Late in the fourth quarter, as the Chiefs tried to extend their lead to eight, there was a clear miscommunication between long snapper James Winchester and holder Dustin Colquitt that led to an intentional grounding penalty.
“James felt like Dustin called for the ball, but he didn’t, and then he tried to pull it back and that’s why it bounced to him,” said special teams coordinator Dave Toub. “Had he not, we could’ve just gotten an offside penalty, re-kicked it and have been fine. But obviously, it turned into a bad deal. He got the ball in his hand and Dustin, instead of just throwing the ball at the heels of an eligible receiver, he just tossed the ball out and we got the intentional grounding penalty. We turned a bad play into a worse play on that one.”
The Chiefs lost the down and the ball, and the Titans took over at their own 39-yard line, eventually scoring to take a three-point lead. Then, on the Chiefs’ 52-yarder to try and tie the game, the field goal was blocked by Titans safety Joshua Kalu, who said after the game he was able to time the block perfectly based upon cadence.
“On the next one, really the whole game, he was getting a great get-off,” said Toub. “I didn’t realize that it was a key that we were giving off. A different key than I thought it was. Going back and looking at it, it was on me. I didn’t see it during the game, and I missed it. They got us. It was a good play by him. We learned from it and we move forward.”
The Chiefs have become accustomed to special teams being a strength, having finished in the top five of the NFL the last three seasons. But the unit just hasn’t been as good this season — Football Outsiders currently ranks the Chiefs with the 12th special teams units in the league.
”It’s been a rough year for us,” said Toub. “I feel like it’s been up-and-down. In the return game, we’ve been close. But I’ve been saying that every week it seems like. We need a breakout game in the return game. Our coverage, I love our coverage. Kickoff and punt, I think, are doing excellent. The debacle that happened, it was unfortunate. Obviously, in the same phase, it really hurt the team.
“I told the guys this, too, the offense and defense did enough to win the game — we have to finish. We have to be perfect. We have to get that job done. That’s our job to get that done, and we didn’t get that done. We hold ourselves accountable; coaches, players, and certainly Dustin and James. Those guys will get it right.”
But Hardman’s struggles of late have been apparent. Hardman fumbled against the Vikings and nearly did so another time — and then he called for a fair catches on punts at his own 8 and 4-yard lines against Tennessee.
Toub reaffirmed his confidence in the rookie.
“He’s still developing,” said Toub. “You see him still making some mistakes sometimes. It’s plain as day — everybody sees it, but he’s getting better. His confidence is building, and he sees it when he watches the tape and he sees what he could have did better. And he’s very receptive to it. And he wants to be great, and he will be great.”
Rome wasn’t built over night.... https://t.co/b5GoiDbI0Z— Mecole Hardman Jr. (@MecoleHardman4) November 16, 2019
So far in 2019, Hardman is averaging 16.0 yards per punt return in only six attempts. Keeping in mind that number will likely dip slightly with a greater sample size, that is currently the best mark in the league by more than five yards.
Once Hardman cleans up the little things, he could compete for one of the top returners in the league. But that needs to happen sooner rather than later, as the Chiefs’ margin of error has dwindled significantly.