The NFL, as we hear every year after the Super Bowl, is a copycat league. More often than not, teams will emulate the Super Bowl champion as they try to build out their organization. Winning the Lombardi Trophy is the ultimate goal, so why not steal ideas from the team that actually does it? This year, the Kansas City Chiefs provided a bunch of important lessons in team building, but so did their opponents, the San Francisco 49ers.
Below, we'll walk through a few ideas teams around the league can take away from the two teams that squared off in the Super Bowl.
Which moments defined Super Bowl LIV? What storylines deserve more attention than they got? Will Brinson and the Pick Six Podcast Superfriends take a deeper dive into the Chiefs' win over the 49ers. Listen below and be sure to subscribe for daily NFL goodness.
1. Speed kills
While the two Super Bowl teams were opposites in many different ways, this was the one major thing they both had in common: a focus on speed, particularly at the offensive skill positions.
The Chiefs sport two receivers who ran the 40-yard dash in less than 4.4 seconds, while each of the 49ers' three running backs beat that time as well. Only one of the primary skill position players on either team ran slower than 4.6 seconds -- and that guy is Travis Kelce, who is one of the most athletic tight ends in the league.
|Chiefs||40 Time||49ers||40 Time|
|Tyreek Hill||4.29||Raheem Mostert||4.32|
|Mecole Hardman||4.33||Tevin Coleman||4.38|
|Damien Williams||4.45||Matt Breida||4.38|
|Sammy Watkins||4.46||Emmanuel Sanders||4.41|
|Demarcus Robinson||4.59||Deebo Samuel||4.48|
|Travis Kelce||4.62||George Kittle||4.52|
Hill himself said it best during his postgame media availability, whenon third-and-15 that sparked the Kansas City comeback. "People fear speed. People really fear speed in the NFL," he said. "I was able to use my speed, get up on him, and just roll out of it."
The emphasis on team speed helped the Chiefs (69) and 49ers (78) create a ton of big plays throughout the year. They ranked sixth and fourth, respectively, in 20-plus yard gains.
2. Offensive design still matters
Of course, it's not enough to just have speedy players. You have to scheme them into position to succeed, which Andy Reid and Kyle Shanahan do as well as just about any coaches in the NFL. A look at NFL.com's NextGen Stats showcases how well they each do this.
Patrick Mahomes threw only 12.2 percent of his passes this season into tight coverage, the third-lowest rate among 39 qualifying quarterbacks. Jimmy Garoppolo threw just 15.3 percent of his passes into tight coverage, ranking 15th-lowest among that same group. Meanwhile, only 8.11 percent of Damien Williams' carries came against eight-plus men in the box, the fourth-lowest rate among 48 qualifying backs. The same was true of only 10.89 percent of LeSean McCoy's carries, which was the sixth-lowest rate among that same group of players.
The 49ers ran into heavy boxes more often, with 30.08 percent of Breida's carries (38th), 32.12 percent of Mostert's carries (40th), and 40.15 percent of Coleman's carries (48th) coming with eight-plus men in the box. But much of that was because the Niners used a fullback and multiple tight end sets far more often than other teams, and created space for their backs throughinstead.
The 49ers used pre-snap motion on 72 percent of their running plays this season, per Sports Info Solutions, the highest rate in the league. They had someone in motion at the time of the snap on 22 percent of run plays, the fifth-highest rate in the league. NFL teams averaged 4.9 yards per carry on run plays that included motion at the snap compared to 4.0 overall, per SIS, and a similar trend held for the Niners, who averaged 5.4 per carry with motion and 4.3 per carry without it.
But they don't motion guys just for the sake of it. They integrate that motion into the run game. Like a lot of coaches from his father's coaching tree, Kyle Shanahan has a particular affinity for jet motion. But the Niners usually don't hand it off to the jet motion guy: according to Sports Info Solutions, they ran only six jet sweeps all year. On the other hand, they ran 32 plays that included both jet motion and a fake hand-off, giving them the seventh-highest rate of such plays in the NFL.
Teams looking to emulate what the Chiefs and 49ers do best need to take these spatial aspects of offensive design into consideration. If you have athletes like Kansas City and a quarterback who can make all the throws, you might veer more toward Kansas City's style, but if you have a strong offensive line and good blockers at tight end and/or fullback, you might veer toward what San Francisco does.
3. Play to your strengths
All that said, both teams would not have gotten where they did without recognizing their strengths. For Kansas City, that meantthan any other team, and indeed more often that most teams ever have.
The best NFL offenses convert on third down by avoiding third down in the first place, and how they choose to approach that challenge when the result is up in the air tells you a lot about what they want their identity to be. This season, no NFL team called for a pass in those situations more often than the Kansas City Chiefs, who did so 65 percent of the time on first or second down in the first three quarters of a game that was within two scores at the time. That 65 percent pass rate was not just the highest in the NFL this year, but the highest of any team in the past four years.
Obviously, not every team in the league has a quarterback like Patrick Mahomes or pass-catchers like Hill, Watkins, Hardman, Robinson, Kelce, and Williams. But if your team's strength is the pass game, you shouldn't run just for the sake of it or because of some yearning for "balance." Do what you do well while the game is within reach, and then you'll be able to run out the clock with the run game once it's not.
Meanwhile, the 49ers were on the other end of the spectrum. In those same situations where the Chiefs threw the ball 65 percent of the time, the Niners ran the ball on 53 percent of their snaps. That was the sixth-highest run rate in the league. But as we wrote in our extended breakdown of the San Francisco running game, the reason they were able to do that was because their running game was so successful, not because they were simply committed to rushing volume.
From their Week 12 destruction of the Green Bay Packers through their NFC title game destruction of the Green Bay Packers, the Niners called for a run on 53 percent of their offensive plays, per Sharp Football Stats. Normally, this would be inadvisable. But the Niners managed 5.4 yards per carry and a 55 percent success rate on those running plays, which is better than the success rate that any NFL team had on pass plays this season.
Marrying their run game with a ton of fakes and misdirection also allowed the Niners to incorporate a heavy dose of play-action into their passing game, which was far more successful than the straight drop-back version of their aerial attack. Garoppolo faked a run on 31.9 percent of his drop backs, per Pro Football Focus, a rate which tied him with Mahomes for third-highest in the league. He had a 109.3 passer rating and averaged 10.8 yards per attempt on play-action throws compared to a 98.5 rating and 7.2 yards per attempt on throws without a run fake attached to them.
4. Cheap depth can provide the same (or better) production as a star running back
The Chiefs did not run the ball all that often, but when they did, they were pretty damn successful. According to Sharp Football Stats, Kansas City had a 53 percent success rate on running plays when the game was within two scores. That was the fourth-best success rate in the league. And as mentioned earlier, the Niners had an even better success rate than that once they really got into their groove.
But neither team had your typical superstar running back. Instead, Kansas City relied on a former undrafted free agent who washed out from one of the worst teams in the NFL (Williams) and an aging former star who was cut the week before the season began (LeSean McCoy). The 49ers had one high-priced free agent (Coleman) but he was the least successful of their three backs during the season, averaging only 4.0 yards per carry and a 39 percent success rate compared to 5.1 per carry and a 46 percent success rate for Breida and 5.6 per carry and a 53 percent success rate for Mostert. The latter two players were both undrafted free agents and Mostert spent multiple years as strictly a special teams contributor before working his way into the rotation this season.
The Chiefs spent only $4,733,333 combined on Williams and McCoy this season, while the Niners laid out $6,198,751 for their stable of backs. The combined cap hit for KC's backs would have ranked behind 12 individual backs this season (including Coleman) and the hit for the 49ers' trio would have sat behind eight individual backs, including fellow Niner Jerick McKinnon, who missed his second consecutive season due to injury.
5. Position-stacking to fill roster holes often works
When teams enter the offseason with obvious needs, they usually target a specific player to fill them. The Chiefs and 49ers instead flooded the zone with multiple potential solutions, and they were the better for it.
Kansas City's secondary was a major weakness in 2018, and specifically the team had a weakness at safety. They ranked 20th in Football Outsiders' DVOA against deep passes that season, and they needed to clean things up. So, they attacked the weakness with ferocity in free agency and the draft. The Chiefs handed Tyrann Mathieu a three-year, $42 million contract to play at one safety spot and snagging Juan Thornhill in the second round of the draft to man the other. As they transitioned from a 3-4 to a 4-3, the Chiefs also had a need for different kinds of edge rushers, so they went out and got Frank Clark, Emmanuel Ogbah, and Alex Okafor.
The 49ers, meanwhile, had two different areas of major weakness. They desperately needed help rushing from the edges, as well as at wide receiver. And the Niners, like the Chiefs, devoted draft draft capital and free-agent dollars to solving those problems. They even made a midseason trade to help at one of the two spots. They traded their second-round pick to the Chiefs for Dee Ford, then gave him a five-year, $85.5 million contract. They took Nick Bosa with the No. 2 overall pick in the draft. Snagging Deebo Samuel with the No. 36 overall pick turned out to be a master stroke, but the Niners also drafted Jalen Hurd as a sort of receiver/tight end/running back hybrid; and when they got to midseason and weren't satisfied with their pass-catching corps, they sent third- and fourth-round picks to the Broncos in exchange for Emmanuel Sanders and a fifth.
Needless to say, all of these moves worked out fairly well for them.
6. Be aggressive
Perhaps this is a lesson the Niners should learn as well. Presented with two opportunities to go for it on fourth-and-short while the game was in the balance, the Chiefs went for it twice and were rewarded with 10 total points. Presented with two similar opportunities, the Niners kicked both times and came away with six points. San Francisco also had an opportunity to use a timeout late in the first half and give Jimmy Garoppolo extra time to lead a scoring drive, but Shanahan neglected to do so and the team ran out of time while trying to score. Had they been a bit more aggressive, perhaps the outcome of the game would have changed.