With 7:51 remaining in Sunday’s 24-20 loss to the Buffalo Bills, the Kansas City Chiefs put wide receiver Mecole Hardman in the game to field the Bills’ fourth-and-21 punt from their own 24-yard line. This led to a play that looked terrible on television but very well might have broken the game wide open.
“We were playing Mecole at 45 yards,” Kansas City special-teams coordinator Dave Toub told reporters on Thursday, “and [the punter] happened to bomb one. I mean, that was the longest punt that he’s had all year — at 65 yards. That’s why Mecole had to go back 20 yards to catch it.”
In fact, Hardman flat-out muffed the catch. But Toub was right: even on the live broadcast view, it was easy to see Hardman had been backpedaling fast to catch up with the expectedly long punt as it neared the GEHA Field turf.
“He didn’t catch it perfect,” acknowledged Toub, “but he was going away from coverage, so he had time to field it and get going.”
Toub recalled it correctly: as sometimes happens when a player picks up a muffed ball, opportunity awaits — particularly if the punt has gone well past the kicking team’s downfield coverage. Even looking at the broadcast angles, this is easy to see. Hardman goes from left to right across the field — and at least six different Bills players miss a shot before Hardman goes down.
“We were one block away from scoring,” added Toub, “if you really go back and look at [the tape].”
Courtesy of Arrowhead Pride lead film analyst Ron Kopp Jr., here it is.
Dave Toub mentioned today that Mecole Hardman was one block away from breaking free on this punt return late against Buffalo— Ron Kopp Jr. (@Ron_Kopp) October 20, 2022
If his teammates get a body on 85, there's a wall being formed down the sideline #Chiefs pic.twitter.com/zlBbSEahHy
As Ron notes here, Toub is once again correct.
Watching the television coverage live, this play very much looked like a terrible mistake that blew up in Hardman’s face. But as the All-22 shows, what actually happened was that Kansas City’s special-teams unit nearly turned the game around on a single play — which happened to be the first play after defensive tackle Chris Jones sacked Bills quarterback Josh Allen for an 11-yard loss that had killed the previous Buffalo drive.
Toub suggested on Thursday that if the Chiefs had managed a return touchdown on this play, the game would have been over. Against an opponent like the Bills — and with half of the fourth quarter remaining — that might have been a bit of an exaggeration.
But it would have given Kansas City a 27-17 lead. That would have been the first (and likely only) two-possession lead of the entire game — and certainly would have put the Chiefs in the driver’s seat.
Toub said that he had decided to put Hardman on the field specifically in the hope his unit could get a big play in the situation — just as he would sometimes do with Tyreek Hill during the years that Hardman was the primary punt returner. So we shouldn’t be surprised if Hardman once again sees spot usage as a punt returner — or if rookie Skyy Moore continues to return the rest of the punts.
“We know that Mecole is a little bit faster than Skyy, [but] Skyy’s got quickness,” said Toub of the two players. “But I want to keep developing Skyy. We need Skyy to be a productive player for us as a punt returner.”
Toub admitted that so far this season, he hasn’t been happy with the return game — but plays like this one from Sunday’s game are giving him confidence that better days are coming.
“The return game’s kind of not where we want it to be,” he noted, “but it’s getting better and better each week. If you really look at it — see what’s preventing us from breaking it out — I think [that] soon, we’re going to break one. I really do. And then confidence will build, and we’ll get better and better as we go.
“But we’re close.”