KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The Bill Belichicks of the world would like you to think the NFL is quantum physics, that it floats above your feeble, Triceratops brain and on some higher, purer level of academia.
Which, as Einstein liked to say, is utter horse crap. (Of course, he sounded smarter when he said it.)
Exhibit A: A year ago at this time, the Kansas City Chiefs had played two games, turned it over six times and collected zero takeaways. They were 0-2, had been outscored 75-41 and were on their way to a 2-14 dumpster fire of an autumn.
Exhibit B: After a 17-16 victory over the Dallas Cowboys, the 2013 Chiefs have snatched four takeaways and have yet to turn it over. They’re 2-0. They’ve outscored the opposition 45-18.
Lesson No. 1: Take care of the football in the NFL, you win. You don’t, you lose.
Lesson No. 2: Always remember Lesson No. 1.
Simple, right? Congratulations, kids. You just received your doctorate.
“It’s takeaways and points,” coach Andy Reid said after winning his home debut, lifting the new-look Chiefs to their best start since 2010. “On both sides of the ball, we keep it nice and simple.
“We try to eliminate the turnovers and we try to score points on offense. The opposite way, don’t let them score and have some takeaways, and normally good things happen.”
There’s no complex formula here, no magic wand. It’s a fine line, the great demoralizer, the great equalizer. It can give a defense life and reduce an offensive coordinator to tears. In the right hands, it’s an absolute weapon.
“It’s every day, man — it’s every day in practice,” said Chiefs safety Eric Berry, whose fumble recovery with 38 seconds left in the third quarter helped set up the game-clinching field goal. “Every time we’re touching off, tagging off on the run in practice, we’re going after the ball, trying to get interceptions.
“We’re just trying to get the ball out, because we know that puts our offense in a good position to score and puts them in position to make a play. So that’s a big emphasis during practice and it’s starting to become second nature for the whole team. It’s very important, and it’s paying dividends.”
In a league in which everybody’s got gladiators in their corner, turnovers are the X factor, the thing that swings the pendulum. On Sunday, the visitors turned it over twice in the second half while in their own territory, miscues that eventually led to those fateful three points. The Chiefs’ giveaways: Zero. In Week 1, the Cowboys were plus-five on turnover count at home and knocked off the New York Giants.
Again, it ain’t rocket science.
“We know, firsthand, from last week,” Dallas owner/general manager Jerry Jones said, “that when you are minus-two in turnovers, you have a real uphill battle.”
For the second straight game, the boys in red got a little bit of something from everybody. But the single most pivotal moment might have come on that aforementioned takeaway, the result of Chiefs linebacker Akeem Jordan stripping Cowboys tailback Lance Dunbar as he went down after a 4-yard reception. Berry wound up with the rock at the Kansas City 47, then returned it 22 yards to the Cowboys’ 31.
“We knew that we needed a turnover — that was the mind-set,” said safety Kendrick Lewis, who collected a tackle for a loss and a pass breakup. “And on the defense, we talked to each other on the sidelines, we were telling each other, ‘We need the ball, go get the ball,’ and that’s how we went out there and swarmed together as a defense and were able to come up with two big-time plays.”
Last year: Minus-6. This year: Plus-4. So what’s the secret: Personnel? Mind-set? All of the above?
“Got a good quarterback,” running back Jamaal Charles said, matter-of-factly.
Matt Cassel is gone, but the pain lives on. The Chiefs don’t necessarily need Alex Smith to be brilliant all the time to win — not with this defense, not with this punter.
But they absolutely, unequivocally need him to be better than awful. And Smith was several stages above that, for the second week in a row.
“A lot of it is mind-set,” tackle Donald Stephenson said. “We all grew up playing ball and (were) taught to hang onto the ball, stuff like that, doing certain things in pass protections. But sometimes, it bounces off the helmet the wrong way and kind of the wrong thing (happens) and it keeps rolling. So it’s a little bit of both.”
And the afternoon wasn’t flawless, by any stretch: Those Chiefs had three drives that started in Dallas territory and came away with only those three points to show for it. The Cowboys made life hell on rookie right tackle Eric Fisher and kept the heat on Smith for much of the afternoon, sacking him four times.
“You adjust. Whatever you get beat on, you remember it,” said Stephenson, who was pressed into relief duty in the second quarter when left tackle Branden Albert was recovering from a shoulder injury. “That way, when you come in during the halftime (break), you talk about it getting fixed and then go out and play. You know, as we prepared (for) this game, there (were) just a couple of things that they showed that sometimes you don’t see on film.
“We’re digging deep into the bag. That’s how it is in this league. It takes everybody.”
It takes a new coach, a new front office, a new quarterback, a new collective mind-set. Sometimes, it takes a new uniform combo — in this case, red tops and red bottoms, believed to be a franchise first. Sometimes, it takes new pregame introductions — now done individually, with the help of giant flamethrowers.
But the more the aesthetics change, the more the basic tenets remain the same. And the numbers don’t lie: Last fall, the top four teams in the AFC in turnover margin all reached the postseason.
Throw in the top four in plus/minus in ’10 and the top four in ’11, and 11 of those 12 clubs wound up in the playoffs. Compare that with the bottom four in turnover margin in ’10, ’11 and ’12, where nine of the 12 ended up missing the party.
Lesson No. 3: Did we mention Lesson No. 1?
“(There’s) a reason why coaches preach it so much,” Stephenson said. “It’s probably the most truthful thing in stats.”
Last year, that truth hurt. This year? This year, it’s positively beautiful.
You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @seankeeler or email him at email@example.com.