In the summer of 1925, New York Yankees’ first baseman Wally Pipp asked his manager for a day off due to a headache; his replacement was a young player named Lou Gehrig, who never gave the job back as he launched his Hall of Fame career from that moment.
The Kansas City Chiefs have a similar — albeit not as significant — situation unfolding in their linebacker corps; rookie linebacker Nick Bolton has filled in at the MIKE linebacker position for the injured Anthony Hitchens for the last two weeks. In both games, he has excelled.
Not only has he played the most linebacker snaps on the team, but he also leads the entire unit in tackles, tackles for loss and run stops. Simultaneously, the defense has looked more formidable — stuffing the run against the Tennessee Titans and holding down the New York Giants for most of the game.
Especially in the Titans’ game, Bolton was impressive. He racked up 15 tackles (and four for loss) and was the main reason running back Derrick Henry couldn’t get going. The momentum of that performance has stuck with Bolton two weeks later.
“It’s one of those confidence booster games,” he told reporters during his Friday press conference about the Tennessee game. “I wasn’t really too high on it because we lost, but after I saw how I played at the MIKE linebacker position my first game starting there, I was pretty excited to go forward and keep building on it.”
He has four years on his rookie contract to build on it — but the Chiefs could use his continual improvement now. Their 4-4 record has eliminated any margin for error, meaning they need to put their best foot forward at all times if they want to make the postseason.
Bolton’s play has made it clear that he needs to be on the field for this defense to be at its best. Realistically, that would mean the defensive staff has to have a tough conversation with Hitchens, who has been the team’s starting MIKE since 2018. He has fully participated in practice this week, signaling he’s ready to return.
It’s not an indictment on Hitchens as much as it is a compliment of Bolton. In fact, Hitchens has helped fuel the breakout performance Bolton is having.
“Everybody knows that Hitch is one of those guys that is real selfless,” Bolton explained. “Since he’s been out, it’s like having another coach. He’s played a lot of football, so he sees things on film. Whenever I go watch film with him, he points out little keys for me to play a little bit faster or communication I can make before the snap. I’ve always said he’s been a blessing for me.”
Hitchens’ value to the defense has always been his ability to be an extension of defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo out on the field. That’s why it’s difficult to see Hitchens completely sidelined.
Instead, the coaching staff may devise a way to utilize each linebacker best in every given situation. On Friday, head coach Andy Reid reminded the public that the entire linebacker group hasn’t been able to truly play a full game with everyone active at the same time this year.
“We’ve got our whole linebacker corps now,” Reid pointed out to reporters, “so Spags can mix and match what grouping he wants in there.”
That is likely the best route to go — but within that plan, Spags needs to make sure he has Bolton on the field when it matters most. Especially in rushing scenarios, Bolton is already better than Hitchens — and he’s continuing to make progress.
“Every week is a learning curve for me,” Bolton reflected. “I don’t think I am where I want to be, I’m nowhere close to that. I’m still improving, trying to get to the level of comfort I had in college. That takes time, getting the speed of the game down.”
Bolton’s gotten it down enough to be recognized by the entire NFL community: he was awarded the October edition of the NFL’s defensive rookie of the month. He hasn’t played like a rookie, and that’s been noted a handful of times by his coaches and teammates.
We don’t know yet if this is truly a Wally Pipp story, where the replacement player never surrendered the role back to the incumbent.
However, if the Chiefs want to be the best version of themselves down the stretch of this season, they should allow Bolton to continue playing the MIKE.