Before Week 1, if you'd said that the Kansas City Chiefs would be undefeated halfway through the season, you'd have been chased up and down Blue Parkway by men with butterfly nets. Yet here we are, on the cusp of November, and the last undefeated team in the NFL plays at Arrowhead Stadium. How'd the Chiefs go from a 2-14 season to possible top playoff seed in the AFC?
Mainly, it's talent. Even when the Chiefs were horrible, viscous shit, they still had the makings of competence, on both sides of the ball. But it's also a near-perfect fit of roster and coach, on both sides of the ball.
Five players in Kansas City's starting front seven—Tyson Jackson, Dontari Poe, Justin Houston, Derrick Johnson, and Tamba Hali—have played their entire careers for the Chiefs. This gave Reid a head start, while former Philadelphia Eagles linebacker Akeem Jordan followed his old coach to his new team. Together, the unit has made for a brutally effective run defense (by Pro Football Focus's grades; Football Outsiders' DVOA is less impressed), but the pass rush has been an absolute monster.
Kansas City plays an aggressive, blitzing style of defense under new coordinator Bob Sutton, who came over from the Jets this offseason. It's transformed a pass rush that was average last year to the best in the NFL. Tamba Hali and Justin Houston have already combined for 20 sacks, and the Chiefs lead the league in adjusted sack rate—11%, a country mile ahead of the second place Jets' 9.5%. You see this every week, in plays like forcing Terrelle Pryor into a third-and-48, but it's also had a profound effect on the Chiefs' secondary.
New cornerbacks Sean Smith and Dunta Robinson have helped here, but Eric Berry, Kendrick Lewis, and Brandon Flowers were always there for the Chiefs' pass defense. Berry has been especially outstanding, particularly in coverage—he's surrendered only 20 catches on 33 throws, for 152 yards and no touchdowns. Last year, with a lack of a cohesive secondary, he gave up 40 catches on 63 throws for 489 yards and five touchdowns. That those completion numbers stay the same while the yardage plummets speaks a lot to the pass rush, but Berry has improved as well. Here's a good example of how he's grown.
In week 4 of last year, he gets completely turned around. The whole day, Antonio Gates owned Berry in man coverage. Berry was supposed to take away arguably Rivers's best target and failed, miserably.
Now here he is this year, against the Eagles in week 3. Berry's covering another tight end, Brent Celek. He plays man and correctly jumps the route for an incomplete pass. He isn't perfect—he gave up a silly interference penalty a few plays before this—but a combination of improved play and the absurd pass rush has made for a massive uptick in his performance.
In all, Kansas City is allowing 205.8 passing yards per game, fourth-best in the NFL. This is especially astounding because, on average, the Chiefs begin defensive possessions with a lead of more than six points—teams should be throwing to try to catch up, but the Chiefs aren't giving up yardage; they're just sacking the shit out of quarterbacks. Adding it up, the Chiefs have the third-best defensive DVOA in the game, according to Football Outsiders.
Like the defense, the offense largely comprises elements that were already in place. Linemen Branden Albert, Jeff Allen, Rodney Hudson, and Jon Asamoah were all early-round picks in the past few drafts, while first overall pick Eric Fisher was added at right tackle this season. The group still needs work—they've already allowed 24 sacks, eighth-highest in the NFL—but they've been effective enough to protect one outside player who's been vital to the team's whole scheme.
Alex Smith, after being haplessly booted out of a starting QB role with the San Francisco 49ers, found a new home with the Chiefs this past offseason. This wasn't a surprise: Reid had a near-obsession with Smith from college to the NFL, and has a history of succeeding with similar quarterbacks—just look at Jeff Garcia's 2006 playoff push in Philadelphia.
The best thing for Smith was that he wasn't coming into a situation where he'd be expected to create all of the offense. The "game manager" label can be stupid, but this actually is a case where a quarterback was brought in for his accuracy and aversion to turnovers and installed into a system that didn't ask for anything more. The Chiefs needed the stability desperately: Last season, KC had a turnovers per drive rate of .193, worst in the league. Think about that. Nearly every fifth drive ended with a fumble or interception.
Through 10 games in 2012, Smith held a 70.2 completion percentage and one 300-yard passing game; his highest yardage total in a game this season has been 288. In Smith's first eight starts in 2012, he had 12 passing TDs and five interceptions; he has nine TDs and four picks with the Chiefs. Here he is this past week. Smith breaks a tackle from Phil Taylor but ends up falling for a four-yard sack. Smith could have rushed a throw but instead, with a three-point lead in the fourth quarter, on first down, chose to not take a risk.
Unsurprisingly, Smith isn't flinging the ball deep, with only 16 attempts of 20 yards or more, according to Pro Football Focus. (For context, Aaron Rodgers has thrown that many to one third of the field.) Alex Smith is still Alex Smith, which is all Andy Reid wanted him to be. He's thrown 113 out of 286 attempts for no more than nine yards—many of those to the national treasure known as Jamaal Charles.
Charles is a horse. More importantly, he's Andy Reid's kind of horse. He's been on the field for 498 snaps, most out of any running back. The Texas product has rushed for 635 yards, second-best in the league, and he's caught almost 25 percent of Smith's completions. Charles's career-high for receptions is 45; he already has 41 in 2013. His 64 percent catch rate is disappointing, but that's because Smith has targeted him 58 times. Not only is Charles the Chiefs' leading rusher, he's their leading receiver, too. Out of 383 receiving yards, 301 have been after the catch. Charles's ability on screens and dump-offs has been critical to the success of Reid's offense.
It also helps that Charles has also been tougher to take down this year. He caused 18 missed tackles in 2012 and has already matched that total this season. And remember, Charles is coming off of a career-high 1509 yards in his first year back from a turn ACL, so it's conceivable his quickness is finally returning to pre-injury levels.
Speaking of the 2012 Chiefs, there was no bad luck involved there. Last year's team wasn't some misbegotten case of slipping on a banana peel; they were just putrid. Their schedule wasn't exactly tough, and Kansas City was truly awful in every aspect. There was that absurd turnover rate. The team's touchdowns per red zone appearance was substantially worse than any other team, at a rate of .270. (In second-worst place, the Cardinals' TDs/RZ rate was .400. Look at that dropoff!) Brady Quinn and Matt Cassel each started eight games, and combined for a season total of eight passing touchdowns.
If you want to take shots at the 8-0 start, point out that Kansas City still has to play Denver twice and Indianapolis once, arguably the hardest three games on the docket. (Like the Broncos, the Chiefs were gifted with a schedule that should have come with candles and frosting.) But by earning the best record in the NFL after eight games, Kansas City has a second half with little pressure. The division title might be out of the Chiefs' reach, but they're almost certainly earning a playoff spot. And those players who endured that 2012 theater of failure can at least appreciate such a quick turnaround with Reid.
Photo: Jamie Squire/Getty Images