Some may call it destiny or fate, but the Kansas City Chiefs have gotten pretty lucky down the stretch of the 2019 season. They have caught significant breaks to put them in the position they’re currently in:
- Starting quarterback Patrick Mahomes only missed two starts after a kneecap dislocation in Week 7 that some speculated could be long-term.
- Free agent pass rusher Terrell Suggs was claimed by four contenders — but the Chiefs earned his rights with one less loss than the other three teams.
- The Chiefs needed a four-win Miami Dolphins team to beat the New England Patriots at Foxborough in Week 17 to earn a postseason bye-week — and of course, Fitzmagic happened.
- Now, they are hosting the AFC championship game against the sixth-seeded Tennessee Titans after their upset of the No. 1 seed Baltimore Ravens.
These factors have each made the franchise’s ultimate goal more and more achievable — the chance to follow what Chiefs owner Clark Hunt said before training camp in July.
The expectations have grown higher and higher each week — and now the team will feel the weight of an entire city’s 50-year Super Bowl absence on their heads. They felt it last season — but a loss this year would be much more difficult to accept than the loss in 2019 because of the ways the team has improved from last year to this year.
Compared to the 2018 team, the current Chiefs have better leadership, a better defensive coaching staff and have made better personnel decisions.
The Chiefs have a more unique group of leaders than they have had in a long time. They’re young but also experienced — and that starts with Patrick Mahomes. A 24-year-old starting quarterback is an advantage for multiple reasons, but that doesn’t usually include leadership ability. He actually may be the best leader out of all the talented young quarterbacks in the NFL.
During their Divisional round playoff loss, Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson looked puzzled and frustrated most of the time he was shown on the sideline. That was the opposite of what Mahomes was doing when down early in their game.
Chicago Bears quarterback Mitch Trubisky struggles with ability, but he also doesn’t come off as a strong vocal leader. Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield seems immature with the way he handles media availabilities. Bills quarterback Josh Allen has good intentions but isn’t the authority figure in a locker room yet. Yes, Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson has shown good leadership traits already in his young career — but not to the degree of Mahomes.
Mahomes is the rare combination of supremely talented and an effective leader. You could give credit to his father for being a professional baseball player or head coach Andy Reid for molding him — but I’m choosing to single out a key piece to the construction of this team that hasn’t been in the organization for a couple of years.
Former Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith assisted Mahomes into becoming the quarterback and leader he is now. You can hear it in the way Mahomes answers questions. He says the right things and doesn’t say more than he needs to — similar to Smith and Reid. Mahomes’ impressively quick grasp of the offense should have to do with Smith’s 2017 performance. Smith’s best season attacking vertically was a great way for Mahomes to learn while backing him up.
The thing he may have learned the most from Smith is how to carry himself as a teammate in the locker room and on the field. Smith was never afraid to show emotion after a big play or deservedly bark at one of his guys — and Mahomes took that to another level with his constant emotional play. Smith helped build Mahomes into the fearless but professional leader he is today. (Hey, why not have him back to bang the drum for the AFC championship?)
Mahomes is the youngest of the core leaders at 24, but defensive authority figures safety Tyrann Mathieu and defensive end Frank Clark are both under the age of 28. This youthful leadership allows for those players to lead both vocally and by example, with high effort and energy.
Speaking of the defense, they will take the field with a completely different look than they did in the previous year’s AFC championship. Ironically, they may be facing an offense that will attempt to play as the Patriots did in last year’s game — a run-heavy scheme that chews up clock and uses play-action passing off of that. Fortunately for the Chiefs, they do not have the same defensive coordinator as last time.
First-year Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo is undoubtedly the right hire now — but there were other possibilities for the position when it was open.
- They could have promoted from within the same system. Defensive line coach Britt Reid or former outside linebackers coach Mike Smith were possibilities — but that would have limit the staff that could be assembled and the change in scheme.
- Former Bills and Jets head coach Rex Ryan was floated around as a possibility — but his clashing personality could have been dangerous in the locker room with headstrong players.
- There were college defensive coordinators pointed out — but their inexperience at the professional level could have made the turn around a longer process.
Spagnuolo was the perfect candidate for a team that wanted to contend right away — and he has proven it this year with a quickly rebuilt defense. Their last major hiccup was against these same Titans. This is where a veteran defensive mind is advantageous over an inexperienced coordinator. He has to be comfortable enough with his scheme to understand what failed in the previous matchup and possibly show different looks this time around.
General manager Brett Veach obviously played a big role in building the current version of the Chiefs.
The 2019 draft has made an immediate impact with second-round picks safety Juan Thornhill and receiver Mecole Hardman being named to the Pro Football Writers of America All-Rookie team. He also understood what position needed the most depth and addressed that by obtaining contributors on the defensive line like Demone Harris, Mike Pennel and Terrell Suggs during the regular season. Plus, he intelligently stayed put on the potential trade for current Los Angeles Rams cornerback Jalen Ramsey. The price tag would not have been worth it; Veach trusted that the secondary had enough to get it done and has been proven correct so far.
The Chiefs have young players with elite leadership skills, an experienced defensive coordinator that has been in this situation before and a general manager that has made effective signings on both a high and low scale this season to help sustain the team’s success through injuries. These are all factors that build towards the team’s ability to win or lose this game.
Just last season, the player leadership was questionable, the defensive coordinator was unadaptable and unimaginative,and a subpar 2018 draft class was hurting Veach’s stock as a personnel guy. The organization corrected the reasons they fell short last season — and are now as ready as they’ve ever been to hoist the Lamar Hunt Trophy.