The Super Bowl champion is rarely the team that was unbeatable all year and avoided controversy; the season is too long. If there are no obstacles for a team to get past and learn from, it will be even tougher for it to overcome when they occur in the postseason.
The 2019 Baltimore Ravens are a great example. They hadn’t lost since Week 4 — and were thoroughly dominating their competition — until their Divisional round loss to the Tennessee Titans. They just weren’t familiar with trailing on the scoreboard and had no way to overcome it.
The Kansas City Chiefs have been quite the opposite.
They’ve faced challenges with injuries, performance and the way they’ve started games. Starting quarterback Patrick Mahomes dealt with injuries for a significant portion of the season — and so did key players like wide receiver Tyreek Hill, left tackle Eric Fisher and defensive tackle Chris Jones. Both the offense and defense had some ugly play in a stretch of the season where the team went 2-4. And they trailed at the end of the first quarter in seven of their 16 games.
One of the first things Chiefs head coach Andy Reid said in his postgame press conference after Sunday’s 35-24 victory over the Titans — a victory that sent them to their first Super Bowl in 50 years — spoke to obstacles.
And the two words he said may be the underlying theme to the season.
“‘Never die’ is kind of their thing,” coach Reid said of his team. “I mean getting behind like this is tough on an old guy, but they did a nice job coming back.”
With the two postseason games, the Chiefs had trailed after the first period in nine games this season. They are 7-2 in those games — including a loss while Mahomes was sidelined.
“I think it’s that ‘never give up’ mentality,” said Mahomes on Sunday. “It’s that we’re going to go out there and give our best effort every single play — and really had to take advantage of every single play the rest of the game. We don’t care if we’re down 10-0 or if we’re up 10-0, we’re going to go out there and execute — and do everything we can to have success on every single play.”
The team chemistry it takes to stay together and fight through those situations cannot be manufactured. It stems from true leaders making their presence felt and instilling confidence in their teammates. Mahomes’ teammates believe in him — as do his coaches.
“I think we all do. We all believe in him,” said the head coach. “That’s a positive. It’s not just me — it’s everybody. We’re lucky to have some guys that build a lot of confidence within you and from a coaching standpoint — on both sides of the ball. Pat’s a leader of the team and everybody knows that. They all respect him for it. He knows how to handle it and that’s why we’re here.”
There was a point in the season where Mahomes’ ability to play was in serious question. Chiefs general manager Brett Veach recalls that night with a different perspective than most.
“It’s crazy, because if you go back to the Denver game when that injury went down, most of Chiefs Kingdom — and maybe most of the national media — thought our season was over,” he said on Sunday. “But really, that was the turning point. When you look back on our defensive transformation, that was the game [where] our defense really balled-out.”
The defensive improvement from Week 1 to now is also an embodiment of that never die mentality that Reid and Mahomes mentioned. At the beginning of the season, there was skepticism about the big offseason additions — including defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. But now Spagnuolo is being credited with turning it around — even with the injuries plaguing the defense throughout the campaign.
“It’s a mindset thing. He creates a lot of confidence in ourselves,” said safety Daniel Sorensen — one of those who saw his role increase because of those injuries. “We have a lot of confidence in him — that he’s going to put us in the right positions. Then the preparation. The coaches do a great job of getting us the game plan and giving us a challenge that we need to attack — and we’ve been able to do that.”
Spagnuolo’s game plan is flexible. He has not only been able to adjust during games but through the entire season. Safety Tyrann Mathieu is one of his long-term adjustments — being used as a free safety, box safety and slot cornerback. The one thing that hasn’t changed is his determination — and he says Spagnuolo helped him earn the first-team All-Pro honor he won this season.
“Maybe a little bit of faith and believing in yourself. He’s a detailed coach,” Mathieu said about what his coordinator brings to the unit. “He’s always challenging us — especially myself. I can remember a couple of instances this year where I came off a big game and he called me into his office and had this list of things that I could do better. That’s the kind of thing that you want from a football coach. You want them to challenge you — you want them to test you.”
Just like the offense believes in Mahomes, the defense believes in their leader, too. The positive effect that belief has on an individual cannot be understated.
“You can probably see that from the type of plays that Spags calls, He just expects me to make a play,” said Mathieu. “I think any time you’re around people that believe in you, it’s always going to have a positive effect on you — especially for me personally. I like to be around people that believe we can do something.”
This never die attitude has helped the Chiefs persevere through injuries on both sides of the ball, the process of building (and adjusting) a defense and slow starts in multiple games. This mindset was also apparent in the post-game celebration — and the presentation of the Lamar Hunt Trophy.
“None of these guys knew Lamar Hunt,” noted veteran punter Dustin Colquitt. “I was blessed to know him in ‘05 and ‘06 — my first two years in the league. What a gracious man. To bring the trophy back on his home field — the place that he built from the rubble in this parking lot — it’s exciting.”
The legacy of professional football pioneer Lamar Hunt may never die — and the Chiefs team that finally won the trophy named in his honor did so by embracing a similar way to play.