By the lofty standards of the Kansas City Chiefs’ tight end Travis Kelce, 2023 has been a down season. Dealing with injuries — while continuing to be the focal point of opposing defenses — limited his production. For the first time in eight seasons, he finished with fewer than 1,000 receiving yards.
The playoffs, however, have been a completely different story. When the team needed him most, Kelce — through his production, energy and leadership on the field — has once again proved to be an instrumental piece of a postseason run for his team.
“When you see the Hall of Fame tight end — and he wants to be the guy working the hardest — it raises everybody’s standard,” quarterback Patrick Mahomes told reporters as the team began preparing to face the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl LVIII on February 11. “It raises the standard of how you practice. It raises the standards of how you prepare because you know that that guy who’s done it at the top level wants to continue to do it every single week, every single day — and at the same time, he has a great time doing it.
“I think that shows that you can work extremely hard and still have fun coming to work every single day.”
There have been times this season when the 34-year-old tight end seemed to be showing signs of his advanced age. He appeared to be slower — and unable to make the explosive plays we have usually seen. His 10.6 yards per reception was the lowest of his career, while his 65.6 receiving yards per game was his fewest since 2015. According to Mahomes, there was a reason for that.
“There were times throughout the season where we had to take him out,” revealed the quarterback. “He didn’t want to, but we had to get him out to let his body heal. It wasn’t like his mind wasn’t there, but you could just see his body wasn’t moving the way that it always moves.
“I think just having that rest — and having more time from when the original injuries happened — you can see now [that] his body [is] getting back.”
With a healthy Kelce on the field, the Chiefs now look like the Super Bowl champions they were just a season ago. Through three playoff games, the tight end has recorded 23 receptions for 262 yards and three touchdowns — with nearly half of that production during a vintage performance in AFC Championship victory over the Baltimore Ravens, where he caught all 11 of his targets for 116 yards and a touchdown.
His ability to show up in big moments is no surprise to anyone on the team — including former Los Angeles Chargers linebacker Drue Tranquill, who joined the Chiefs in March.
“When the tough get going, he’s ready,” he said. “In the wise words of Marshawn Lynch, he’s about that action. He brings it each and every week and turns it on — especially when the lights are bright.”
Despite his down year, Kelce has remained upbeat — while keeping Kansas City’s standards high in a way his teammates have been more than happy to follow.
“You have to have tremendous leaders — especially at the player level — to win in this league,” noted Tranquil. “And that’s anywhere. That’s business. That’s sports.
“Coach Reid kept trying to talk to our team — whether it was before the game or at halftime — and Travis would just cut him off with a big yell. He’d say, ‘Yeah that sounds about right. Let’s go!’ He does that for our team — and we’re very thankful to have him.”