The Kansas City Chiefs helped introduce the offensive innovation seen everywhere in the NFL. The college-influenced spread offense—long considered unusable at the professional level—was putting points up at Arrowhead Stadium. These newfangled schemes confused defenses. “What makes this possibility so interesting is that the Chiefs are contemplating a huge gamble. Most people in the NFL scoff at the notion that the spread offense can work consistently,” wrote an ESPN columnist about the Chiefs.
If this sounds familiar and you are expecting a story about Patrick Mahomes II, Andy Reid, and the 2018 Chiefs, you are wrong. This is about a 2-14 Kansas City team from 10 years ago that would be completely irrelevant if not for a largely unsuccessful nine-week period where it helped advance the sport. The team’s play-calling and offensive improvement did not catch on at the time because, well, they kept losing, but the Chiefs left behind a rare legacy for an NFL team: They tried something different. The 2008 Chiefs were a team that had nothing to lose, a third-string quarterback, a staff on its way to getting fired, and the idea that a college scheme could work in the NFL. On Sunday, a very different type of spread team will take the field in Kansas City in the AFC championship game: Under Mahomes and Reid, the Chiefs have the best offense in the NFL in terms of points scored, yards per play, and passing touchdowns, and no team is particularly close. The 2008 team was nowhere near that dominant. But it had some good plays.
“I laugh. People talk now about RPOs and spread stuff, and I said ‘Look, we did that in Kansas City 10 years ago,’” Herm Edwards, Kansas City’s head coach in 2008, told me. “But we didn’t get a lot of fanfare. People would talk about it more if we won more games.”
Think of the 2018 Chiefs as the iPhone and the 2008 Chiefs as the PalmPilot: One was popular and successful; the other came first but was a worse product. It’s an admirable distinction: Just because you were bad while you innovated doesn’t mean you didn’t innovate.
The NFL in 2008 was a different era of football than it is today. For one, college football had little influence on pro schemes. There was some crossover collaboration—the Patriots met with the Florida Gators staff a few years earlier to learn about some of their concepts, and the wildcat offense sometimes employed by the Dolphins in 2008 was borrowed from the University of Arkansas. But mostly, the NFL was not a laboratory for creativity in those days. Also, there weren’t a lot of good quarterbacks. Brodie Croyle was Kansas City’s starting quarterback, and Damon Huard was his backup. Both were placed on injured reserve after Week 7.
“We lost our two QBs,” Chiefs third-string quarterback Tyler Thigpen remembers offensive coordinator Chan Gailey telling the team in a meeting. “Tyler is our guy, and moving forward, hey, we’re going to try to build an offense that’s best for him.”
The 6-foot-3 Thigpen played quarterback in a wing-T offense in high school and in a spread offense at Coastal Carolina. The Chiefs signed him in 2007 from the Vikings, who were attempting to put him on their practice squad. With Thigpen as the starter, the Chiefs’ offense was in shotgun almost all of the time. It switched to wristband play-calling so it could run more plays from no-huddle, and Thigpen ran read-option-type plays, utilizing running backs Jamaal Charles and Larry Johnson while he ran out of the shotgun or pistol formation. The receivers, including Tony Gonzalez and Dwayne Bowe, would spread the field to offer a passing threat. These wrinkles are routine in modern NFL playbooks, but they were not in 2008. And the Chiefs players had to answer a lot of questions about them.
“The most frustrating part was the questions from the media. They’d say, ‘You can’t run shotgun all the time’ and ‘You can’t run the spread,’” said Thigpen. “I knew eventually the game would evolve to that.”
Watching a Chiefs game from 2008 is a reminder of how much the sport has changed in the last decade. Broadcasters mentioned the spread offense multiple times per drive as though it was imported from Mars. In a game against Miami, they marveled at how Kansas City’s offense kept the Dolphins’ defense off-balance on a 33-yard touchdown pass from Thipgen. The CBS crew compared it to the wildcat offense employed by the Dolphins. The difference is the spread kept creeping into the sport over the years and the wildcat worked its way out.
After Week 7, once Thigpen became the full-time starter and the new package was installed, the Chiefs increased their total offensive output from 257 yards per game to 340 yards. They were involved in shootouts, including a shockingly fun 38-31 loss to AFC East champion Miami. They put 450 yards of offense up twice. Nine of their 10 highest-scoring outputs happened Week 8 or later. They were not world-beating numbers—300 yards is an average day at the office for Mahomes—but the improvement was noticeable.
Of course, the spread revolution was coming to the NFL. Just four years later, Seattle’s Russell Wilson and San Francisco’s Colin Kaepernick employed the zone reads to wild success. Mahomes and Reid have changed the way we view offense with creative plays borrowed from all levels of football. The Philadelphia Eagles won last year’s Super Bowl—one of the most offensively explosive in the history of the sport—in large part based on their innovative offenses.
Gailey said he had no problem borrowing from college teams because he’s long thought—counter to many in the NFL—that the league does not have a monopoly on top football minds. He said he’s still wowed by what Oklahoma is doing under Lincoln Riley, as well as other Big 12 offenses cultivating schemes the NFL dismissed until recently.
“I think most coordinators are so stubborn—‘Oh, I have a system,’” Edwards said, who is currently the coach at Arizona State. “But we said, ‘Tell me about the players.’ You can ask the players to do things. So we went to the blackboard, and we decided we’re not going to play a lot under center. We’ll build the offense around what we can do.”
Thigpen led all quarterbacks in rushing that season despite starting 11 games. Kansas City finished the season running 603 plays from shotgun, compared to 361 under center. They ran plays from the no-huddle 126 times, averaging 7.06 yards per play, compared with 4.9 from the huddle.
Thigpen pointed to the stress Kansas City put on defenses—not just because the offense was effective, but because so few defenders had seen it before. Read options depend on reading the movements of one player on the defense and deciding the play’s direction from there, yet defenders often had no idea where the play was going. “Nobody saw it in the NFL, so you’d see the defensive end always thinking “Oh my god, I’m going to tackle him.’ Then he wouldn’t know where to go,” he said. “There was a combination of a lot of things—a lot of teams hadn’t seen any spread, so it was hard for them because we weren’t huddling up every single play. The defense didn’t know how to get the call in sometimes. Communication became so much harder for them.”
“My favorite play of the year was this quarterback throwback—you see so many people running that play now,” Thigpen said, who had a 37-yard reception on the play against Tampa Bay. “Ronde Barber came up to me and said, ‘I can’t believe I let you burn me.’”
Some media coverage at the time hinted at what was to come. ESPN’s Jeffri Chadiha wrote:
Edwards has openly talked about the possibility of turning the spread into a full-fledged offense and it doesn’t sound like a bad idea. After all, more colleges are running the spread offense, and it’s getting harder for NFL teams to find and develop prototypical, pro-style-ready quarterbacks. So even though the spread isn’t an ideal offense for this league—an idea Edwards agreed with as recently as a month ago—it can’t be completely discounted. There are just more players coming into the NFL who’ve been exposed to it.
That November, Jason Whitlock wrote a column in The Kansas City Star about the potential of the spread at the NFL level, which included this prophetic sentence: “The safe bet is to fall in love with the offense, not the quarterback.”
The league eventually did fall in love with the offense.
The spread revolution may have come sooner if not for a job change. In 1997, Gailey was the offensive coordinator for the Pittsburgh Steelers and was building a college-based offense around quarterback Kordell Stewart, a gifted runner and passer. Gailey felt Stewart would be more effective playing in a scheme designed to suit his strengths. “We were studying stuff then that we would like to eventually implement, but I ended up going to Dallas, and we ended up never implementing all that stuff we had on the board for Kordell at that time,” said Gailey, who was hired to be the Cowboys’ head coach the following February. “It was some of the stuff he had done in college and some other college plays we’d seen on film.”
Gailey was after a simple idea that he was going to implement that year if he stayed in Pittsburgh: “What we talked about was how to attack with the run and the pass at the same time,” he said. This is now everywhere in football, known as the run-pass option. It’s been a staple of high school and college programs for years but hadn’t worked its way to the pro level until the last half decade. Gailey said his idea looked, at the time, more like the traditional option offenses seen in college but he was designing more passing options within it for Stewart. “It was more option, and then if you give this look, then the [running] back blocks and you throw it. But it was more of a check, it wasn’t a true RPO-type deal, but it may have gotten to that,” Gailey said.
When the history of the spread in the NFL is written, many names will be mentioned, and this bad Chiefs team will not be among the first to pop up, but they should get some recognition. Sports Illustrated credited them in a 2012 story as being “on the cutting edge of the spread-to-pass craze,” but they’ve been blown away in history by the teams that were more successful. Mahomes, Reid, Chip Kelly, Bill Belichick, and Doug Pederson will be the names associated with this evolution. But remember Gailey, too, who continued to spread the field in later stops with his offenses in Buffalo and the New York Jets.
“The NFL is—I don’t want to say hardheaded—but people are skeptical,” Gailey said. “You had to have teams that used it and looked really good, and the Eagles really did it well last year, and now you’ve got so many teams doing it. It started coming maybe four or five years ago because those are the quarterbacks the NFL is getting [from college] and there are lot of smart coaches.”
The 2008 Chiefs got virtually everyone fired. The next year, general manager Scott Pioli and Todd Haley were brought in to complete the regime change. Another occurred five years later, this time bringing in Reid. The Chiefs are on the cusp of a Super Bowl berth. They in no way resemble the 2008 team that was one of the worst in the league, except in one department: They are still trying something new.