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How the Chiefs went from lovable underdog to NFL’s bully

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It’s underdog week at SB Nation, but the Chiefs aren’t the underdogs anymore.

NFL: Super Bowl LIV-Kansas City Chiefs Champions Parade Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

The Kansas City Chiefs have a strange history in the last 30 years when it comes to being the favorite or the underdog. Some of their most successful years have been unexpected, while some of their biggest failures were when they were the favorites.

For most of my lifetime, they were good-but-not-great — always the underdog when facing more dominant teams with franchise quarterbacks. Sure, they would win a division title or two (actually nine in 30 years) and typically made the playoffs (16 appearances in 30 years), but rarely were they the favorite. It was even rarer that the Chiefs were in a position to be a bully — to intimidate rather than being intimidated; to impose their will, rather than to watch their opponent act and hope to get a chance to respond.

The bullies of the last 20 years

Dallas Cowboys v New England Patriots Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

During most of that time, there was one bully in the AFC. Everyone was chasing the New England Patriots from the kickoff of Week 1, knowing that they’d likely be the team still standing at the end of the season.

The Bill Belichick-led squad featured a perennially tough defense and an offense that was always a step ahead. They were the innovators. While everyone else was loading up on receivers, they featured two of the best tight ends in the league. When others were running the ball, the Patriots passed for record numbers. When everyone expected them to pass, they would run the ball down their opponents’ throats.

They didn’t need big-name free agents at every position. They could find role players anywhere. This winning culture started with the head coach, but it wouldn’t have worked without the quarterback. And not just any quarterback. The most decorated signal-caller in history. A player that could execute any offense consistently, but was particularly deadly when it mattered most.

The Patriots carried themselves with the confidence that Tom Brady would win the game if they could put him in position to engineer a drive at its end. They became the most hated team in the league not only because of their success but also because of their ruthlessness. They showed no loyalty — not to players, nor the rules. When they found an edge, they exploited it.

The old Chiefs got bullied

Kansas City Chiefs vs Oakland Raiders - December 23, 2006 Photo by Robert B. Stanton/NFLPhotoLibrary

Even the best Chiefs teams of the last three decades came up short of being the type of bully the Patriots have been. When the Chiefs offense was great, the defense got run over. When the defense was great, the offense was (at least) a quarterback short of what it needed to win the big games. Our favorite players watched opponents with superior coaching, more clutch quarterbacks, more dominant defenses or run games impose their will.

Even in the Alex Smith era (2013-17), the Chiefs won plenty of games, made the playoffs most every season, but they were never the bully. When push came to shove, it was more likely that they’d end up the victim than the aggressor. There’s no need to relive the pain we all endured, it’s still fresh enough in our collective memories.

Two things might have been missing at the time: the quarterback with ice water in his veins and the swagger that follows him.

The new Chiefs are the bully

Kansas City Chiefs v Denver Broncos Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

That all appears to have changed on that fateful day in 2017. The Chiefs went from underdog to favorite, from victim to bully with the arrival of Patrick Mahomes.

They are suddenly led by the league’s best quarterback, and more importantly, the most clutch. From the competitiveness he has displayed from the minute he entered the building, his refusal to give up on a play and the spectacular way he has brought the team from behind, Mahomes has established himself as the alpha dog in Kansas City. The rest of the team now plays with a swagger we’ve never seen from a Chiefs squad (in this generation). Perhaps more importantly, they are also able to smile and enjoy the ride, with full confidence that their quarterback will get it done when they need him.

After winning the Super Bowl in February, and bringing back largely the same squad, your Kansas City Chiefs are set up to become the AFC’s new bully — the team every other fan base hates because they can erase any deficit and close out every big game. We are all now fans of the team that imposes its will, the team that innovates where others try to follow and the team that breaks hearts.

It’s time to embrace the bully status. Get used to being the favorite. The Chiefs are on track to be the new Patriots. Sure, it brings new challenges and problems, but there are some significant advantages to being on top.


Cons of being the favorites

  • Salaries go up- Yahoo! Sports’ Terez Paylor said it best: players wanted the ring and now they’ll want to secure the bag. Having elite players means making tough decisions. Either they pay top dollar for the guys who brought home the Lombardi, or they watch them get paid elsewhere. General manager Brett Veach seems to be prepared for this challenge, but he has two monster contracts in the immediate future to negotiate (Mahomes and Chris Jones), and he’ll have to work around them for years if and when they sign.
  • The target on your back gets bigger- The Chiefs will get everyone’s best shot. Every week will be another team’s chance to take down the world champions. Every Chiefs loss will be the best win of the season for their respective opponents. There is no more flying under the radar.
  • Everyone loves an underdog- It’s easier for the average fan to root for David than for Goliath. The Chiefs will become more hated, fans will become more insufferable on social media and there will be more scrutiny on the franchise. Any reason to pick apart the champions and any off-field issues will be magnified.
  • There’s the risk of complacency- Everyone plays the game of football to win championships, but some have allowed themselves to get comfortable after getting their first trophy. The Patriots overcame that tendency with a ruthless culture of discipline and attention to detail. If the Chiefs can avoid getting complacent, it’s because of their leaders and the fun, competitive culture they’re building.
  • It’s a copycat league- We’ve already seen it in the way teams drafted this year. Everyone is looking for their own Mahomes, everyone is loading up their offense with speed, and every defense is being built with the idea of stopping the Chiefs. Play callers have been stealing from Andy Reid for years, but now roster-builders will try to emulate Brett Veach. The Chiefs will have to keep building and innovating to stay ahead of the pack.

Pros of being the favorites

  • Winning is contagious and addictive- The expectation of competing for titles every year becomes the culture. Now that the Chiefs have reached the top, anything short of a Super Bowl will feel unacceptable.
  • If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em- Kansas City is now arguably the most attractive destination for coaches, scouts and players in the league. Those that want to win will be drawn to the Chiefs, which can help them stockpile the talent they’ll need to be a dynasty.
  • Compensatory picks- A significant part of what kept the Patriots on top for so long was their mastery of the NFL Draft — not that they got every pick right; not even close. But they accumulated more draft picks than anyone. They traded down in every draft and found ways to game the compensatory system. Countless players wanted to get paid after winning championships in New England, and time after time, the Patriots let them walk and collected the compensatory picks. The Chiefs have an opportunity to do the same, as they commit the bulk of their salary cap to Mahomes and the rest of the stars that make up their core. They will let more mid-tier free agents get paid like top-tier players elsewhere. The extra draft picks will come in handy for re-stocking their role players.
  • Cheap contracts- We should always expect NFL players, like employees of any profession, to not settle for less than what they are worth. But when the market doesn’t really develop for a player’s services, he might just be willing to sign with a Super Bowl contender on a cheap one-year deal. It seems to be starting already, with 12 of the 13 veteran free agents signing extremely cheap 2020 contracts, with only Chad Henne getting more than one year.