Some Kansas City Chiefs fans are really nervous right now.
If they were following the team in the early 2000s under head coach Dick Vermeil, they remember the 2003 season, when the Chiefs had an unstoppable offense coupled with a poor defense. That combination was sufficient to bring the Chiefs to the postseason with a 13-3 record that assured a first-round bye.
But then came the infamous No-Punt Game against Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts. The Colts scored on every one of their drives, and the Chiefs scored on every one of theirs — except for one drive ending with a missed Morten Anderson field goal, and another ending with a fumble by Priest Holmes. It added up to a 38-31 victory for the Colts.
It would be a dozen years before the Chiefs returned to the divisional round of the playoffs.
And now, some Chiefs fans are worried it’s happening all over again.
So I thought I’d see if there’s really anything to be worried about. I picked seven commonly-used statistical categories to compare the 2003 and 2018 Chiefs on both offense and defense.
Because the two seasons are separated by 15 years — and more than a little has changed in the NFL since then — I’m going to show you the bare stats, but no rankings. Instead, I’ve calculated standard deviations from average for each of these statistics, and they will be expressed as letter grades — just as we do in our True Power Rankings roundup every week.
This solves two problems. First, comparing these stats with these letter grades allows us to compare these stats across the 15-year span between them; that’s one of the cool things about using standard deviations from average to compare them. Second, we won’t get ourselves worked up about differences in rankings that might not really be significant.
If none of this makes sense to you, read the final part of the TPR methodology — the part with the equal-distribution graph.
Or… just remember the rule: unless a grade is at least a full letter grade better (or worse) than another, the difference between the underlying stat is measurable, but not significant.
Kansas City Chiefs 2003 and 2018
Wow. Are you breaking out in a sweat yet? I know I am.
As you can see, the statistical parallels between these two Chiefs seasons are striking. Every single one of these 2003 statistics is within a full letter grade of its 2018 counterpart — except for defensive yards given up, which is worse than 2003.
So looking at this data, you can’t really blame anyone who has already concluded that the Chiefs will have a very successful regular season, and then fall by the wayside to some wild-card team — simply because the Chiefs defense isn’t up to the challenge of the postseason.
But it’s not time to give up on this season — not by a long shot.
I say this not because I have a fan’s faith that the Chiefs defense will improve. I say this because we have already seen it improve.
Yes, the Chiefs defense gave up more than 500 yards on Sunday against the Jacksonville Jaguars, but they also gave up the fewest number of points they have all season — and scored some of their own to boot. It started the week before in Denver, but you could really see it on Sunday in Kansas City. They were playing with fire and passion, and it changed the outcome of both games.
We’ve seen this before, you know.
In 2015 — when the Chiefs started the season 1-5 — the defense gave up 26.5 points per game in those first six games. But in the last two losses — the ones to the Chicago Bears and Minnesota Vikings — you could see something had clicked in the defense. The Chiefs lost those games, but the defense allowed just 23 points in them. And that continued. Over the rest of the season, the defense allowed just 12.8 points per game, and was a big part of the reason the Chiefs finished with 10 straight wins.
That doesn’t guarantee that for the rest of the season, the Chiefs defense will resemble what it was in the last two games more than it resembles what it was in the first three. But I’ve seen this movie before, and right now, I wouldn’t bet against the Chiefs defense.
However… for the sake of argument, let’s say I’m wrong. I’ve certainly been wrong before.
Let’s say that the last two games were an outlier, and the only way for the Chiefs to win games during the remainder of the season will be to put a lot of points on the board. Let’s say the Chiefs do just what they did in 2003, and finish the season 13-3. What’s to stop some other team from coming in to Arrowhead and taking advantage of a poor Chiefs defense?
Nothing. Nothing at all.
Except that there is one other thing that is different than it was in 2003: Peyton Manning is selling pizza and insurance, and Patrick Mahomes is the Chiefs quarterback. In 2003, the Colts offense under Manning was just as effective as the Chiefs offense under Trent Green — as the Colts proved in that playoff game.
But in 2018, there is no team in the AFC that compares to the Chiefs offense with Mahomes and his merry band of receivers. You can argue that the Los Angeles Rams and the New Orleans Saints have that kind of firepower available to them, but neither of those teams will face the Chiefs in January. February might be a different story, but we’ll just have to cross that bridge when we come to it.
So I understand if you want to worry about a repeat of the 2003 season. Based on what we’ve seen so far, it’s an entirely reasonable concern. But there’s reason to believe that in this case, history won’t repeat itself.