Football is not a sport of giant leaps. There are only, by rule, so many ways you can line up on a football field, and even the biggest innovations are small, nuanced changes building on decades of other modifications. The best minds, like Andy Reid and Bill Belichick, are to football what Malcolm Gladwell once dubbed Steve Jobs: tweakers, who don’t invent a lot but change a lot. Reid started as a West Coast offense scheme baron. He worked under West Coast offense legend Mike Holmgren as an assistant before taking the offense, which relied on short, horizontal passing routes, with him as a head coach in Philadelphia. Reid kept incrementally building the offense until it included, well, basically everything. The Fast and the Furious started out as a pretty basic car racing movie in 2001, and by 2017, its plots involved Russians with nuclear weapons. Reid began his career as a West Coast savant who built an offense that folded in nearly every innovation of the sport. But, in both the Fast franchise and in Reid’s career, the main ingredients are still there.
He has built an offensive empire in Kansas City, one brick at a time. Pro Football Focus has a play-by-play coaching metric that determines the most valuable play-callers in the sport—Reid is no. 1 over the past two years and has ranked in the top 10 in every year since 2014. The story of offensive football is about small, almost imperceptible changes to schemes that one day create something that shocks you and goes for a 70-yard touchdown. In that regard, the story of offensive football is also the story of Andy Reid.
Reid is coaching in his second Super Bowl on Sunday against the San Francisco 49ers, 15 years after losing to the Patriots and Belichick in his last one, with the Eagles. Only Dick Vermeil’s 19-year absence between Super Bowls, which culminated with the 1999 Rams victory, was longer. There are limitless stats to explain Reid’s offensive brilliance, but very few tell the story as succinctly as making two Super Bowls spread that far apart. It was so long ago that Troy Aikman and Joe Buck called the last game. Ah, right, they are doing this one too.
Reid is 61 years old. He was a BYU offensive lineman when 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan was born, and he led the Eagles to three NFC championship games before Shanahan became a coach in the NFL. The clearest argument that geography is not destiny is that Jeff Fisher and Reid were born in Los Angeles in the same year, 1958: One became a beacon of offensive brilliance, and the other became a retrograde offensive disaster. Innovation is not about age, it is about being smarter than the guy across the field from you. Reid usually is. “If you get stuck in the past, that’s when defenses have the opportunity to catch up to you,” Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy told me Wednesday. That Reid has become a symbol of youthful innovation alongside Shanahan is a testament to the way his brain works and to his ability to get players—like Patrick Mahomes and Travis Kelce—to help make the innovation run smoothly.
In 2013, I sat down with Reid in a plain room in a college building in St. Joseph, Missouri, where the Chiefs held their training camp. He told me that the college game is five years ahead of the pro game and that in five years, the spread offenses that had thoroughly dominated the college game would finally dominate the NFL. Five years later, it happened. The Eagles beat the Patriots in what Oklahoma coach Lincoln Riley told me looked like a Big 12 game. I tell this story often for two reasons: Because it’s amazing how prescient Reid was, and because it explains Reid perfectly. He not only sees the future, but he helps shape it. Reid spent those five years borrowing liberally from other levels of football and has now perfected the form. In 2017, spread plays he ran against the Patriots were stolen by the Patriots and a slew of other teams. Reid famously stole a play last season from North Dakota State. The result? “College” plays are rarely discussed anymore. The levels of football have merged, a process Reid helped. There are no longer NFL or college plays anymore, only football plays.
“He studies like no other coach I’ve ever been around,” Chiefs receivers coach Greg Lewis said. “He studies college games, high school games, CFL games, European games. He’ll go look at stuff from 1910. He knows everything. He has a beautiful mind. He is able to compartmentalize everything then bring it out at the right moment, ‘Oh, this is something I saw on film from 70 years ago.’” Then comes the most important part: “He’s able to put it in terms everyone understands, and that’s special.”
“Some of the stuff we were doing in 2003 or 2004, we still have, we’ve blended it with the college stuff. He is so open to adapting and adjusting the nuances of the offense. He has never been stuck on what he did before,” Lewis said.
This season, the Chiefs scored the second-most points per drive in the NFL, behind Baltimore. They scored on nearly half of their possessions, also behind only Baltimore. They faced the third-fewest third downs in the league, the sign of a good offense, and led the league in third-down conversion rate anyway. Few teams are better at running run-pass options. Only Drew Brees sees more open receivers beyond the first-down marker:
Highest percentage of throws at or beyond the first down marker where the intended receiver was open:— Steve Palazzolo (@PFF_Steve) January 18, 2020
Drew Brees 76.8%
Patrick Mahomes 74.6
Teddy Bridgewater 74.1
Matt Ryan 74.0
Jimmy Garoppolo 73.3
Derek Carr 72.7
Ryan Tannehill 71.4
Lamar Jackson 71.3
The Chiefs offense works so well because it pairs a coach who knows how to give every advantage with a quarterback who is so good he doesn’t even need them. If you have one or the other, you can be a great offense. If you have both, you are unfair. Reid has played a small role in nearly every offensive innovation over the past two decades. He hired pistol offense lord and former Nevada coach Chris Ault as a consultant to teach him the offense in 2013. Around that time, the Chiefs ran the pistol with Alex Smith, and the 49ers used it to perfection with Colin Kaepernick. Six years later, the Ravens, with former 49ers coordinator Greg Roman in the same position, unleashed the pistol with Lamar Jackson, this season’s presumptive MVP. Once again, Reid saw the future. Sometimes, that can be a little too early. Former Eagles executive Joe Banner once told me that when the team signed Michael Vick in 2009, Reid planned to run the spread. It ended up being a little early for the full version of the spread. Reid turned Vick into an MVP candidate anyway with Vick’s arm and his legs, but it didn’t kick-start a revolution.
The through line in all of this is that Reid is open to anything. Joe Bleymaier, the Chiefs’ passing game coordinator and assistant quarterbacks coach, told me that Reid wants to pick everyone’s brain to see what is possible on a given concept. He’ll take a play, Bleymaier said, and start considering small but crucial changes. “If he sees a play he’s run forever one way, and then sees it implemented in another way [on another team], he wants to know how far he can take it. He wants to push the boundaries and ask, ‘What’s the limit of this concept?’ There are no rules.” He added that this could mean anything within the play: how many receivers are on which side of the field or how the offensive line is stacked. Any small change could dramatically shift the odds in favor of the offense, and Reid wants to explore every possible one.
In 2018, Belichick said Reid has “over the course of time, been able to modify some of the traditional West Coast principles from Coach [Paul] Brown to Coach [Bill] Walsh to Coach Holmgren and so forth to fit his personnel and to fit new scheme ideas that he’s incorporated. So, West Coast offense is still built around speed, space, and balance—catch and run plays, yards after catch, balance between the running game and the passing game, and getting the ball to skill players so they can make yards with it.”
This was reflected by current Chiefs defensive assistant Brendan Daly, a former Patriots assistant, who said he’s been wildly impressed by Reid’s ability to build off of the West Coast offense. “At one point in time, I used to think of Coach Reid as one of the bare-bones offensive coaches. It has been fascinating to see him, over the years, as offenses change, as players change. Competing against him over the years, I was so impressed how incredibly open-minded he was to new concepts,” Daly told me Wednesday. “To new ideas. Formations, plays—his ability to incorporate so many new things into his offense but holding the same characteristics that he’s had his entire career.”
This includes a next-level mastery of the deep pass, which has come to the forefront since Mahomes became the deep-passing king of the sport in 2018.
“[Reid] never stops learning. He continues to push the boundaries of what we can get away with, and he also allows players and coaches to put their own twist on it,” quarterbacks coach Mike Kafka said. “If it makes sense for us and is sound, we’ll do it. He has an open mind about those types of things.” Kafka explains that Reid is flexible within his offense to allow players freedom. He uses the example of the team’s star tight end. “Kelce understands space and open spaces in the defense and has a great ability to find it. A route might be drawn up a certain way, and Kelce will understand how to make it different because of that. It’s fluid and Andy has an open mind about those things.” Well, of course he does.