Nothing is easier than to punt. In so many situations we defer and let events decide us. Which is why you root for the Kansas City Chiefs to be in a close one just to see Andy Reid do it again, conjure up a fourth-down play that turns the game. The pressure mounts as the last strip of sun lowers over the stadium rim, his players exhale in plumes, the fans pulse in their arterial red, all of them awaiting his call, while Reid calmly studies that laminated play card as if he’s the only un-anxious man on the field. As if he’s about to sharpen a pencil.
The ticking play clock multiplies the tension as Reid gazes at that densely packed card, which by game’s end is as smeared as a kid’s place mat. Then he murmurs into a headset, and suddenly everything moves — and shifts into organized flights. Over and over again in the past two Super Bowl seasons Reid has summoned a decisive fourth-down call, chosen creative action over inertia and defied expectations with what tight end Travis Kelce has called his ability to “mirror stuff up.” Along the way he has rewritten his legacy, going from the amiable guy who couldn’t win the big trophy to the most feared aggressor in the game.
“If the coaches are flinching, if the players — your leaders — are flinching, it’s not going to happen,” Reid said last week. “And our locker room is not going to flinch.”
For most coaches, fourth and short (defined as three yards or less) is a torturously problematic decision. A 2018 analysis by Michael Lopez, a professor at Skidmore and the NFL’s director of data and analytics, showed that a more aggressive fourth-down strategy would increase team win totals by almost half a victory per season. Yet while coaches are bolder than they used to be, many of them still balk. For good reason. Men are not data. They can fail to execute. As Bill Cowher has said, “There is so much more involved with the game than just sitting there, looking at the numbers and saying, ‘Okay, these are my percentages, then I’m going to do it this way,’ because that one time it doesn’t work could cost your team a football game, and that’s the thing a head coach has to live with, not the professor.”
What’s more, data can be deceiving. A follow-up study by Lopez in 2019 based on tracking player movement showed that fourth-down success depends heavily on the exact distance. Coaches who went for it on fourth and inches had a 79 percent conversion rate. But on fourth-and-one distances of a long yard or more, the rate fell to 55 percent. The variables of player behavior, formations, audibles, motion, reactiveness of opponents, in the space of just a yard, can make fool’s gold out of the probabilities. “Football is really hard to solve,” Lopez says, “and the teams doing it best blend the numbers with all that is going on in coaches’ heads.”
Somehow, Reid cuts through all the doubts in his head. He has a confidence on fourth down that his adversaries simply don’t — especially in the playoffs. In the past five postseasons, NFL coaches have gone for it on fourth and short just 37.6 percent of the time. Reid? He has gone for it fully 60 percent of the time. In the past two games alone, he has elected to go for it three times, and he hasn’t come up shy yet. He’s 3 for 3.
“I think it goes to the core of what he stands for, his core motto that he wants to live by and coach by, which is, ‘Fear nothing,’ ” says Washington quarterback Alex Smith, who spent five seasons with Reid in Kansas City. “He’s not going to play scared or coach scared. He’s not going to be conservative. He’s going to be aggressive. He would always say, ‘When in doubt, go deep.’ ”
Still, it’s one thing to gamble and another to win. Any fool can throw dice. Reid is not gambling on those calls — they’re highly deliberated moves by the game’s most intricate thinker and effective judo thrower. Twice now in AFC championship games, Reid has used early fourth-down daringness to switch the momentum.
A year ago, the Chiefs trailed the Tennessee Titans 10-0 when they faced fourth and two in field goal range. Reid called for a rope-line of a pass from Patrick Mahomes to Kelce, and the Titans never recovered. Same thing last week against the Buffalo Bills. The Chiefs trailed 9-0 and had fourth and one at the Buffalo 23. What did Reid do? He declined the field goal and instead put Mahomes in the shotgun for a nine-yard completion — and, with that, the wheels popped out of the ditch and the Chiefs went on a tear of three straight scoring drives to take a 21-12 lead into halftime.
As former Pro Bowl safety turned ESPN announcer Ryan Clark observed, “These boys play the AFC championship game like a game of H.O.R.S.E. against your little cousins.”
What is Reid’s secret? Inspiration? Instinct? Actually, it’s something far more banal: practice. Washington Coach Ron Rivera, who spent five years under Reid as an assistant from 1999 to 2003, says: “I can guarantee you it is very, very well practiced and rehearsed. He leaves very little to chance.”
Reid’s taming of uncertainty is made easier by the galvanic arm and legs of the best quarterback in the game, Mahomes, and all but unguardable receivers such as Kelce and the fleet Tyreek Hill. But what makes the 25-year-old Mahomes and company so effective is that they’re so well schooled, giving Reid myriad options. Reid has always been a renowned teacher of the game — he has spawned 10 playoff coaches from among his former assistants — but the best job he has ever done, arguably, is in imparting the full picture of his vast offense to Mahomes, aided by his coordinator, Eric Bieniemy.
“You understand why they’re calling the plays,” Mahomes says. “And not just the play that’s called but what they’re building up to. I understand exactly why we’re calling every single play we’re calling.”
The result is a mutual conviction between Reid and his players on those critical fourth downs: to grab hold of the game before it ebbs away.
“In this league, you’ve got to stay aggressive all the time. I mean, teams are just too good,” Reid said this week. “… There’s so much parity in this league and such a small margin between winning and losing, even in the regular season, that you’re not going to be using too many four-corner stalls. That’s just not how you’re going to roll.”
Still, that doesn’t explain how Reid found the nerve to make the most audacious play call of this postseason, that stunner of a fourth-and-one pass with 1:17 left in the divisional round to ice the Cleveland Browns, when backup Chad Henne had to take over for Mahomes.
“There was no doubt with anybody,” Reid said later. Just before he sent in the play calling for the pass from Henne to Hill — again from the shotgun — Reid turned to Bieniemy and asked, “You ready to roll?” Bieniemy answered, “Absolutely.”
Reid and Bieniemy had hashed out an array of potential fourth-down calls earlier in the week, and they went over it again Saturday evening. “We talk through the plan the night before,” Bieniemy said earlier this season of their process. “There is a plan, and there is a conversation. Sometimes those conversations can be a little heated, sometimes they’re very easy to have, but they’re always exciting.”
When Henne casually lined up in the shotgun, fully seven yards behind the line of scrimmage for a play that needed just inches, no one in the stadium thought a pass was on. CBS analyst Tony Romo assumed the Chiefs were trying to draw the Browns offside, and Smith, watching at home, also assumed it was “fake snap, a dummy play, just like everyone else.” Then the ball was snapped and Henne sprinted out, and Romo started hollering:
“ONLY ANDY REID GETS IN SHOTGUN ON FOURTH AND AN INCH AND THROWS THE BALL WITH HIS BACKUP QUARTERBACK!!!”
After predicting there wouldn't be a snap, Tony Romo lost his mind when the Chiefs went for it to seal the win. pic.twitter.com/sQuyOAibzz— Awful Announcing (@awfulannouncing) January 17, 2021
It was a classic instance of Reid crossing up the opponent, a mirror trick played on their assumptions about what they were seeing. Reid’s penchant for showing a certain look only to double back against expectations is the upshot of exhaustive film study, not just of opponents’ tendencies but of his own. Smith observes, “He does a good job of evaluating himself, every game.” His ability to make opponents outthink themselves is something of a standing joke among his former assistants. “We’d sit in meetings and say, ‘They know that he knows that they know,’ ” Rivera says.
But none of it would matter if Reid didn’t possess one quality above all: the willingness to accept consequences for his decisions. Until last season, remember, Reid’s record in the playoffs was 13-14, and he had lost five of six conference title games. “There are two sets of consequences, right?” Rivera says. “Positive consequences. Negative consequences.” Somehow, Reid found a way to live with the losses and kept making the hard calls. His gift, Rivera says, is the ability to block out fear of the repercussions and not let them cloud his judgment. “The more you think about the negative consequences, the more often you make a bad call,” Rivera says.
Lately, there have been nothing but good calls.
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