Al Saunders doesn’t miss much these days. From his press box vantage point high above the field at FirstEnergy Stadium, the Cleveland Browns’ senior offensive assistant is charged with surveying defenses and suggesting concepts the Browns can hit their opposition with in games.
Saunders will occasionally peek at the opposing team’s offense. Some teams are harder to ignore than others, and the high-scoring Kansas City Chiefs, the team the Browns faced on Nov. 4, certainly qualified for that distinction.
Throughout the course of the game, which the Chiefs won 37-21 while racking up a ridiculous 499 yards of offense, Saunders couldn’t help but experience déjà vu.
Saunders, 71, has been fortunate to be an assistant on the staffs of three generational offenses in the late ‘90s St. Louis Rams, the early aughts Chiefs and Dan Fouts-led Chargers of the ’80s.
For Saunders, the 2018 Chiefs — who are outpacing the Rams in points-per-game (35.3 to 32.9) and yards per game (305.5 to 272.1) — are channeling the spirit of those teams, not so much in the concepts they run, but in the efficiency, speed and confidence they play with.
“You can see there’s no hesitation with what they do, and you can sense how players move … they believe every time they have the ball, they’re going to score — and that’s what we always used to feel [on those other teams],” Saunders told Yahoo Sports. “If we didn’t [score], we knew it was because of something we did, not what the defense did to us.”
Saunders, who was an assistant head coach and wide receivers coach in St. Louis, isn’t the only staff member with a link to the ’99 Rams to see the connection. While Mike Martz, the offensive coordinator of the ’99 Rams, said through a spokesman that he hasn’t watched enough tape of the Chiefs to make a comparison, the head coach of that team, Dick Vermeil, sees similarities.
“There are similarities, and I take pride in it,” Vermeil told Yahoo Sports. “To me, in my mind, the Chiefs are the team to beat. If you’re going to win it all, you’re going to have to beat the Chiefs.”
Start with QBs: Patrick Mahomes vs. Kurt Warner
Vermeil, 82, is focused on his wine business these days, but football is never far from his mind. A notorious grinder during his coaching prime, he still has a very curious mind about the game, and he devotes his Sundays to watching the game he still deeply loves.
“I have three sittings — one o’clock, 4:30 and 8 o’clock, and I very seldom stay awake until the end of the game unless it’s someone I really like,” Vermeil says with a hearty laugh.
Like Saunders, Vermeil appreciates the Chiefs’ fast-paced, efficient offense, which is led by 23-year-old wunderkind, Patrick Mahomes, an MVP candidate who is on pace to complete 67 percent of his passes and throw for 5,040 yards, 50 touchdowns and 11 interceptions in his first year as a starter.
“They have a quarterback excelling beyond expectations, which is a direct parallel between an undrafted free agent who became a Hall of Famer,” Vermeil said, referring to his MVP quarterback on the ’99 Rams, Kurt Warner.
“I’ve watched about three whole games of the Chiefs, and the first time I watched them, I kept saying ‘Holy mackerel, is Patrick Mahomes for real or what?’” Vermeil said. “I don’t believe I’ve ever seen a kid that can throw the ball accurately from so many body positions.”
Key emphasis is on the word “kid” because Warner’s ability to throw from different platforms and arm angles was without peer during his time.
Saunders sees two more similarities between Mahomes and Warner, too, traits that he says are shared by the likes of Joe Montana and Fouts.
“The two [other] things they have that are similar are accuracy and courage,” Saunders said, “Pat reminds me of Kurt because he has courage enough to stay in the pocket in the face of a rush, and he throws the ball very accurately and gets the ball out of his hand quickly.
“You take those three qualities, and the Joe Montanas, Dan Fouts and Kurt Warners can do all that. They were mentally, emotionally and physically very tough and those are the similarities I see in him.”
Coaching and supporting cast matters
For all of Mahomes’ brilliance, Saunders and Vermeil agree that he wouldn’t be ripping the league up like this without significant help, particularly when it comes to coaching.
“It didn’t surprise me that [Alex] Smith could run it well,” Vermeil said of the Chiefs’ former quarterback. “He’s bright, he’s talented. But to take a kid in his second year and put him in that sophisticated, mature system and have him operate it like he does, I think it’s way beyond normal.”
Much of the credit for that goes to the 60-year-old Reid, who is in his 20th season as an NFL head coach. What started out as the shotgun-less, West Coast offense taught by Bill Walsh in the 80s, Mike Holmgren in the 90s and Reid in the 2000s, has morphed into a shotgun-heavy, college-style spread that has become known for its multiple formations, personnel groupings and pre-snap motions.
Reid’s offense is ahead of the curve, and one that’s a perfect fit for Mahomes, who played in the pass-happy Air Raid system at Texas Tech in college. No team in the NFL runs as many run-pass options as the Chiefs, and on a week-to-week basis, you’ll see a few teams outright run a play the Chiefs put on tape weeks before.
The degree to which the Chiefs (and New Orleans Saints, for that matter) are ahead of the league like this reminds Saunders of what happened when the “Greatest Show on Turf” was ripping up defenses with its commitment to deep passing concepts, creative use of Hall of Fame running back Marshall Faulk in the passing game and varied rushing attack.
“The similarity is the creativity on offense, the willingness to think outside the box and be trendsetters in [a] way [the] offense is designed, rather than being conservative and predictable,” Saunders explained.
Conceptually, the Chiefs incorporate running back Kareem Hunt in the passing game a tremendous amount, just like the Rams did with Faulk, and when you add in a supporting cast that is elite at multiple skill positions — which is incredibly difficult to replicate in today’s era of parity — you get the final similarity between the ’18 Chiefs and ’99 Rams.
It’s too early to tell whether the Chiefs’ dynamic skill players — from Hunt and receiver Tyreek Hill to tight end Travis Kelce — will be in the Hall of Fame like Faulk (and likely receivers Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce). But Hunt, Hill and Kelce are all Pro Bowlers who are on pace to approach or exceed their career-best seasons, due largely to the combination of Mahomes’ quick release and accuracy in an up-tempo scheme designed to hit ’em where they ain’t, just like the ’99 Rams.
“What they do really well is spread the field from sideline to sideline and from end zone to end zone,” Saunders explained. “They use the entire field and put playmakers in space and allow them to run — they don’t beat their head against the wall. And by giving the defense so many different looks, it allows them to create big plays because the defense does one or two things to Kansas City: you either pressure them man to man or play very conservative.
“Either way, Kansas City’s offense is able to take advantage of that.”
Here’s where the Rams have an edge
While the ’18 Chiefs are primarily a zone-running team — albeit one that’s designed with shifts and motions to provoke pre-snap confusion in a defense — the ’99 Rams were more multiple with their run game.
“We had a conglomeration of everything and an offensive line that could do it all,” Vermeil says. “We could run the power O, we could run the trap, we could pull the tackles, we could pull the center and we could zone block.”
What’s more, while the Chiefs are similarly creative with their short passing and screen game, the concepts with which they accomplish that are different. Run-pass options, an integral part of the Chiefs’ offense, didn’t exist in the NFL in ’99.
“They also don’t have a Hall of Fame left tackle,” Vermeil added. “That was a big edge for us.”
Indeed, Orlando Pace’s brilliance allowed the Rams to consistently execute those deep pass plays — often with little blocking help, other than Faulk — they became so well known for.
“One thing that separated us in St. Louis was the ability to throw downfield with comebacks and deep ins,” Saunders said. “Kansas City isn’t quite into that phase of the game, but they attack the seams real well, and we all learned from Don Coryell that the best way to attack a defense is to attack the seams, and they maximize that.”
There’s also the defenses. The ’99 Rams were much better on that side of the ball than anyone remembers, while the 2018 Chiefs currently rank 29th on defense, 23rd against the run.
“We were No. 6 overall in the league, No. 1 against the run, [even though] that stat is a little distorted since people couldn’t run because they were playing catchup,” Vermeil said with a laugh.
The Rams’ defense also scored eight touchdowns, far exceeding the two the Chiefs have thus far this season.
There’s still much for the Chiefs to prove
While no team found an answer for the ’99 Rams’ offense, the Chiefs, at 9-1, may still find their nemesis. Perhaps it will come as soon as Monday night, when they take to the road to face the Los Angeles Rams (9-1) in the biggest game of this regular season.
And while the Rams’ vaunted defense — which was expected to be generational by many at the beginning of the season — has fallen short of that expectation, ranking only 13th this year, they feature a strong pass rush led by the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year, Aaron Donald.
“I think the only way you’re going to stop them is by having a dominating defensive pass rush,” Vermeil says of the Chiefs.
And if they conquer enough strong defenses over a prolonged period, Saunders said, and then — and only then — will the Chiefs earn the right to be called the “Greatest Show on Turf.”
“This is a one-year explosion, and if they can continue it for two, three, four or five years, then they can be talked about in the same conversation as the ’99 Rams or Air Coryell,” Saunders said. “Like anything in this league, it’s enduring over a period of time. They certainly have a good head start, but they still aren’t the No. 1 offense statistically — New Orleans is [second] and Tampa is [first].
“But my gut feeling is, with that young quarterback, they’re going to be very good for a long time.”
Still, Saunders doesn’t bristle at the comparison between the ’18 Chiefs and ’99 Rams. Like Vermeil, he appreciates it.
“Oh, gosh no,” Saunders said, incredulously. “That would be like Van Gogh saying, ‘Gosh, I don’t like Picasso’s work.’ Are you kidding me? You appreciate artistry as a coach.”
Vermeil broke out a similar comparison.
“The 2003 Cadillac was a heck of a car — it was ahead of the game, it had technology in it the first spaceships didn’t even have,” Vermeil said. “But each year, that car gets better with new technology. Now it’s 2018, and that new Cadillac has more technology in it than that 2003 Cadillac.
“It’s the same thing with offensive football for the most part — they learn from everybody else. And right now, I think Andy Reid’s teaching everybody else.”
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