It has been only two calendar years since the Kansas City Chiefs have played in a Super Bowl, yet it feels like an eternity. That’s probably because the roster looks completely different: only eight of the 22 offensive and defensive starters from that squad are still on the team, something Nate Christensen broke down on the site earlier this week.
It feels like linebacker Nick Bolton — a leader of the defense — has been here long enough to have seen a Super Bowl. But in only his second season, he will be one of many impact players that will be on the stage for the first time. He was named a captain for the game, joining running back Jerick McKinnon as the only captains making their Super Bowl debut in Glendale, Arizona.
Coincidentally, that’s where this season-long journey started: Week 1, playing the Arizona Cardinals in the same stadium that will host the biggest game of Bolton’s life. The Chiefs had the foresight to put that in players’ heads all the way back in August before the year began.
“We kind of hit on it in training camp on how blessed (we are) with the opportunity to start and end at the same place,” Bolton told reporters in a press conference on Thursday. “It’s about everything that we do in between to get to there – God willing, and God helped us get there to that moment again, and now we’ve got another chance to go out there and compete. We’ve got an opportunity to go out there and play in one of the greatest stages in sports.”
Many of the Chiefs that have yet to play at this stage just simply haven’t been around long enough. General manager Brett Veach has loaded up the roster with draft picks over the last two years, and it showed up in a big way during the AFC Championship.
Second-year players like Bolton, center Creed Humphrey, right guard Trey Smith and tight end Noah Gray played key roles in outlasting the Cincinnati Bengals — but the 2022 class arguably had an even bigger impact: 10 rookies played in the game, which set a team record for the most ever in a conference championship.
“(Defensive coordinator) [Steve] Spagnuolo has done a great job with developing and challenging our rookies to try and get them to this point,” Bolton pointed out. “Those guys have come in and been sponges since they got here, wanting to learn and asking questions, trying to help the team get better.”
“All that was on the main stage last week: (safety) Bryan Cook had a hell of a play, then (cornerback) Joshua Williams got the interception, (cornerback) Trent McDuffie almost had an interception, (cornerback) Jaylen Watson had an interception... a lot of different guys, a lot of rookies are contributing, but it’s expected.”
At the same time, there are plenty of veterans that have been added over the last 730 days to help get Kansas City to this point, also making their debuts. Left tackle Orlando Brown Jr. was traded for in reaction to the disaster of an offensive line in the team’s last Super Bowl. Safety Justin Reid was a needed veteran to go along with the very young secondary this season.
Then there’s the veteran defensive end that Bolton highlights, waiting longer than anyone else on the team has to reach this moment.
“The best example is Carlos [Dunlap],” Bolton emphasized. “He is one of those guys that works really hard, but has only one playoff game in 13 years. Even with the work and everything, it’s not really given to you. We’ve been spoiled since I’ve been here, so just seeing that guy, what he had to do to get here and learning from it, I’m making sure I don’t take anything for granted. We just want to take advantage of every opportunity we have.”
For the players experiencing this for the first time, there are plenty of experienced players, coaches and members of the organization that have it down pat at this point. Bolton shared what he has gathered from some of those people.
“Just kind of control what you can control,” Bolton explained. “Put your best foot forward in football and let everything else on the outside handle itself. I kind of feel like that’s been important just for me, and a lot of the other young guys we’ve got on our defense is just trying to knock out (the) off the field stuff early and just worry about football from here on out.”
It will be easier said than done. The festivities start next week, and a captain of the defense is bound to be a big part of all the promotion that goes into such a huge event. The soft-spoken Bolton seems like he’ll stay locked in through it all, and if that rubs off on his teammates, they’ll be in a great spot.