Chiefs offensive coordinator Matt Nagy was progressing through a description of the unit he oversees, namely the avenues toward late-season improvement, when he dropped in an interesting word.
Nagy used it once Thursday afternoon, and then twice. And after a follow-up question regarding the situations to which he was referring when he said “when adversity strikes,” he replied quickly.
“It’s at all points,” he said.
Well, I’ve got one in particular.
For years, the Chiefs have been historically good in the aspect within a game that pits a team against its own adversity: when nothing is going right. It’s been a strength — nah, a staple — of quarterback Patrick Mahomes’ career. You see his best when you absolutely need his best.
But now? Gone.
That secret-seasoning element of this era of Chiefs football — turning deficits into leads and eventual victories — has disappeared during the 2023 season. Or it’s sure seemed like it anyway, right?
Track back to last Sunday in Green Bay. After the Chiefs trailed in the fourth quarter, their initial two full possessions offered the chance to take a lead, and their third would provide a chance to tie.
Clock expired. Game over.
It was a mess, but it sure didn’t feel like a mess unique to one night. That’s where this exploration began.
Where it ended? The data is actually worse than I’d imagined.
The Chiefs are 8-4 heading into Sunday’s game against the Buffalo Bills at GEHA Field at Arrowhead Stadium, and on a per-play basis, the offense has actually picked up a bit of steam over the past couple of weeks. They are one game out of the race for the No. 1 seed in the AFC. It’s not as though all is lost. As Mahomes pointed out Wednesday, he was once a member of a 6-4 team that would win a Super Bowl.
That team, though, much like the Super Bowl one that would follow in three years, had some defining characteristics. Among the most obvious: They were never out of a game. In fact, you almost feared what would happen when you took the lead on them, as though you were poking the bear. You certainly feared putting the ball in the hands of that offense with that quarterback.
Not this year. Not yet, anyway.
The Chiefs have trailed four times in the final quarter this season, which — since they have four losses — means they’ve yet to come from behind in the last 15 minutes of a game. Mahomes has never completed a season without a fourth-quarter comeback. He had four in 2022.
And 2023 is not without opportunity. They’ve had plenty.
The Chiefs have trailed for the entire final quarter of two of their losses and for the final 6 minutes, 20 seconds of all four. In those situations — trailing late in the game — they have combined to start 10 possessions in the fourth quarter.
Total points: Zero.
Heck, they haven’t even reached the red zone in any of the 10 possessions.
Zero for 10.
“You just gotta keep with it and just trust that the guys are going to make it work in the end,” Mahomes said. “And hopefully in the playoffs or the last part of the season, we convert those drives.”
It presents an interesting question: Can the Chiefs go through the first three-quarters of a season as one of the worst-performing teams in a very specific situation and still tap into their history when they need it?
I don’t have the answer to that. We’ll get one soon enough. But I do suspect this: If they’re going to make another title run, they almost certainly will need to reflect past history more than current trends. Those two championships, you might remember, had some comebacks. The Chiefs trailed in the fourth quarter in both Super Bowls. They turned four losing-and-late drives into three touchdowns against the 49ers and Eagles combined.
Three for 4.
And it surprised nobody.
To be clear, I’m not saying you ought to be surprised, per se, if it happens again. But I am informing you that it would run against the grain of everything we’ve seen this season.
We all know the offense hasn’t performed as well as the previous five years. But the frustrations of that underachieving offense reach a boiling point in the gotta-have-it spots.
There are 29 quarterbacks who have attempted at least 100 passes when trailing in games this season. Mahomes’ passer rating of 77.3 ranks 21st of the 29.
It grows worse when it grows late.
In the fourth quarter, Mahomes has dropped back in the pocket 48 times with the scoreboard favoring the opponent. Those 48 drop-backs have produced just 15 completions, two sacks, one interception, all of 120 yards and a 31.6 passer rating.
The Chiefs have only twice gained at least 11 yards on those 48 called passing plays when they’re facing a fourth-quarter deficit. Twice.
The Mahomes numbers reflect the big picture, but don’t get the impression that it’s all on him. There is plenty of blame to go around.
“We’ve gotta do a better job of that,” coach Andy Reid said. “A lot of those come down to catching the ball, throwing the ball, blocking up front.”
It’s the vaguest of answers from an expert in vague replies. But there’s something else to it.
Which is precisely how they used to make it look: simple.
The Chiefs practice these situations every Friday afternoon — first in the classroom and then on the field. For years, it felt as though Mahomes might as well stand up and move to the front of the class and take over professorial duties.
I do have a small theory for why it’s changed, and I’ll first note that it’s an oversight to simply conclude that the offense isn’t what it once was. (The 2023 Chiefs are significantly better in all other situations than this one.)
Well, much of the two-minute drill is feel. It’s in-the-moment thinking that you hope derives from the practice reps. It’s every player understanding how they’re being defended. And what topic have we discussed more than any other? The effort to get everyone on the same page. It would make sense that the hurried plays would come last in that education.
Which brings me to the flip side of the trend. If the Chiefs had only their previous fourth-quarter magic, we’d be talking about a team not only atop the AFC, but potentially safely atop it.
That magic hasn’t arrived, though, and man if it hasn’t felt more like a jinx.
On Sunday, sure, it didn’t help that a referee opted against throwing what should have been an obvious flag for defensive pass interference. Two weeks earlier, it didn’t help that Marquez Valdes-Scantling dropped a touchdown thrown darn near perfectly. In the season opener, it didn’t help that just about everyone dropped a pass, particularly when all the Chiefs required was a field goal.
But it’s always something.
This group used to take pride in overcoming those somethings — with the trophies to prove it.
The two go hand-in-hand.
And those without the former end up empty-handed.