If the biggest takeaway from Super Bowl LIV was Patrick Mahomes is the next gen Aaron Rodgers, the second-biggest revelation was this: You can’t beat speed.
It turns out the future of offense in the NFL is not a return to an old-school power running game or deceiving defenses with a steady diet of jet sweeps and end arounds, real or fake. The Kansas City Chiefs’ 31-20 victory over the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday showed speed remains the fastest route to a championship.
Although the Super Bowl offenses were built differently — the Chiefs throw first, the 49ers run first — they are based on the same principle. Both teams flood the field with fast, quick players and try to create room for them to run. Indeed, the Super Bowl combatants featured the two fastest sets of skill players in the NFL.
Mahomes, the Chiefs quarterback, has supplanted Rodgers as the NFL’s top playmaker at the position, a designation the Green Bay Packers quarterback held for a decade. But whether you have a dual-threat quarterback in the mold of Mahomes and Rodgers or a system quarterback like San Francisco’s Jimmy Garoppolo, you need to surround him with speed these days. And the more the merrier.
The Chiefs and 49ers have done that. The Packers have not.
That’s why the Packers’ trip to the NFC Championship Game was misleading. Yes, they reached the NFL’s final four after missing the playoffs the previous two seasons. But their blowout loss to the 49ers revealed the gap between the Packers and the Super Bowl teams is considerable.
Fortunately, the Chiefs and 49ers handed Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst a road map to the Super Bowl. If the Packers hope to build on their breakthrough season, they need to upgrade their speed on offense, especially wide receiver and tight end.
Running back Aaron Jones and wide receiver Davante Adams don’t have the blinding speed that some of their counterparts on the Super Bowl teams do, but both play much faster than their timed speed and have become elite players. Wide receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling has 4.3 speed in the 40-yard dash, but his suspect hands and inconsistent route-running caused him to disappear the second half of the season. Other than those three, the Packers have no one with the speed to threaten defenses. No wonder Rodgers struggled to find open targets all season.
How does the Packers’ speed compare to the Super Bowl teams? The difference is startling.
First, look at wide receiver, where the NFL combine average over the last five years is 4.48 seconds in the 40.
San Francisco defensive coordinator Robert Saleh joked that Kansas City looked like an Olympic track team, and he wasn’t far off. The Chiefs’ top three receivers are Tyreek Hill, Sammy Watkins, and Mecole Hardman. During the combine or at their pro day, Hill ran 4.29, Hardman 4.33 and Watkins 4.43.
The 49ers aren’t as fast as the Chiefs outside, but they can still run. Of their top wide receivers, Emmanuel Sanders ran 4.41 and Deebo Samuel and Richie James ran 4.48s when they entered the NFL. Marquise Goodwin, who once ran 4.27, was injured and missed the Super Bowl.
The Packers? Adams ran a 4.56 but, again, plays much faster. Besides Valdes-Scantling, the others who played sizable roles during the season were Allen Lazard (4.55), Jake Kumerow (4.58) and Geronimo Allison (4.67), all well below the league average.
Next, look at running back, were the average speed at the combine is 4.49.
The 49ers’ greatest collection of speed is in the backfield, where Raheem Mostert, Matt Breida and Tevin Coleman are among the fastest backs in the NFL. Mostert was a 4.32 guy coming out of college, Breida was at 4.38 and Coleman 4.39. Mostert ran for 220 yards and four touchdowns on 29 carries against the Packers, making Green Bay’s defense look painfully slow in the process.
The Chiefs backfield isn’t slow, either, especially running back Damien Williams, who had 104 yards on 17 carries in the Super Bowl. Williams ran 4.45 coming out. His backups, LeSean McCoy and Darwin Thompson, ran 4.42 and 4.50, respectively.
As for the the Packers, Jones is one of those players who seems faster with pads than without. Still, he is below the NFL average in the 40, as is backup Jamaal Williams (4.59). Nevertheless, they give the Packers adequate speed at the position.
A similar disparity exists at tight end, where the combine average for the position is 4.70 seconds.
The 49ers’ George Kittle, the NFL’s best tight end, entered the league with a 4.52 in the 40. Plus, he’s a great blocker. The Chiefs’ Travis Kelce is just a shade behind Kittle in every area, including speed. He ran a 4.61 coming in.
Packers starter Jimmy Graham ran a sparkling 4.56 once upon a time, but he was 33 this season and has lost a step or two. The other tight ends — Robert Tonyan (4.58), rookie Jace Sternberger (4.75) and Marcedes Lewis (4.84) — caught 25 passes combined and were non-factors.
As the Super Bowl showed, the best weapon in the NFL is speed. And the next-best weapon might be the threat of speed.
In his third offseason in charge of the roster, Gutekunst badly needs to infuse his offense with speed. Oh, and it wouldn’t hurt to add some speed at inside linebacker, either.