The 2017 version of the Kansas City Chiefs is not a nice team to support, as I am sure you are all aware. They are inconsistent, unreliable, fickle, and seemingly the best and the worst of what the NFL has to offer all rolled into one. We have been here before. Remember the 1-5 start to 2015? That was the team that snapped the playoff victory drought with a 30-0 drubbing of the Houston Texans. And perhaps the shadow of that remarkable turnaround is what is most agonising. Chiefs’ fans have had direct and recent experience of hope. And as the saying goes, it is the hope that kills you.
But why is the current team so changeable? How can the dismantle the best team in the NFL one week after a fumble on their first offensive play and a ceremony celebrating the previous season’s Super Bowl triumph, and then proceed to lose to a team with just one win as a part of a five-game losing streak? It’s extremely difficult to understand, and, as is ever the case with sports, there is far from just one or two reasons for such changeable form. But, may I take this opportunity to offer one possible reason.
In the modern NFL, there is an increasing aversion to running the football. It is a passing game, apparently. But while that may have an element of truth to it, rarely is it the case that a team who can run the ball well, especially on first down, is not a good team. These are the top eight teams, in order, in terms of yards-per-rush on first down. See if you spot a little pattern: Saints, Eagles, Cowboys, Chiefs, Patriots, Falcons, Packers and Rams. Not one has a losing record. And the bottom six, for reference: Raiders, Lions, Dolphins, Broncos, Chargers and Steelers. So, while running the ball well is not wholly inductive of a good team, and good offence, there are some clear similarities. And that is an especially true factor with this season’s Chiefs.
The Chiefs have failed, as a team, to run for more than 100 yards in four games this season – Steelers, Raiders, Broncos, Cowboys, Bills. In those games, they scored more than 20 points in just two of those games, and one of them was a 94-yard rushing effort against the Raiders. In contrast, In games that the Chiefs that did top 100 yards rushing, as a team, they failed to scored more than 20 points in just one – Giants. Additionally, their three worst rushing performances – 28 yards against the Steelers; 55 yards against the Bills; 68 yards against the Cowboys – yielded the three worst offensive performances of the season. The Chiefs scored 13, 10 and 17 points respectively in those games, where seven of the points against the Cowboys came on a freakish Tyreek Hill Hail Mary screen play, which, by the way, is one of the most incredible things I have ever seen. The pattern, then, is clear. Not only does the NFL live and breathe on a good running game, but the Chiefs certainly do. They are dependent on it.
And the statistics are as equally significant when considering Kareem Hunt, rather than their overall offensive figures. To give a very overall picture of Hunt’s running fluctuations, here are his yards per carry throughout the season: From games 1-4, Hunt averaged 7.38 yards per carry; from games 5-8, Hunt averaged 3.35 yards per carry; from game 9-12, Hunt averaged 3.55 per carry; from games 13-16 (only one has, as of writing been played), Hunt averaged 4.64 yards per carry. So, from a very broad perspective, the trajectory of the Chiefs’ season follows that of Hunt’s rushing averages. Dig a little deeper, and that only becomes more apparent.
Of the 13 games played in so far, Hunt has averaged under 3.0 yards per carry three times. In those three games, the Chiefs scored over 20 points just once, against the Denver Broncos, a game in which Marcus Peters scored a defensive touchdown and Alex Smith was razor sharp – the Broncos,
at that time, also had arguably the best rushing defence in the league. The top five rushing performances, in regard to yards per carry, have come against, in order, the Chargers, the Patriots, the Eagles, the Raiders (week 7), and the Redskins (week 4). In those games, the Chiefs scored 24, 42, 27, 30 and 29 points respectively.
Alex Smith has been excellent this season, for the most part. He is rightly receiving many plaudits for his play. And, in being the quarterback, the Chiefs’ success will always be tied to his level of performance. But I feel that this current team is as dependent on a strong running game, and, in particular, on Kareem Hunt. That was the most refreshing thing to see against the Raiders on Sunday: Hunt getting going. If the Chiefs are to win the AFC West and make any semblance of a splash in the postseason, then they will have to be able to run the ball. That falls on the offensive line, Andy Reid, Alex Smith, and Matt Nagy, as much as it does Hunt.
I’ll leave you with one last stat that sums up everything that I’m saying far more concisely than I ever could. When the Chiefs lose, Hunt averages 3.72 yards per carry. When the Chiefs win, Hunt averages 5.35 yards per carry. Kareem Hunt and the running game are central to everything. Run the ball, win the game.