The Kansas City Chiefs became the world champions of professional football for the second time in franchise history on Sunday night, defeating the San Francisco 49ers in a thrilling 31-20 Super Bowl victory that erased 50 years of postseason futility.
You can take a breath now.
Here are five things we learned in the victory:
1. This was a Super Bowl to remember
There was never much likelihood that the Chiefs were going to blow out the 49ers. San Francisco’s defense was just as good as advertised — and arguably gave Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes the greatest test of his career.
Neither was it likely that the 49ers would blow out Kansas City. Before the game, the Chiefs defense wasn’t getting much credit — the statistics just didn’t paint a pretty picture — but those of us who had been watching it closely during the latter part of the season knew better. The Chiefs defense isn’t designed to put a bunch of pretty numbers on a stat sheet. Instead, it is designed to win games by making plays at the most important moments. That’s what they’ve been doing ever since the Week 7 game against Denver — and what they did on Sunday evening.
So what we got was the kind of game everyone wants to see on Super Bowl Sunday: a hard-fought battle between two excellent football teams — one where the outcome is in doubt well beyond the two-minute warning.
In the last two weeks, the question has been discussed across the NFL mediasphere: what’s more important, a great quarterback or a great defense? As we saw on Sunday, the answer is neither. Championship teams simply find ways to win games. In three consecutive playoff games, that’s exactly what the Chiefs did.
No championship has ever been better-earned. Few may be better-remembered.
2. Andy Reid is a ramblin’ gamblin’ man
In the first half, I counted at least two plays I didn’t remember seeing the Chiefs run before. Twice in the first half — while in field goal range — the Chiefs gambled on fourth-and-short. Both times they converted. On the first, the Chiefs eventually punched it in to take the lead. After the second, rookie running back Darwin Thompson couldn’t hang on to a contested catch on third down, forcing a field goal.
One of the new plays — which converted the first fourth down at the 49ers 5-yard line — was the one that really caught my eye. With three players set in the backfield, all three stood, spun in place and reset. It was enough of a distraction that Damien Williams could take the direct snap and easily get the first down. He nearly made it into the end zone.
It’s one thing for Chiefs head coach Andy Reid to gamble in these kinds of situations — especially in such a momentous game. It’s yet another for Reid to trot out an exotic new play. But it’s quite another for Reid to design a play worthy of legendary Chiefs coach Hank Stram, who was always doing his best to find a way to force a split-second of confusion on the opposing defense.
We don’t know what the Chiefs call this play. But if isn’t 65 Toss Power Spin, it’s a damn shame.
3. Alex Smith deserves our gratitude
For some, these will be fighting words — but I’m going to say them anyway: this day probably wouldn’t have happened if Alex Smith had not been the Chiefs’ quarterback from 2013 through 2017.
The Chiefs team that Andy Reid and general manager John Dorsey took over in 2013 had a lot of things wrong with it. But the two of them were wise enough to recognize that the team had some things going for it, too. A complete overhaul wasn’t needed. Instead, the most important thing was to fix the biggest problems first.
One of those was the team’s quarterback. Another was the team’s culture.
With Smith’s acquisition — ironically from the 49ers — the Chiefs were able to solve both of those problems. With just a few more relatively simple tweaks, the team became competitive, going from 2-14 to 11-5 — and the playoffs — in one season.
No reasonable person would mistake Smith for a quarterback who could carry a team on his shoulders. But neither would a reasonable person deny that he is a damned good one, either. For a team that needed stability at the position, he was the perfect choice.
NFL team executives have to walk a very fine line. The wisest choice is always to build for the future by acquiring young players to develop — but you also have to be successful enough to keep your job; nobody wants to build a roster that your replacement gets to take to a championship. Smith gave the Chiefs the time they needed to do everything necessary to build the team that won the 2019 championship.
And in the end, Smith did even more. When Patrick Mahomes was drafted in 2017, Smith had to know that he wouldn’t last more than another season with the Chiefs. He could have chosen to just play his final season in Kansas City and move on; no one would have held it against him. But instead, he chose to be a professional — doing the best he could to train the young man who was there to take his job. Without his guidance, Mahomes would not be the quarterback he is today.
Thanks for the help, Alex. We’ll never forget it.
4. It’s a new era
One of the things I have really loved about the 2019 Chiefs season is the gold end zone paint scheme used for a few games at Arrowhead, which was based on the one our beloved Groundskeeper Emeritus George Toma applied to the field at Municipal Stadium during the team’s glory years in the 1960s.
I loved that the Chiefs brought back this retro look for the home opener against the Baltimore Ravens; I appreciated that the team wanted to highlight its proud legacy during its 60th season. Like many others, I was disappointed when the scheme didn’t remain for the rest of the season — but was delighted when it returned for the playoffs at Arrowhead.
I’ve since learned that the paint scheme is difficult to maintain on a natural-grass field in a cold-weather location like Kansas City — especially one that doesn’t get sunlight over its whole surface. So we’re probably going to have to settle for seeing it only on special occasions.
I’m sure you noticed that the scheme was also used on one of the end zones for Super Bowl LIV. But did you notice the differences?
At Arrowhead, the scheme was identical to the one used at Municipal Stadium in the 1960s — except, of course, for the Chiefs 60th anniversary logo. But at Hard Rock Stadium on Sunday, the 60th Anniversary logo was replaced by the iconic KC arrowhead that has been the team’s trademark since it arrived in Kansas City. In addition, the thin block typeface of the word “CHIEFS” used at Arrowhead was replaced with the modern extra-bold italic font the team has used for its name since 1988.
The team’s message was clear: although we remain proud of our history and tradition, a new era has begun. We’ll always love Hank and Lenny — and Marty and Joe, too. But this is Andy and Patrick’s team now. Buckle up.
I was going to mention that the Chiefs are now 4-0 with the gold end zones... but the Chiefs are now world champions. We don’t need no stinking superstitions no more.
5. The prize and the perk are not the same thing
Since the Chiefs won the AFC championship to set the stage for Super Bowl LIV, my thoughts have often returned to my mother’s brother Bill.
Uncle Bill bought Chiefs season tickets when the team moved here in 1963. He might have purchased them based on a sense of civic duty — that’s the kind of man he was — but however it happened, he became a passionate fan. Recently, my cousin Julie recalled being at Municipal Stadium with her dad and grandfather for the Christmas Day playoff game against the Miami Dolphins in 1971. She was 14. “I was so cold and hungry,” she said, “I ate the peanuts from the bag in their shells.”
Bill died in 1999. Even though their lives had taken them from Oklahoma City to Los Angeles to Richmond, Julie and her husband Mark kept those season tickets for many years afterward. While their journeys have also sometimes taken them far from Kansas City, their sons Ren and George are among the most ardent Chiefs fans I know.
I’ve also thought a lot about our good friend Dave, who died in 2016. Dave and his wife Sharon raised their son Travis to be a Chiefs fan. And now, grandson Easton is being raised as a Chiefs fan, too — although the family’s closets probably store just as much Royals blue as Chiefs red.
My wife Terri’s lifelong friend Jessica has been on my mind, too. Born in San Francisco, Jessica raised her family in Kansas City, retaining her allegiance to the 49ers while becoming a Chiefs fan, too. She and Terri would often exchange banter about the two teams. Nothing would have made Jessica happier than to see a Chiefs-49ers Super Bowl. But with her family (and Terri) by her side in Texas, she died just a couple of days before the championship games that made it a reality.
Just over a week ago, I paid my respects to another Chiefs family. While I never knew him in his life, James Thorman’s sons Joel and Chris have figured prominently in mine — and yours, too. The founders of Arrowhead Pride often wrote in these pages about how Old Man Thorman had raised them to be as passionate about the Chiefs as he was.
I’m certain that you can tell similar stories about friends and family members whom you wish could have lived to see this day. It’s important (and appropriate) for us to honor them now — just as I did when I recalled my late mother’s passion for the Royals as they stood on the cusp of a world championship in 2014.
As I’ve thought about all these people in the last couple of weeks, I’ve wondered if they might now know something we don’t. As fans of what we routinely call a “long-suffering franchise,” we have (quite understandably) come to view an NFL championship as the ultimate prize.
In whatever dimension they now inhabit, those we remember today may see it in a different way — not as the prize of their fandom, but as one of its perks. The latter are ours to enjoy for as long as they last — and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to have as many as you can.
But people like Bill, Dave, Jessica and James now know that before they left this life, they had already won the prize: a lifelong bond with friends and family; a shared experience that brought joy — and yes, sometimes sorrow — to their lives. They all wanted their descendants to have that, too.
So let’s enjoy this perk to its fullest — and hope it is one of many more to come. But as we do so, let’s always remember that we really won the prize a long time ago.