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Super Bowl 54 Preview

Super Bowl 54 is a play-designer's delight, a game that would warm the heart of legendary Sports Illustrated pro football scribe Paul "Dr. Z" Zimmerman.

On one side, Kyle Shannahan's 49ers posted a regular season play design differential of +8.41% (.0841), which is the best regular season figure since QC invented and began tracking play design differential in 2008. Until San Francisco came along this year, the +8.21% (.0821) Seattle Seahawks of 2013 were the best designed team QC ever documented. In the Super Bowl that year, Pete Carroll's team annihilated a record-setting, media and public darling QB (P-Rex Manning), 43-8. There is one player on the 49ers who also played on Seattle, a less-flamboyant but still capable Richard Sherman. Hmmmm.

But Andy Reid's +5.54% (.0554) Chiefs are not chopped liver when it comes to play design. As the table below shows, Kansas City's play design would rank No. 8 of the 24 Super Bowl participants since 2008.

Super Bowl

Better Designed

Worse Designed


49ers (+.0841)

Chiefs (+.0554)


Patriots (+.0294), W 13-3

Rams (+.0237)


Patriots (+.0252)

Eagles (+.0250), W 42-33


Falcons (+.0746)

Patriots (+.0481), W 34-28 OT


Panthers (+.0515)

Broncos (+.0282), W 24-10


Seahawks (+.0414)

Patriots (+.0065), W 28-24


Seahawks (+.0821), W 42-8

Broncos (+.0520)


49ers (+.0621)

Ravens (+.0073), W 34-31


Giants (+.0330), W 21-17

Patriots (+.0272)


Packers (+.0587), W 31-25

Steelers (+.0574)


Colts (+.0564)

Saints (+.0534), W 31-17


Steelers (+.0577), W 28-23

Cardinals (+.0109)

When these teams met in Week 3 of 2018, the Chiefs jumped to a 35-7 lead on their way to a 38-27 win. At that time, Reid had designed the most diabolical offense since Bill Walsh gifted Mike Holmgren the 1989 49ers. That San Francisco team 30 years ago--the best designed team in NFL history by coaching statistics--was incredibly versatile primarily because Roger Craig (who should be in the HOF) was a breakaway runner, a power runner, and a splendid receiver who could run wide receiver routes. In Kareem Hunt, Reid had found a Craig clone (ask Bill Belichick) and with QB Pat Mahomes' rocket arm and improvisational skill, Kansas City was as lethal as any offense in NFL history.

But Reid no longer has Hunt and has (unsurprisingly) not found a replacement. While the Chiefs remain potent and capable of points explosions, the design is just not as complete as it was when Hunt was in the lineup.

San Francisco DC Robert Saleh may be able keep Mahomes reasonably contained if he and edge rushers Nick Bosa and Dee Ford are content to make a living rather than trying to get rich. The 49ers pass rush sacked opposing QBs for -.707 yards per pass attempt. That's a huge number.

Master researcher Chase Stewart published data indicating NFL offenses are hurt more by sacks than interceptions as sack rates in 2019 increased over 2018 rates while interception rates declined. But neither sacks nor interceptions hurt Kansas City much in 2019. And Mahomes killed Houston and Tennessee in the AFC playoffs with his running. The 49ers' odds of winning will increase if Bosa and Ford contain Mahomes and force him to step up in the pocket into tall interior pass rushers DeForest Buckner and Arik Amstead.

But QC speculates Saleh and his troops will not be able to do so, at least not on a handful of high leverage plays. The Super Bowl is longer and more emotionally draining than a normal NFL game (according to Belichick) and pass rush tends to wilt late in the game.

Chiefs' DC Steve Spagnuolo is likely to have just as much trouble designing to stop Shannahan, QB Jimmy Garoppolo, TE George Kittle, WB Deebo Samuel, and all the other interchangeable parts that make up the 49ers' offense. As QC pointed out three years ago when Shannahan's Atlanta offense faced Belichick and the Patriots, the problem in designing to stop Shannahan is that his offense as no "regulator." That is there is no single vulnerable offensive component that if disrupted will result in the attack crashing and burning. In 2007, Spagnuolo found such a vulnerability in the unbeaten Patriots' attack and exploited it by putting DE Justin Tuck over New England center Dan Koppen and rushing Tom Brady up the middle. But Shannahan's offense make stars out of players like Kittle and FB Kyle Juszczyk. Spagnuolo simply cannot choke off the 49ers at one point.

In addition, Shannahan seems like he has learned from the Falcons embarrassing Super Bowl melt-down against the Patriots. In that game, Shannahan relentlessly called slow-developing, risky deep pass plays and Patriots' sacks of Matt Ryan (here's looking at you Chase Stewart) ultimately led to Atlanta's implosion. In contrast, in the NFC Championship Game against Green Bay, Shannhan called runs and much safer short passes after San Francisco built up an enormous lead.

Still, according to Chase Stewart's recent research, the 49ers lose about twice as many expected points to sacks and interceptions as the Chiefs lose. In a design battle at this level, those small differences are likely to be critical. Consequently, QC expects the Chiefs to win a close game and Mahomes to claim Super Bowl MVP. (Hedge your Mahomes position with a bet on Garoppolo for MVP that will cover your Mahomes MVP investment because in a game where design will be dominant it is almost a sure thing that a QB will be the MVP.)

QC can give out one guarantee: One HC is going to redeem himself and cement his legacy in this game.

Either Andy Reid will redeem his past post-season shortfalls and cement his place in the Pro Football HOF. (He is already in if QC gets a vote). Or Kyle Shannahan will redeem his Super Bowl 51 collapse and stamp himself as the preeminent play designer in the NFL today. It should be close. QC's coaching statistics suggest San Francisco should be a 1-point or 1.5-point favorite. (Kansas City has been hovering around a 1-point to 1.5-point favorite since betting stabilized after the conference championship games.)

The guess here is this is Andy Reid's moment.

Pick: Kansas City Chiefs SU and ATS.

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