The 2015 Chiefs could provide a blueprint for life without Patrick Mahomes

OAKLAND, CA - DECEMBER 06: Alex Smith #11 of the Kansas City Chiefs hands the ball off to Spencer Ware #32 during their NFL game against the Oakland Raiders at Coliseum on December 6, 2015 in Oakland, California. (Photo by Jason O. Watson/Getty Images)
OAKLAND, CA - DECEMBER 06: Alex Smith #11 of the Kansas City Chiefs hands the ball off to Spencer Ware #32 during their NFL game against the Oakland Raiders at Coliseum on December 6, 2015 in Oakland, California. (Photo by Jason O. Watson/Getty Images) /
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The Kansas City Chiefs will need a whole new game plan while MVP quarterback Patrick Mahomes is out. Their 2015 team could provide the blueprint they need.

The Kansas City Chiefs may have come away from their Thursday night game with the Denver Broncos with a convincing 30-6 win on the scoreboard but the collected Chiefs Kingdom was terrified. As we all know at this point, star quarterback Patrick Mahomes suffered a dislocated knee in the game and, at the time, there was real fear that the reigning MVP could miss significant time—possibly even lost for the season.

We now know that Mahomes will likely only miss 2-4 games depending on which reports you hear. The 2019 season is not lost and the Chiefs simply need to find a way to survive his absence for a few weeks.

Prior to the game against the Broncos, the idea of winning without Patrick Mahomes would have seemed nearly impossible. The Chiefs run game and defense had been almost nonexistent, so the idea of them helping carry the load would have been laughable. However, that’s exactly what they did on Thursday night. The defense pummeled Joe Flacco, sacking him nine times. The run defense was much improved, and the Chiefs only allowed 6 points. The run game also stepped up a little bit. The Chiefs finished the night with 27 rushes for 80 yards. That doesn’t sound like much but after only averaging 12.5 carries and 44.5 yards rushing over the previous two games (both losses), it was a step in the right direction.

While the performance of the team on Thursday was encouraging, there is definitely reason to worry. The Broncos are a 2-5 football team and the Chiefs now find themselves with games against the 6-1 Green Bay Packers and 5-2 Minnesota Vikings coming up on the schedule. What are the odds that they can continue to build on their progress on the defensive side of the ball and in the run game against opponents that are much better teams than the Broncos?

While it seems a little daunting given some of their struggles before the Broncos game, I believe there is a blueprint out there for the Chiefs to win games with Matt Moore at quarterback. The good news is that the Chiefs coaching staff doesn’t need to look outside of their own team history to find it. The 2015 Chiefs team may be the perfect example for them to follow.

The 2015 season started out rough. The Chiefs were 1-5 and their best offensive weapon, Jamaal Charles was done for the year with an injury. The offense found itself with a game managing Alex Smith at quarterback. Tyreek Hill hadn’t been drafted yet so it was just Travis Kelce and an aging Jeremy Maclin to throw to and the run game would be left in the hands of a rotation of Spencer Ware and Charcandrick West. That doesn’t exactly sound like a scenario for a team to rip off 11 straight wins, but that’s exactly what the Chiefs did. They won their final 10 regular season games and then went on the road against the Houston Texans and won their first playoff game in many years.

The Chiefs didn’t win 11 straight games that year because Alex Smith caught fire and chucked the ball all over the stadium. The Chiefs stayed committed to running the football to keep defenses honest and just had Smith play within himself and do just enough to get the job done. In fact, during that 11 game stretch Smith only averaged the following.

  • 25.6 passing attempts per game
  • 17.5 completions per game
  • 68.4% completions
  • 7.6 yards per attempt
  • 191.2 passing yards per game
  • 15 touchdowns
  • 5 interceptions

Those numbers are a long ways from the 350.6 passing yards per game Mahomes was averaging entering the Denver game, but the Chiefs will be much more successful asking Moore to try and match those numbers than they would be asking him to try to replicate what Mahomes was doing before his injury. However, if you’re going to win games with only 191.2 passing yards per game you are going to have to run the football. Period.

I can hear some of you now. “But Lyle, they don’t have the players to run the football!” Well I would argue that their personnel is just as good now, if not better than it was in 2015. They just dedicated themselves to doing it. In 2015 their running backs for that 11 game win streak were Ware and West. I don’t feel those two are any better than the collection of backs they have this year, especially LeSean McCoy.

As far as the offensive line goes, in 2015 they had Eric Fisher at left tackle, a split between Jah Reid and Donald Stephenson at right tackle, first year starter Laurent Duvernay-Tardif at right guard, a split between Zach Fulton and Jeff Allen at left guard, and rookie Mitch Morse at center.

If the Chiefs get Eric Fisher back soon, I think the 2019 unit might actually be better because of the addition of All Pro right tackle Mitchell Schwartz. Without Fisher they are probably a little behind the 2015 unit, but not so much that it should prevent them from running the football if they set their minds to it.

Prior to the Mahomes injury I was already preparing a look at the run game and how they had abandoned it in their two previous losses. What I did is go through every start of Mahomes’ career and chart the number of actual running back carries in the first half of each game. I didn’t include quarterback runs or wide receiver runs. I wanted the actual number of times they ran a traditional running play. The reason I only included the first half numbers is because I was trying to avoid how running the ball a lot late in games when you are winning as well as abandoning the run late when you are behind can bias running stats. I wanted to know how much of a factor a traditional running game was in K.C.’s game plan in the first half while the Chiefs were trying to establish what they wanted to do.

Here’s what I found: In games Mahomes has started going back to week 17 of 2017 and including the playoff games last year, the Chiefs have averaged 7.6 running back carries in the first half of games. They have averaged 7.9 in their wins and 6.6 in losses. They averaged 7.7 in 2018 and 7.3 so far in 2019. However, in their two loses this season they only averaged 5.0 running back carries in the first half.

The Chiefs had 11 in the first half against Denver on Thursday and 8 of those came BEFORE Patrick Mahomes was injured. So it appears the Chiefs were determined to get the run game going even before their star quarterback went down. That same philosophy should serve Matt Moore well in his starts.

I went back and charted the first half running back carries for 2015 as well. Over the course of the 2015 season the Chiefs averaged 9.6 running back carries in the first half of games. During their early 5 game losing streak they only averaged 7.8 running back carries (even with a healthy Jamaal Charles for most of those games). Then during their 11 game win streak the first half carries jumped up to 10.1 per game even without their star running back.

The Chiefs made a conscious decision to help Alex Smith by committing to running the football. The idea is that even if you don’t get a ton of yards you still set yourself up for shorter and more efficient passes than if you end up in third and long. Plus, when you are committed to running the football you force the defense to play the run and it gives your passing game a little more room to operate.

During their 11 game win streak in 2015 the Chiefs averaged 4.4 yards per carry on those first half running back carries. That’s a fine number, but not outstanding. It wasn’t that they were prolific running the football, they were just committed to doing it. The Chiefs are capable of that this year as well. LeSean McCoty is currently averaging 5.4 yards per carry on the season and Darrel Williams is averaging a respectable 4.1 yards per carry as well. It’s really only been Damien Williams that has struggled, averaging just 1.7 yards per carry on the season.

If I was calling the shots for the Chiefs, my game plan would be to feed both McCoy and Darrel Williams early in the game to try and open things up for Matt Moore. Put him in manageable situations and then hope that guys like Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill can make some big plays for him once the defense has to start focusing more on the run game.

Obviously the defense plays a big role in this game plan working as well. If the Chiefs are going to be more of a ball control offense while Patrick Mahomes is out, the defense can’t be giving up a ton of points and yards. The good news is that the defense isn’t allowing a lot more points than they did back in 2015. That team only allowed 17.9 points per game and the Chiefs are currently allowing 21.4 points per game this season. While they are allowing 3.5 more points than they did in 2015, it is a big improvement over the 26.3 points per game they allowed last season.

The big difference between the 2015 defense and this team so far is the run defense. The passing yards allowed per game are very similar (231.1 per game in 2015 vs 228.6 in 2019), but the Chiefs are currently allowing 50 more rushing yards per game than they did that season and have already allowed 9 rushing touchdowns when they only allowed 7 all year in 2015. So it would appear that the key to pulling off a defense that can compliment a Moore-led offense is to build off their run defense against the Broncos. Denver rushed for just 71 yards and 3.4 yards per carry on Thursday night. Those numbers are significantly better than the 2015 numbers.

It certainly won’t be easy for the Chiefs to win games against the Packers and Vikings in the coming weeks without their star quarterback, but if the Chiefs can use both their win over the Broncos on Thursday and their success with a similar type of offense in 2015 as the blueprint, I believe it can be done.

So what do you think Chiefs fans? Do you think the Chiefs can use this blueprint to win games while Mahomes is out? Do you think they need to continue to focus on passing the ball even with Moore at quarterback? Is the defense going to be able to pull their weight in a more conservative game plan? I’d love to read your thoughts in the comments below.

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