-best quarterback in his draft class to standing out as the best quarterback in the league through three weeks. The process of sitting and watching clearly worked for him, as it has for other passers who made huge strides during their year on the sidelines. As tempting as it is to get the quick fix of a would-be rookie sensation, teams looking to rebuild their quarterback situation might be smart to let their new passer wait on the sidelines and learn for a year.
Make bets on the offensive line
It sure seems like a lot of successful teams go after offensive line help, huh? The Chiefs have made their line a priority since Reid and former general manager John Dorsey arrived in 2013 and used the first overall pick on left tackle Eric Fisher. Fisher signed an extension and is joined at tackle by Mitchell Schwartz, whose five-year, $33 million deal is one of the best veteran bargains in football. Schwartz is one of the best right tackles in the AFC.
On the interior, Reid has been able to draft and find useful contributors. He inherited a line with Jeff Allen and Rodney Hudson, who went on to sign massive deals in free agency to play elsewhere. The former offensive line coach replaced them by developing linemen. In the sixth round of the 2014 draft, Reid drafted Zach Fulton and Laurent Duvernay-Tardif. Fulton left for the Texans this offseason, but Dr. Duvernay-Tardif signed a five-year, $43 million extension after just two years as a starter. He has emerged as a Pro Bowl-caliber guard when healthy.
One year later, the Chiefs used their second-round pick on Mitch Morse, who slots in at center. The left guard job has gone to Cameron Erving, a former first-rounder who was acquired for a fifth-round pick after failing to develop with the Browns. The Chiefs declined his fifth-year option but gave Erving a two-year extension worth a maximum of $15.7 million if he emerges as a useful starter.
Contrast this to the Texans, who are starting 2016 second-round pick Nick Martin alongside former utility linemen Fulton and Senio Kelemete, both signed as free agents in the hopes they could emerge as full-time starters. Their tackles are rookie third-rounder Martinas Rankin and 2017 fourth-rounder Julie'n Davenport, the latter of whom committed five penalties during Sunday's loss to the Giants. Deshaun Watson is being pressured more than any other quarterback in the league. Mahomes might be good enough to succeed anywhere, but he's lucky to have found a home in a spot with a very good offensive line and a coach who has brought along plenty of draft picks.
Target athletes in the middle rounds, even at the expense of size
It's true that the Chiefs went out of their way to hand a massive contract to Sammy Watkins, who signed a three-year, $48 million deal this offseason. Outside of Watkins, though, the Chiefs found the weapons of their offense in the middle rounds. They used a third-round pick in the 2013 draft on Kelce, who missed virtually all of his rookie season after undergoing microfracture knee surgery. Kelce came back and quickly became a matchup nightmare for opposing linebackers. He hasn't missed a game since.
In 2017, the Chiefs used a third-round pick on Kareem Hunt, the sixth back taken in his class. Hunt immediately had to step into the starting lineup after Spencer Ware went down with a season-ending injury, and while Hunt fumbled on his first professional touch, Reid kept faith in his rookie back and saw him rip apart the Patriots in a star-making performance. Hunt finished the season with a league-high 1,327 rushing yards.
Hill fell to the fifth round of the 2016 draft after being dismissed from the Oklahoma State program for assaulting his pregnant girlfriend. Hill's crime was repulsive and has been well-documented. The reality, though, is that Hill has turned into one of the best wideouts in football, and would have been a second- or third-round pick had he not committed such an unspeakable crime.
In Hill, Hunt and Kelce, the Chiefs were able to find three mismatches on a play-after-play basis in their passing game without spending anything more than a third-round pick. They're supplemented in the lineup by fellow midround selections Chris Conley, Demarcus Robinson and De'Anthony Thomas, each of whom has either prototypical size or speed. Ware is back and remains on a team-friendly two-year, $3.6 million deal. Even fullback Anthony Sherman is a useful part of the passing game at a fraction of what the 49ers paid for Kyle Juszczyk.
When I went through the league's arsenals this offseason and found that the Chiefs had the best weapons in the league, even I was surprised. Three weeks isn't enough to confirm that finding, but we're seeing just how the Chiefs can devastate opposing defenses. Mahomes has at least one mismatch and usually more than one on every single play. When teams throw out zone coverage, Mahomes has the arm strength to find tiny windows and find Kelce and Watkins. When they're in man, Hill can run past them or Hunt can run over them, as he did in Week 2.
Break the rules of what we know about the NFL
OK, so this one isn't repeatable. There are elements of what the Chiefs are doing this season that even they won't be able to keep up as the season goes along. They've scored 11 touchdowns on 12 trips to the red zone while converting 50 percent of their third downs. Mahomes hasn't thrown an interception, and the Chiefs have just one lost fumble across their 32 offensive possessions. They're averaging 3.5 points per possession in a league in which the only team in the modern era to top 3.0 points per drive was the 2007 Patriots, who were at 3.2 points per trip.
That's the terrifying thing about these Chiefs: They could regress toward the mean and still be right up there with the Rams, Saints and Buccaneers as the best offenses in football. Mahomes is going to have a pass tipped in the air here or there. He'll make a bad decision in the red zone. They'll lose Watkins for a couple of weeks with injuries. Reid will mismanage the clock in a key situation. That stuff will happen, because it happens to good teams. Their defense probably isn't good enough to win a playoff game if Mahomes and the offense don't make it to 20 points, although the unit had its best showing of the season against the 49ers on Sunday. The Chiefs are also still waiting to get Eric Berry back after he tore his Achilles in the opener last year, and he would give a massive boost to the Kansas City secondary.
After three glorious weeks of offense, though, the Chiefs look to be in great shape. The second-best team in the AFC right now is the Dolphins, who have an even less sustainable red zone defense and wins over the Titans, Jets and Raiders. The Patriots and Steelers are off to slow starts. The AFC West looks eminently winnable with the Raiders at 0-3, the Chargers at 1-2, and the Broncos probably the worst of the league's 2-1 teams. Kansas City has a 72.4 percent chance of winning the division, according to the ESPN Football Power Index, and while Chiefs fans might have had a pit in their stomach at the idea of going to the postseason with Smith under center, Mahomes may very well be a different animal.
There's another team that embodies many of these principles, of course, and it should be no surprise who helped mold them. The Eagles traded up for Wentz despite having Bradford on the roster, surrounded him with weapons after Year 1, and built their offense to take advantage of his success in the spread as opposed to trying to coach him into something he isn't. They certainly have a better defense than the Chiefs, but the same guiding principles went into building up Reid's old team, too.
Even if organizations don't copy the Reid plan line by line, there are individual lessons to be learned. If you draft a quarterback a year before you think you'll need him and let him sit, you might never need to rebuild. When your offensive infrastructure is sound, you can find weapons in the middle of the draft. If you embrace the change welling up in high school and college football, you'll beat other teams to the punch instead of waiting to see what the new trend is and then copying it. Reid was at the forefront of the league's passing revolution over the past two decades. Now, 20 years into his head-coaching career, Reid remains on the cutting edge with the league's most explosive offense.