In the NFL, it’s hard to kill a narrative once it takes hold.
Just ask Alex Smith: Even in his best season as a pro—a campaign in which he shredded a long-established label as a check-down artist by becoming the most productive deep-ball passer in the NFL—Smith still endured calls for rookie backup Patrick Mahomes during the team’s midseason slump, then became the subject of trade rumors even after leading the Chiefs to a second-half resurgence and postseason berth.
Andy Reid knows the power of narrative, too. He’s a highly respected offensive mind, but is still best known for his long history of inexplicable and bewildering time-management gaffes—and his penchant for early postseason exits.
Smith’s season, including an up-and-down 264-yard, two-touchdown performance in Kansas City’s shocking 22-21 wild-card loss to the underdog Titans on Saturday, could still help change the conversation around the former top-pick’s underrated career. But for Reid, the author of the Chiefs’ innovative and exciting hybrid college offense, the loss—in which Kansas City blew a 21-3 halftime lead—only cements his legacy as one of the most disappointing playoff coaches in league history.
Reid’s reputation for head-scratching postseason coaching decisions has been well-earned. The first example that comes to mind is the lazy, meandering 13-play touchdown drive for Reid’s Eagles late in Super Bowl XXXIX, which did cut the Patriots’ lead down to three points with under two minutes left, but took up nearly four minutes of crucial fourth-quarter time and left his team with little room to finish the comeback attempt. Bookend that with the Chiefs’ 16-play, 80-yard touchdown drive in 2016’s divisional-round loss to the Patriots, a possession that once again pulled Reid’s team to within one score late while simultaneously giving the squad no time to actually win. There’s plenty of other examples to throw in, but his teams’ perennial lack of urgency and inability to finish in big games—not his ability to design and deploy fun, creative offensive schemes—have become Reid’s calling card.
This could be Andy Reid's masterwork pic.twitter.com/aNIMkaHYIM— The Ringer (@ringer) January 7, 2018
Those issues surfaced once again on Saturday. Reid’s offense started strong, dominating the first half as the Chiefs racked up 264 yards of offense and 16 first downs. The team’s 18-point lead made Kansas City, by historical standards anyway, just about a lock to move on to the divisional round. But, uh …
In the Super Bowl era, playoff NFL teams are 67-3 when leading by 18+ points at halftime. Andy Reid is 0-1 in such games, though.— Zachary Kram (@zachkram) January 6, 2018
In the second half, that offense was just about unrecognizable, collecting just three more first downs all game. It turned four possessions into a pair of punts, a missed field goal, and a turnover on downs. The passing game couldn’t find a rhythm. Kansas City seemed to forget about the foundational run game that helped them rebound from a mid-season slump, with 2017 rushing champ Kareem Hunt carrying the ball just five times in the final two frames. And instead of grinding down the clock and putting away a team that looked nothing like a playoff squad for most of the last month, Kansas City allowed the Titans to slowly inch their way back into the game and surrendered the lead for good halfway through the fourth quarter.
It’d probably be a more embarrassing loss for the heavily favored Chiefs if not for the fact that it’s not a big surprise. It was Reid’s seventh loss in his last eight postseason games, his teams’ fifth one-and-done appearance in the playoffs, and the 13th postseason loss of his career—third most for any coach in NFL history. Instead of taking a step toward exorcising his postseason demons, Reid shined a spotlight right on his most glaring fault. It felt like a game that only Andy Reid could lose.
18-pt halftime blown leads in the playoffs in the Super Bowl era:— Micah Adams (@MicahAdams13) January 7, 2018
- Andy Reid with Chiefs: 2
- Every other coach combined: 2
Of course, in reality, the longtime coach doesn’t deserve all the blame for his team’s latest early-playoff departure. Second-half play-calling and the team’s near-criminal neglect of the elusive Hunt certainly falls under the purview of the head coach, but considering Reid surrendered play-calling duties to offensive coordinator Matt Nagy back in early December, the assistant coach shares some culpability. The players do as well, with a second-half performance full of drops, miscues, poor execution on offense, and way too many missed assignments on defense. As the offense stalled, the defense gave up touchdowns on Tennessee’s first three second-half drives, allowing the Titans to go seven-for-seven on third downs over the final two quarters.
Luck, or lack thereof, was a factor too. Blown leads of this caliber are rare because they typically require a series of increasingly unlikely and unfortunate events, and that was present here. Officials inexplicably called a play dead, due to forward progress, on a second-quarter sack fumble of Marcus Mariota. That fumble should’ve been a Kansas City recovery, but instead ended in three points for the Titans. Travis Kelce, who caught four passes for 66 yards and a score early on, sat out the second half with a concussion. The normally reliable Harrison Butker doinked a 48-yard field goal off the upright. And Mariota threw a touchdown pass to himself—the first time that’s happened since 1997—then made a devastating block on a Derrick Henry run to seal the game in the final minute. All this, and the Chiefs still only lost by one point.
Fair or not, though, the buck stops at the head coach, and this Chiefs implosion bore all the hallmarks of a now-patented Reid playoff game. As the second-winningest active coach in the NFL behind only New England’s Bill Belichick, Reid isn’t sitting on a hot seat. But the loss is another blemish on the legacy of a coach who is undeniably good at putting together teams and game plans—running this season’s spread-offense innovation, developing Smith into an MVP candidate, finding a diamond in the rough in third-rounder Hunt, managing mercurial cornerback Marcus Peters—but has proven to be abysmal at actually putting meaningful games away.
Smith proved this year that it takes a hell of a lot to shake a narrative. The former first-overall pick finished top in the league in passer rating, second in yards per attempt, third in completion percentage, eighth in yards, ninth in touchdowns, tied for first in interception rate, and engineered three game-winning drives (tied for sixth)—and after all that, he’s likely on the outs in Kansas City, and may still end up being remembered as nothing more than a glorified game manager. For Reid, the odds of shedding his playoff-choker reputation feel even longer—he only gets a shot one time of the year, after all, and as the team appears to start its transition to the Patrick Mahomes era, uncertainty abounds. There’s no telling when he’ll get his next chance at redemption.