To clarify, I am not claiming that the Chiefs’ conversion on 4th and 1 is the best Play in NFL Playoff history. It will take a spectacular miracle of legendary and unbelievable to ever top moments like “The Catch”, “The Immaculate Reception”, “The Helmet Catch”, “The Minneapolis Miracle”, “The Magic City Miracle”, and Malcolm Butler’s goal-line interception in Super Bowl 44. These moments are a representation of some of the most clutch and memorable performances by some of the most elite and talented players in NFL history, putting it all on the line for the love of football and their teammates.
However, the coaching decisions and in the moment analytics that Andy Reid went through to make the play call he did on 4th-and-1 are so impressive that this has to seriously be considered as one of the best play calls in NFL playoff history.
Viewing the play call in context is just the base of understanding how great this call is. It is 4th-and-1, on the KC 48, with 1:14 left in the game. The Chiefs are up by five, which means Cleveland has to have a touchdown to win, which is only made more difficult since they are out of timeouts. Patrick Mahomes is in the locker room with a potential concussion, the starting running back is inactive on the sideline, the Chiefs are down three starting linemen, the Browns have all the momentum, and a loss ends the season on the most disappointing note possible.
The Chiefs have a few different options at this point in the game, most of which give the Kansas City Chiefs a 90% or higher chance of winning the game if successful.
They could do what Tony Romo is loudly suggesting on commentary, run the play clock down to one, call a timeout, and punt the ball, which likely puts the Browns on their own 20 with a minute on the clock and no timeouts to score. The Browns are without their highest-paid receiver, Baker is having a mediocre game (64.2 QBR), and the Chiefs’ defense is buzzing with energy at the moment. This would give the Kansas City Chiefs a 95% likelihood of winning until the first incompletion when the likelihood would raise to 99%. That’s if the Chiefs can not draw the Browns offsides with two separate play clocks, which would give the Chiefs the win.
They also could have tried to muscle their way through the line and get a first down. They have a top-five full back in football in Anthony Sherman and have had a ton of success running the ball in the game. It has a 60 to 65% chance of succeeding, and success gives the Chiefs the win. Failure gives the Browns about 70 seconds on the clock, and only lowers the Chiefs’ chances of winning to about 70%, although that statistic does not account for momentum and game trends (Njoku is having a great game).
Then, there is what the Chiefs did: pass on 4th-and-1 with a running clock, a backup quarterback, and not much time to prepare:
A 30% chance of success with much riskier possibilities, this move is so risky that the broadcast booth did not even think it was a possibility. A pass behind the line of scrimmage can be jumped by a ball-hawking corner and easily turn into a pick-six, leaving the Chiefs with less than a minute and a backup quarterback to drive the field into field goal range.
For Pete’s sake, this play call is so controversial and so risky, that according to Pro Football Reference, no one has ever tried it before. Not in a playoff game, not in a regular-season game, not with a backup quarterback, not with a starting quarterback: never.
All of this information is what makes the play call Perfect.
The Browns’ coaches and players know all of the information I have cited and much more. Kevin Stefanski is a smart coach with great football knowledge and he has a great knowledge of analytics. He knows the likelihood of each play type, he knows the success percentages, the winning percentages, the match-ups. As a matter of fact, he probably saw this situation coming a few minutes ago when he punted the ball with four minutes left and only one timeout.
That is why the unpredictable and almost nonsensical play call makes perfect sense. Stefanski has his team selling out for the run, although they do not think the Chiefs are running a play at all. The defensive line is pinching, the linebackers are filling the gaps, the secondary is forming a box around the line to prevent any outside runs from going anywhere, all eyes are on the center and the line of scrimmage. If the ball moves, you throw your body at the line, but you do not move a muscle until the ball does, even if it forces you to be late or slow to the play.
All of this means that the defense is not at all prepared for the pass.
The Play Design
This play design is a great example of what makes Andy Reid such a great offensive mind.
Firstly, the play is built very similarly to the read-option that the Chiefs had already run twice prior in the game. They had used the play to try and overcome very similar short-yardage situations (This was the play that Patrick Mahomes was injured on) and both times with relative success. The difference is that the running back comes forward out of his side step instead of maintaining a swing route, giving the quarterback a few more seconds of protection in the backfield to make the throw or run.
The linebackers think they have seen this play twice, so when the running back and quarterback start moving to the right, they start to crash on the play, covering the open field that Mahomes had exposed prior in the game. Most importantly is how BJ Goodson (Cleveland’s 93) starts to collapse on the space where the swing route would have the running back waiting for the ball. This leaves Tyreek Hill with no defender close enough to stop him from making an easy catch and run for the first.
Next, the play design itself builds on the misdirection of having run such a similar play. We already mentioned how the running back takes a side step like he is going for a swing route then comes down to the line to slow the defensive ends, however, the most important change is Tyreek Hill’s route.
In the read option, all three receivers on the side of the play run forward to carry their corners and coverage linebackers up the field and make room for the ball carrier. You can see that in the redrawn short pass package, where the x and slot receiver go straight up the field. However, the difference in this play is that the tight slot receiver, despite playing the first five yards like he is also running a streak, breaks out towards the sideline underneath the other receivers.
The initial streak will give the early indication to the linebackers that this is the read-option play again, giving Tyreek Hill space for an uncontested catch.
With hours of preparation and thought, this play call would have been amazing and note-worthy. However, Andy Reid did not get hours to make this call, he did not even have a full minute long timeout: he had less than 15 seconds.
Sure, elite coaches are great at making split-second decisions, but between the obstacles, the pressure, and the lack of time to make this play call, Andy Reid’s decision is elevated to a level of its own.