Rules Are Meant To Be Broken

Photo Credit: Sam Greene via USA TODAY Sports

The top-seeded Kansas City Chiefs and Philadelphia Eagles punched their tickets to Super Bowl LVII with wins over the Cincinnati Bengals and San Francisco 49ers last week on Championship Sunday. Patrick Mahomes added to his legacy with an iconic performance — aside from his whoopsie fumble on a bubble screen intended for Marquez Valdes-Scantling — while dealing with an ankle sprain that he suffered in the divisional round. And Philadelphia’s front knocked both of San Francisco’s quarterbacks out of the game. Haason Reddick injured Brock Purdy‘s elbow on the Niners’ opening drive when Reddick got home on a play-action pass. Early in the third quarter, the 49ers’ QB4 — Josh Johnson — left with a concussion courtesy of Ndamukong Suh‘s big hit.

The storylines of this Super Bowl surround Jason and Travis Kelce being the first set of brothers to compete against one another on football’s biggest stage. Or Andy Reid going against the organization that fired him back in 2012. Or the first time in NFL history where the Super Bowl features two Black quarterbacks in Mahomes and Jalen Hurts.

But it’s worth discussing how these teams arrived at this point. Before we get there, please indulge me for a moment.

Our society is filled with unwritten rules. Get married by a certain age. Buy a house at this age. Have kids at that age. Poking holes at the “supposed to’s” and creating new ones are why we tune into Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm over the past 20-plus years. And sports are no different.

Before Game 5 of the 2015 NBA Finals, the Golden State Warriors said to hell with conventional wisdom after their starting center Andrew Bogut‘s injury kept him on the sidelines. Instead of trying to combat the Cleveland Cavaliers’ twin towers of Timofey Mozgov and Tristan Thompson with more size, first-year head coach Steve Kerr went small and introduced us to The Death Lineup of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes, Andre Iguodala, and Draymond Green.

The Warriors captured the Larry O’Brien Trophy after winning the next two games by a combined 21 points. They set the NBA record with 73 regular-season wins the following season. After the Warriors broke the NBA’s unwritten rules, the rest of the league followed. And while teams like the Minnesota Timberwolves are doing their best to end this small-ball craze with bigs in Rudy Gobert and Karl-Anthony Towns, no one has successfully put a halt to the new way of doing things in the NBA.

Like the Warriors over the past decade, the Chiefs and Eagles broke the NFL’s unwritten rules this season. Last week I wrote about how every NFL contender allocates top resources to their defensive fronts. But the Eagles went comically overboard this past season into building The Best Front in NFL History. After already having one of the league’s best fronts with Fletcher Cox, Brandon Graham, Josh Sweat, and Javon Hargrave, the Eagles:

  • Signed Reddick to a three-year, $45 million free-agency deal
  • Moved up in the 2022 NFL Draft to select Jordan Davis at 13th overall
  • Traded their 2023 fourth-round pick to the Chicago Bears for Robert Quinn
  • Signed Linval Joseph in November
  • Signed Suh in November

And here’s how their front has fared this season — including the playoffs (stats provided by Pro Football Focus and sorted by total pass rushes):

  • Hargrave: 64 pressures & 13.1% pressure rate
  • Reddick: 80 pressures & 16.4% pressure rate
  • Cox: 42 pressures & 8.7% pressure rate
  • Sweat: 49 pressures & 12.5% pressure rate
  • Graham: 55 pressures & 17.7% pressure rate
  • Milton Williams: 16 pressures & 6.3% pressure rate
  • Davis: 11 pressures & 8.7% pressure rate
  • Suh: 11 pressures & 9.2% pressure rate
  • Joseph: 3 pressures & 3.6% pressure rate
  • Quinn: 10 pressures & 13.9% pressure rate

No one has ever hit the “more” button with this much frequency for a defensive front as Eagles’ general manager Howie Roseman. And by choosing not to subscribe to the NFL’s usual way of doing things, Philadelphia rode this front to Glendale, Ariz. for an opportunity to hoist their second Lombardi Trophy in six years.

Kansas City initially broke the rules by trading for Mahomes in the 2017 draft. After all, quarterbacks from Air Raid schemes like the one Mahomes ran at Texas Tech with Kliff Kingsbury aren’t “supposed to” translate to NFL success. Andy Reid doubled down on this particular rule-breaking when he ran Air Raid concepts for Mahomes’ first season as a starting quarterback in 2018. Mahomes proceeded to break the league with 5,097 passing yards, 50 touchdowns, and the MVP award.

The Chiefs underwent a mini rebuild this offseason after trading All-Pro wide receiver Tyreek Hill. Reid and the offense were forced to replace 340 targets with the departure of Hill, Byron Pringle, Demarcus Robinson, Darrel Williams, Josh Gordon, and Derrick Gore. That accounted for 53.4% of their target share from 2021. So general manager Brett Veach signed wide receivers Valdes-Scantling, JuJu Smith-Schuster, and Justin Watson in free agency. The Chiefs later traded their 2023 third-round pick to the New York Giants for wide receiver Kadarius Toney at the NFL trade deadline.

With all these new receivers, one would think that the offense would stick with the usual three- and four-receiver sets customary for an Air Raid scheme, right?

Not so fast. Instead, Reid decided to break more rules this season by emphasizing 13-personnel (one running back, three tight ends, and one receiver). The snap counts for Kansas City’s tight ends this season looked like this:

For context, Valdes-Scantling and Smith-Schuster played roughly 67.0% of the offensive snaps this season.

Reid broke every rule known to offensive football last week when the Chiefs were facing a fourth-and-one from Cincinnati’s 14-yard line in the second quarter. With a 6-3 lead, the Chiefs lined up in an 03-personnel (zero running backs, three tight ends, and two receivers). And in case that wasn’t crazy enough, Reid decided to go empty with Mahomes and trips right on this particular play. The play call was a rollout smash concept, with Smith-Schuster responsible for the quick comeback and Kelce on the corner route. But Kelce decided against the corner route once he recognized his inside leverage, and Mahomes found him for the touchdown.

According to Sharp Football Analysis, there were 36,332 offensive plays in the NFL during the 2021 season. Of those 36,332, only 13 came by way of 03-personnel. Reid decided to go with the NFL’s unicorn personnel grouping in one of the biggest situations of the AFC Championship game, and it paid off. Who the hell goes empty without a running back in the game on fourth-and-one from inside the red zone?

Rule Breaker Reid does.

Breaking the rules by overloading defensive fronts and relying on three tight-end personnel groupings was critical in the Eagles and Chiefs reaching the Super Bowl. And this type of rule-breaking behavior has favored the bold recently across both the NBA and NFL.

With the Vikings now being run by a young, innovative front office led by Kwesi Adofo-Mensah and head coach Kevin O’Connell, what can Minnesota do successfully that they aren’t necessarily supposed to?

I’m not going to pretend like I have the answer at this moment, but straying from the groupthink herd has yielded exceptional results for both Philadelphia and Kansas City. And since the NFL is the ultimate Copycat League, don’t be surprised if you see other franchises unapologetically lean into more rule-breaking behavior in the coming years.

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