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The forgotten return of Sammy Watkins

Without the hype surrounding two 9-1 teams — and drama about where the game would be played — Watkins’ return to LA might have been the narrative.

San Francisco 49ers v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Peter Aiken/Getty Images

This is all standard operating procedure.

When the Kansas City Chiefs bring in a free agent player, the first thing we do is look ahead on the calendar to see when the Chiefs will face the player’s former team, circle the date and make a note: “Ask [insert player name here] about playing against former teammates.”

Such was the case for free agent Sammy Watkins, who will play against his former Los Angeles Rams teammates on Monday night.

But we never know what storylines or other narratives might develop before we get there — for example, that the Chiefs and Rams would face each other in primetime when both teams are 9-1. Or that six days before, that primetime game will be moved from one country to another because the original field doesn’t turn out to be up to NFL standards.

But we’re resourceful folks. We’ll look at our cell phone calendars, ask the questions we planned so long ago, and write down the answers we get — even though they might never see the light of day when unexpected storylines crowd them out.

So we asked people about Watkins on Thursday — and asked the man himself some questions, too.

We’ve devoted a lot of ink electrons to Watkins since he was signed by the Chiefs last March. We noted that pundits thought Watkins might have been overpaid. We wrote how the Chiefs were building a version of Sammy Watkins no one had ever seen. We told you about Watkins’ new haircut in training camp. — because reporters like haircut stories almost as much as ketchup stories. We made our best guess about what Watkins’ production might be for the Chiefs this season. When Watkins was unproductive in the preseason, we worried whether Watkins’ big contract was a factor in the Chiefs defensive problems.

The list goes on.

Los Angeles Rams v Tennessee Titan Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

But as I went through what we’ve written about Watkins, I was struck by an article from a week after the signing, where we saw that the Rams were thinking about Watkins as “the one that got away.”

“There’s a reason why he had a market — he put good things on tape,” said Rams head coach Sean McVay of the big contract Watkins had just landed with the Chiefs. “I don’t think that’s exclusive to, maybe, the production from a numbers standpoint. He did a lot more for our offense that’s going to be a big void.”

And judging from his comments to the press on Thursday — when he was (of course) asked about Watkins playing against his team on Monday night — McVay still feels that way.

We’ve assumed — because we’re Chiefs fans — that the change in attitude Watkins developed over the course of his three-team career had to do with the influence of Chiefs head coach Andy Reid. But McVay’s remarks would suggest that the Rams — both last spring and now — saw the same thing.

“I was really impressed with the caliber of player he is — the willingness to do some of the things he did without the ball — but really, if I’m being honest, I don’t think I did a good enough job of getting him the ball as many times as he deserved last year. He made the most of those, and he didn’t say anything. [He] just continued to go to work.

“[He’s] an explosive playmaker with outstanding aggressive hands,” continued McVay. “[He’s] a physical football player. And I’ve been really happy for Sammy. I was sorry to see him leave, but I’m happy for him because he deserves the contract that he earned. He’s in a great situation, and he’s done a great job making plays throughout the season.”

But whether or not we misunderstood Watkins’ career arc to this point, it’s hard to underestimate what he has brought to the Chiefs offense when he’s been on the field. When asked about Watkins’ presumed return to the starting lineup on Monday, quarterback Patrick Mahomes echoed McVay’s comments from the spring.

“Sammy just brings another dimension to our offense,” Mahomes said. “He’s so physical with the speed. He’s someone that can really stretch the defense as well as put pressure on them in a lot of different ways. I thought guys did well — stepped up and played well in replacing [his] role — but at the same time it’s hard to replace a guy like Sammy.”

Watkins himself said he believes his role with the Chiefs — unlike it was the Rams — includes veteran leadership.

“My leadership role — the things I do in the huddle, the things I say in the huddle -- I think that’s kind of missed in the outside world. Keeping the guys level-headed. I’m not too much caught up on stats and stuff like that. I’ve grown past that.”

Watkins even said that his experience with the Rams helped smooth his transition to Kansas City’s offense.

“I think that kind of prepared me. Maybe that’s the reason I’m here now. That was a blessing in disguise. I learned how to stay patient, and make the best of the opportunities that are given to me.”

But Watkins is serene about what the future may bring.

“Everything is kind of planned in God’s hands. That’s how I look at it. I’m here for a reason. Right now, I’m happy.”

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