Super Bowl LV isn’t just a heavyweight matchup of star quarterbacks. It’s also an intriguing battle of strategic wits between two coaching giants, Bruce Arians and Andy Reid.
Both are noted for their innovations on offense. Arians refined his preference for the vertical passing game only slightly to accommodate Tom Brady. The combination still proved fruitful enough to take the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to the big game.
Ironically, Reid’s original offensive blueprint might have been designed with Brady in mind. It was all short passes, or long handoffs if you prefer, rooted in the West Coast scheme designed by the late, great Bill Walsh.
Mahomes is a rocket-armed, ultra-athletic phenom who routinely changes games with one play. His arrival, along with the speed of wide receiver Tyreek Hill, encouraged Reid to expand his playbook.
The concepts became about attacking vertically and finding creative ways to unleash speed. A Lombardi Trophy last season was the payoff for Reid reinventing the Chiefs.
Arians vs Reid: Strengths
Attack, attack, attack. No two coaches in the NFL stay on the attack as much as Arians and Reid. And that extends to both sides of the ball.
Their offenses stretch defenses at every level. Deep passing takes the top off of coverage, while outside-zone runs punish over-pursuit on the ground.
There’s no small ball, control the clock and dominate the sticks stuff from Arians or Reid. They’re usually in too much of a hurry to score for any of that.
What’s unique about these coaches is how their proactive philosophies extend to defense. Both employ coordinators who love to blitz.
Jim Johnson ran Reid’s defenses with the Philadelphia Eagles back in the day. Johnson was a master of sending pressure from all angles. Steve Spagnuolo was on Johnson’s staff, and he reunited with Reid in KC in 2019.
— NFL (@NFL) January 25, 2021
Bowles is the best defensive coordinator in the NFL. He’s not afraid to have cornerbacks press in man coverage behind five, six, or even seven-man pressure.
Yet Bowles will flip the script to spring a surprise against an experienced quarterback. He toned it down against Aaron Rodgers in the NFC Championship Game.
Aaron Rodgers on @PatMcAfeeShow says the Bucs and Todd Bowles going to a lot of 2-man coverage was a "really good adjustment"
He also says he was surprised there was less zero blitz pressure. Says Bucs opted for more of an edge pressure approach with blitzing nickel, etc
— Jon Ledyard (@LedyardNFLDraft) January 26, 2021
Bowles and Spagnuolo are allowed to be aggressive by head coaches who believe attack is the best form of defense.
Arians and Reid also put their faith in diversity and inclusion to expand both their own knowledge and what their players can learn. The Bucs are the only team with three African-American coordinators in the league. They also hired Lori Locust and Maral Javadifar as full-time female assistant coaches.
Arians, 68, knows the importance of having different voices and the best teachers inform his players:
Bruce Arians on the Bucs’ diverse coaching staff:
"The more input from different types of voices, the better output you get" ✊
— B/R Gridiron (@brgridiron) January 28, 2021
Reid has developed a lengthy coaching tree based on spotting talent at the assistant level. Eric Bieniemy is the offensive coordinator who still, bafflingly, hasn’t landed a job as a head coach yet.
The Chiefs have also made room for spread game consultants, pass analysts, and a statistical coordinator on staff in the past. Reid has consistently expanded the roles of traditional assistants to incorporate new and more-specialised thinking into his gameplans.
There are similarities between how Arians and Reid increase their knowledge bases and stay aggressive. The notable difference is how each relates to his players.
Reid is definitely the arm-around-the-shoulder, fatherly type. By contrast, Arians is gruff, acerbic, and never shy about taking a player to task publicly. He criticised Brady more than once during the regular season.
However Arians and Reid communicate, their approaches ultimately work for quarterbacks.
Arians vs Reid: Weaknesses
Brady has made his peace with Arians’ blunt assessments, but it’s easy to imagine not every player enjoys being shamed by his coach in public. Nobody’s going to mind Arians’ demeanour when the team is winning and when a game is going well, but competitive tensions could soon boil over into fractious disagreement if things go wrong.
Being tethered to his system is also a criticism Arians is familiar with. He believes in the deep ball, but Brady struggled mightily earlier in the season. Arm strength has never been his forte and 43-year-old TB 12 looked out of sorts.
Reid’s also never seen a deep pass he didn’t like, but the main complaint about Big Red is how often he ignores the running game. It’s not entirely fair since the Chiefs ran the ball 403 times during the regular season, more than the Bucs’ 369 attempts.
Why run the ball 30 times per game when you have Mahomes throwing to Hill and Travis Kelce? Reid has a right to be pass-happy.
Super Bowl LV coaching matchup: Tendencies
Obviously, airing it out is the defining tendency of two gurus of the passing game. Arians loves the deep pass.
In his 21st NFL season, Tom Brady led all qualified quarterbacks in air yards per attempt (9.6), redefining what can be expected of a quarterback his age.
— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) February 1, 2021
There’s a little more nuance to Reid, who cut his teeth on Mike Holmgren’s staff with the Green Bay Packers in the 1990s. Not surprisingly, Reid is an expert in the screen game.
Andy Reid remains the screen king https://t.co/QrsgYGWav9
— Chris B. Brown (@smartfootball) January 28, 2021
Reid’s also more inclined to indulge a gadget play than Arians. Mahomes has flipped the ball underhand to Kelce or fullback Anthony Sherman in the red zone. Kelce has run out of the wildcat, while Hill routinely breaks a long gain off of some kind of jet-sweep action.
The aggressive streak in both men means you should expect Reid and Arians to go for it on 4th down in the Super Bowl. Reid went for it nine times during the regular season and three times in the playoffs, according to ESPN.
Arians was only marginally less-adventurous, rolling the dice eight times in the regular season and twice through three postseason games.
Neither of these coaches will go conservative with all the marbles at stake. It’ll come down to who calls the big play at the right time.