Kansas City Chiefs
Kansas City Chiefs

About 45 minutes or so into our conversation, Chiefs offensive coordinator Matt Nagy hit me with a point of clarification—in the bedlam of the postgame locker room, he and I had gone over Kansas City’s fourth-and-1 play call, and I was actually a bit off in how I saw it.

I’d asked if it was a zone-read concept. He said it was. Technically, conceptually, that wasn’t wrong. But he told me Friday that he’d actually mixed up the call with Patrick Mahomes’s big run earlier in Super Bowl LVIII, one that chewed up 22 yards in the third quarter and set up Harrison Butker’s 57-yard field goal. That one, it turns out, was the run-pass option play. The later one, on maybe the biggest snap of the entire game, was just made to look like one.

To me, in the moment, they looked pretty much identical.

Which was exactly the idea.

Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes warms up as offensive coordinator Matt Nagy looks on.

“Put it this way—it’s good that you’re asking this question, because we want them to all look the same,” Nagy says. “They can look very, very similar. That’s ultimately our goal is to make stuff look the same. Within the call, we have to make the decision as to whether we want it to be one where he’s reading the end or one where we’re just going to say, ‘We’re going to take a chance on you pulling the ball, making it look like a run [to the back].’ So it’s going to look the same, but we know inside the huddle that we’re pulling it.”

Football minutiae? Sure.

But to me, it also illustrated why these Chiefs are so hard to beat.

On one hand, you have Andy Reid’s ever-evolving offense, one with West Coast roots that continues to adapt to the times—in the early days ex-Nevada coach Chris Ault came in to help Reid, Nagy and Doug Pederson better understand and implement the pistol and some of the option concepts coming out of the college game—and grows off its foundation to become tougher to deal with by the day.

On the other hand, there’s a simpler way to explain all this, and that’s to just say, without qualifiers, the game was on the line and it was time to put the ball in the hands of the best player in the sport, a player who’s just 28 years old and seemingly getting harder and harder to vanquish on these, the biggest of stages.

From there, as Nagy and I worked our way through the rest of our talk, I was busy adding those two things together in my head, with a single thought rattling around up there.

Good luck to everyone trying to stop this.

Welcome to our first offseason MMQB of 2024! Over in the Takeaways, we’ve got a lot for you, including …

• Some pretty amazing silver linings from the awful scene at Wednesday’s parade.

• A dive into why the top-three picks in this year’s draft should have such great value.

• More on Jimmy Garoppolo, Kirk Cousins and teams in the market for quarterbacks.

But we’re starting with one final look back at last Sunday’s epic Super Bowl.

Welcome to my annual week-after review of the Super Bowl.

This is the third time I’ve gone at it with the Chiefs. Four years ago, I dove into the defensive effort that Steve Spagnuolo’s crew put together against the Niners. Last year, I worked with offensive linemen Trey Smith and Creed Humphrey on how Kansas City’s physical edge was established up front.

This year, I’ve decided not to overthink it, just go with what’s obvious, and examine one of the greatest marriages of coaching staff and quarterback I’ve ever seen.

We’re going to dive into the offense Reid has built with lieutenants like Nagy, Pederson and Eric Bieniemy over the last decade and how, in so many ways, Mahomes’s greatness has leveraged it to make Kansas City so unstoppable when it counts—even after a season in which the Chiefs looked as vulnerable as they have at any point since No. 15 became a starter in 2018.

I figured the best way to do that was to pull a number of plays and sequences, with the help of Nagy, that would illustrate just how difficult it’s become to deal with this particular quarterback running this particular offense.

So let’s dive in …

Cheifs’ Isiah Pacheco runs past the 49ers defense in Super Bowl 58.

Situation: Down 22–19, 3:33 left in overtime, first-and-10, Niners 41
Result: Four-yard completion to Isiah Pacheco on a checkdown
What it meant: I had a coach tell me last week that maybe what he was most impressed with, growth-wise, in watching Mahomes’s Super Bowl tape was how quickly he’d get through his progressions on a downfield concept to his checkdown—almost as if there was no hitch after he saw the shots weren’t there. So I asked Nagy about that.

He raised two checkdowns in the second quarter to Pacheco as good examples, and then this one, where he slid past Arik Armstead to get the ball out to the flat. Nagy also told me that if it looked like it was happening lightning fast, there was a reason for that.

“We always talk about the touchdown-to-checkdown mentality—we say that a lot,” Nagy says. “Pat, there’s been times in his career where he’ll let one fly, and there might be one or two guys around. It’s just the trust and being able to say, ‘We’re going to let it fly. Go up and make the play.’ But what he’s been turning to with some of the defenses we’ve been seeing with these safeties playing deep and teams knowing that we have that touchdown to check down mentality is just that.

“It might look like he’s getting to it quickly, but he already knows at the snap when those safeties are going back with a lot of depth, and even more so the linebackers. … Hey, it’s OK to be able to just check the ball down and stay ahead of the sticks and be at second-and-6 instead of second-and-10.

And in this particular case, his ability to do that was even more nuanced. The Niners, as Chiefs coaches saw it, were doing an excellent job reacting to the perimeter screen game. Kansas City responded by running more downfield concepts to vertically stretch a defense that had been geared up horizontally. When San Francisco covered that, Mahomes then could check the ball down and effectively get what the screen would’ve given him anyway.

Which took something he was doing well anyway, and created a pick-your-poison element for the opponent late in the game—which is part of why the Chiefs scoring drives late in the game were so deliberate (12, 11 and 10 plays, respectively).

Situation: Down 10–3, 7:16 left in the third quarter, third-and-4, Chiefs 31
Result: Four-yard scramble
What it meant: Game awareness, plain and simple. After the AFC title game, Reid and Nagy both told me that a sack Mahomes took in the fourth quarter was among his best plays, because it showed an incredible ability to know exactly what his team needed while he was under duress (the 40 seconds running off the clock was more important than the lost yardage by not throwing the ball away). And he had a similar moment in the third quarter of the Super Bowl.

The Chiefs were, quite simply, off to a horrific start in the second half. They’d fumbled an exchange and Mahomes had a pick, and they were losing the field-position battle badly. Something was needed to turn the tide, and this snap became it.

“It wasn’t there, so he decided to take off,” Nagy says. “Even within that run, the one thing he does well is, even if you can just get one of the defenders chasing you to just hesitate just one split second, that can be a big difference. He did that on that run where he just raised his arm and helped fake it, just a little bit, just enough to make the pursuit from inside slow enough. Then he had our wide receiver on the outside, he was blocking, the DB came off.

“Then it was: This is the part of the game right here. This is a critical third down where I need to sacrifice my body, lower my shoulder, not slide and try to do everything I can to get a first down and not go to fourth-and-short. That’s an example of him always being aware.”

Mahomes’s shoulder landed in Deommodore Lenoir’s chest and the quarterback chopped his feet with Armstead closing in to pick up the first down, and the Chiefs wound up kicking the 57-yarder to stop post-half bleeding.

Situation: Down 3–0, 13:01 left in the second quarter, first-and-10, Chiefs 39
Result: 52-yard completion to Mecole Hardman
What it meant: You’ll remember this one, and, yes, a lot of it is the physical feat of being able to roll left, have all your momentum going that way and then pivot and unleash a dime some 75 yards down the right side of the field. It was an amazing, amazing throw. But it also showed Mahomes’s field vision and ability to process what was around him.

During the week, the coaches drilled Mahomes and the offense on what they call “air time” throws—shots where the quarterback sees his receiver downfield even with a safety. In such cases, the quarterback is instructed to let the ball go, on the gamble that the receiver should be open on a safety by the time the ball arrives.

So as we watched, Nagy told me to pause the video at Mahomes’s release point. Hardman was at even depth to Tashaun Gipson. So Mahomes threw it to a spot, betting Hardman would get there first. The bet paid off.

Even more interesting? Nagy pointed to Travis Kelce wide open about 25 yards downfield. Mahomes could’ve taken the easier money there. Instead, he followed his coaching and his instincts.

“His mindset was­ ‘It’s an airtime throw. We’ve been talking about it all week. Mecole’s been running this route all week. If it’s there, and I have time, I’m going to let it rip,’” Nagy says. “That’s exactly what he did. Now it’s up to Mecole to track the ball and to make the play. I think the ultimate deal is, there was a throw earlier this year where he threw a similar type of ball to Mecole. Mecole lost track of it, and it might have ended up being an interception or an incompletion.

“Point is, that just shows you the trust that he has.”

And while this one didn’t add up to point, it did work to start stretching the Niners defense that had done, again, such a good job on the screens.

Situation: Down 10–0, 2:00 left in the second quarter, third-and-9, Chiefs 40
Result: 21-yard completion to Justin Watson
What it meant: The Niners had just scored, and giving them the ball back with two minutes left would’ve been trouble for the Chiefs. So this was where Mahomes couldn’t play it conservative and take a loss, and hope it would work out.

He had to make a play. He would. And not in a way coaches told him to, but in a way they have now come to trust him to do,because he knows when and also where his team is.

First, he had to escape from Nick Bosa, then the scramble drill called for Kelce, Rashee Rice and Marquez Valdes-Scantling to work to Mahomes’s right, basically rolling with him, and for Watson to work back against the grain.

“He just makes a great throw across his body, which we always tell guys not to do running right to left like this; he makes a great throw to J-Wat where he can catch it, get vertical and get the first down,” Nagy says. “These types of moments, his field vision is crazy good. He sees everything. When you think he doesn’t see it, he sees it. That’s why when you’re a new receiver coming into this offense, you got to understand that you’re always alive. It doesn’t matter where you’re at on the field.”

So instead of punting and risking putting a gassed defense back out there and falling behind 17–0, the Chiefs set up Butker for a 28-yard chip shot field goal to make it a one-possession game with 20 seconds left in the half. And a whole new ballgame.

Situation: Down 19–16, 0:21 left in the fourth quarter, second-and-7, Niners 33
Result: Incompletion to Pacheco
What it meant: The first of two live-to-play-another down plays on the final drive. Mahomes had just been pulled to the ground scrambling, and the clock was running. The Chiefs couldn’t waste a down and they couldn’t waste clock.

“It’s first-and-10. We call a play. We drop back. Pat pushes up in the pocket and gets basically a three-yard scramble,” Nagy says. “Now, in this situation, we have one timeout left. The clock’s running, our running back is way downfield. You’ll see in the video, Pacheco’s running back, and the clock’s running. As the clock is running, it’s 29, 28, 27, 26, 25, and we’re at the 33-yard line. Some people may have called a timeout with 30-something seconds and had more time.

“But we ran a play. In this play, Pat drops back, doesn’t like what he sees.”

What he sees is Rice open over the middle, and Pacheco in the flat. The problem is that both are probably open for no more than 3 or 4 or 5 yards, and both would likely be tackled inbounds, and in both cases, the Chiefs would have to burn their final timeout, and line up for a field goal. So …

“He just casually throws the ball over Pacheco, over his head,” Nagy says, “and the clock stops.”

The nuance there—Mahomes is pinned in the pocket. He wants to throw it away. He also needs to avoid the grounding penalty. So he puts the ball just over Pacheco’s head, knowing they won’t throw the flag there if he can get an uncatchable ball close enough. On the next snap, Kelce converts third-and-7 for 22 yards to create another situation just like this one.

Situation: Down 19-16, 0:10 left in the fourth quarter, first-and-10, Niners 11
Result: Incompletion to Kelce
What it meant: To illustrate this one, Nagy went back to a play in the final two minutes of the first half, where Rice ran a route underneath Kelce’s, and the Chiefs caught Fred Warner trying to switch on to Rice, which allowed Rice to chew out 11 yards. The concept here was the same, this time Watson (rather than Kelce) lining up inside, and Rice again coming open in the middle of the field, potentially for the game-winning score.

The problem? The timing of the play was thrown off at the snap; Mahomes had to take his eyes off the defense and the pocket closed down. Mahomes knew he could trust that Rice would be there. But if he got tackled, the Chiefs would have to burn their last timeout. So he fired a back-shoulder throw off to the pylon at Kelce, where one of two things would happen—either they’d win the game on a catch or the clock would stop on an incompletion.

Which is an example of how quickly Mahomes processed the consequences of, well, just about everything out there, and played the percentages in a split-second.

“That’s a great way to say, I’m not taking a sack,” Nagy says. “I know where my guy’s at. I know he has a one-on-one versus Fred WarnerThe coaches always say ‘Get the ball out on time and in rhythm,’ and that’s what I’m going to do.” Bottom line? Because the timing wasn’t there, he wouldn’t be on time to Rice, so “he does a great job of throwing it to one of the best players on the team and giving him a chance to win it without risking taking a sack.”

Which gave the Chiefs the option to run another play with six seconds left. They, of course, decided to just kick it there to force overtime. But Mahomes at least gave Reid the choice.

Chiefs celebrate Super Bowl 58 win vs. 49ers

Hardman only had three receptions in the Super Bowl, but two of them were key to the Chiefs’ win.

Kohjiro Kinno/Sports Illustrated

Situation: Down 22–19, 0:06 left in overtime, first-and-goal, Niners 3
Result: Three-yard touchdown pass to Hardman, Super Bowl champs
What it meant: It meant, again, that Mahomes was processing a whole lot of information at once. Much has been made of the “Corn Dog” element to this one—which was there on Hardman’s route. But the rest was different than what we saw on the plays that led to the Chiefs winning last year’s Super Bowl.

And this is part of what makes how Reid’s offense is built so great. Nagy says, as the staff discussed using Corn Dog again, they saw two results as likely— “They’re either going to glove it and it’s going to be completely covered, or everyone will probably overreact and go to it.” So the coaches went to work on taking advantage of the potential that the latter would play out.

If the defense overreacted to the offense’s right to cover Hardman on the play, the thinking went, then the Chiefs would have numbers to the left. So they built a power shovel pass that way in going left with Corn Dog (Jet motion inside by the receiver, then doubling back outside to the corner) going right.

“Pat has a read,” Nagy says. “He has the ability to throw to Mecole right away if he feels like they’re outflanked in the flat. But Pat also has to be able to feel what’s going on between Jerick McKinnon, the running back, and Bosa, the defensive end.”

Indeed, Bosa is unblocked on the play. If he crashes down with McKinnon to cover the shovel, then Mahomes can pull it. And just as Bosa crashed down on his big runs earlier in the game, the All-World defensive end crashed on the final play of the game too. McKinnon still had three guys in front of him, but one of them, Nick Allegretti, tripped over the hard-charging Bosa, blowing up that side of the play. Processing all this in a split-second, Mahomes pulled the ball and threw it into a tight window to Hardman for the winner.

“We’ve been teaching RPOs for a long time,” Nagy says. “The one thing that we always tell ourselves as coaches is there’s a fine line on criticizing the quarterback if he makes the wrong read on an RPO. If there’s some gray area in a run-pass option, it’s our job as coaches to teach what we want to try to make it as clear and concise as possible. If there is gray area and they made the wrong decision, the last thing we can do is criticize them when they come to the sidelines if it’s gray. It’s not easy. Not everybody can process super fast. …

“On this one here, you have a quarterback that can do all that, that doesn’t predetermine and does a good job of processing, so the percentage of the play’s success rate goes up.”

Which, really, is where the Chiefs’ shot at more championships is now, too.

And that brings us back to where we started—with the zone-read/RPO concepts, real or contrived to look like it, that the Chiefs feasted on last Sunday.

The truth is, a big part of those came because of what the coaches saw early in the game.

Bosa was probably the best player on the field, and maybe the MVP of the Super Bowl, through three or so quarters. But he was also going hard in crashing down on run calls from the backside of the play, which, early on at least, caused issues for the Chiefs on the ground, issues as serious as those Bosa was creating as a pass-rusher.

“The one thing is that we knew was how much Bosa was crashing in that game,” Nagy says. “That was evident from the start. You never know what their rules are, what they’re being taught to do or not to do, but we just felt like this is going to continue, and we want to be able to use it to our advantage.”

So they did on the RPO run for 22 yards, the naked on fourth-and-1 (“which,” Nagy says, “was, Hey let’s just call it naked, we’ll make it look like we’re reading it, but then we’ll go ahead and try and get on the edge and outflank them”) and, in the end, the touchdown to Hardman, too.

Of course, none of it happens without a triggerman who can adjust on the fly and process fast enough to execute the concepts, and that’s the Mahomes that most folks don’t see.

“The way he prepares, I’ll never take for granted,” Nagy says. “He has a system to how he does it. I know a lot of guys do, but he’s developed that system over time. He sticks to it. The other guys that come into the building and end up following it, because they see how it goes and they see what he’s all about. Talk about creature of habit, that’s what he does—he takes it and he uses it to make the game easier for him when he’s on the field.

“His preparation is second to none. We can’t take that for granted.”

Nagy knows because every day, he feels the pressure of it, the same way Josh McDaniels or Bill O’Brien once did with Tom Brady, or the way Adam Gase and Mike McCoy used to with Peyton Manning—where you better be able to give a quarterback who knows just about everything something new to work on just about every day.

And in return for his very best, Mahomes has gotten the best of Reid.

Add them together and … yeah. Again—good luck, everyone.