The beauty of kicking off a new season in the NFL: It's a clean slate for all 32 teams. That said, each fresh campaign begins with one franchise representing the undisputed league standard, and in 2023, that's the Kansas City Chiefs.
In short, Kansas City is the reigning Super Bowl champion. But in reality, what the Chiefs have accomplished amounts to much -- MUCH -- more than that. This organization is amid a dynastic stretch in which it has hosted five consecutive AFC Championship Games and made three Super Bowl appearances (winning two Lombardi Trophies).
The Chiefs have grown accustomed to being the hunted, but that doesn't make the challenge of remaining on the mountaintop any easier. So, how does a reigning superpower approach a new season?
That's a crucible I'm quite familiar with, as the former vice president of player personnel for the New England Patriots, an organization that arguably had two separate dynasties (2001 through '07 and 2011 through '18) over nearly two full decades with Bill Belichick as head coach and Tom Brady as quarterback. I was in New England for the first dynastic stint, when the team won three Super Bowls in four years during the early 2000s, and let me tell you: It ain't easy being the team everyone else is trying to knock off, year after year.
Heavy is the head that wears the crown. From my experiences in New England, I gleaned three main tactics for enduring life in the throne:
- Manage expectations throughout the organization. The entire organization must understand that this year has nothing to do with last year. Even if the roster is similar year over year, your opponents are different.
- Maintain confidence without being complacent or arrogant. Success sometimes breeds those latter two traits, and in this area, locker room and peer leadership is often more important than leadership from the coaching staff. Locker rooms that have true leaders in place (not just the quarterback) keep the team moving forward.
- Understand unknown factors will come into play. This often centers around injuries, unfortunately. It's then when an organization fully discovers the true significance of its roster depth and developmental program.
As an executive, I found that the best overriding way to go about addressing these factors was to stay true to the team-building process. In New England, the pressure to win was internally driven -- and it carried the same intensity whether we were trying to hoist our first Lombardi Trophy or our fourth. Winning -- period -- was the standard.
That meant making sure our success did not derail the processes and systems that were put in place to ultimately allow us to succeed. In fact, the mission statement at the bottom of each page in our scouting manual -- which Ernie Adams and I spent writing in June of 2000 -- read: We are building a big, strong, fast, tough, smart, disciplined football team that consistently competes for championships. Having an approach dedicated to the process rather than the result allowed us to sustain our success. It also helped our Patriots teams avoid the potential pitfalls that inevitably surface each season.
A simple but very real trap: Teams believing that being as good as the previous season is good enough. It's rarely -- if ever -- enough, as evidenced by the fact that the NFL has had a repeat Super Bowl champion just eight times in history. Another very real trap: While the offseason is shorter for a championship team, the demands from the organization and outside entities become greater.
All that said, the 2023 Chiefs are uniquely suited to avoid these traps, and there are four main reasons why.
1) Humility. This boils down to the three most important people in leadership roles -- owner Clark Hunt, head coach Andy Reid and quarterback Patrick Mahomes -- who continue to drive the organization. Hunt is one of the humblest people -- not just owner -- I have ever been around. The same goes for Reid, the fifth-winningest coach in NFL history. And sure, it helps that Mahomes is the best player in football right now, but the fact that he is obsessed with winning -- yet not in a way that's detrimental to the team -- despite having already won multiple MVP awards and Super Bowl titles, undoubtedly motivates the rest of the roster.
2) Constantly recreating themselves. The Chiefs have done this both from a strategic perspective and with their personnel. Reid is constantly tweaking and evolving the offense, challenging the uber-talented Mahomes to improve and expand his game, to stay one step ahead of Kansas City's opponents. Kansas City's personnel department has taken the steps toward building a championship roster for a decade, from John Dorsey to Brett Veach. The Chiefs have a strong talent-acquisition model, routinely bringing in the right players in free agency and the draft to learn from great coaches and teachers like Reid and defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. This has allowed them to continually overcome the unavoidable attrition in a salary-cap league.
Speaking of personnel moves, Mahomes has had a bevy of pass catchers come and go during his five seasons as a starter -- such as Tyreek Hill, Kareem Hunt, Sammy Watkins, Demarcus Robinson, Le’Veon Bell, Mecole Hardman and Josh Gordon, to name a few. Travis Kelce, who's been phenomenal for the better part of a decade, has been the one constant for Mahomes. The two-time MVP's ability to develop pass catchers compares to any of the great quarterbacks of the last two decades. Tom Brady did it in New England, Drew Brees in New Orleans and Peyton Manning in both Indianapolis and Denver. A quarterback who can truly elevate those around him transforms an offense from good to exceptional.
3) Assembling a defense that peaks at the right time. Mahomes has never had a top-10 defense as the starter in Kansas City, but the unit always seems to deliver come playoff time with turnovers and big stops in critical moments. Drafting six defensive players in the first two rounds since 2020 has helped boost the talent in this unit of late, but credit also needs to be given to Spagnuolo, who joined the Chiefs in 2019. Of course, first-team All-Pro Chris Jones' holdout is concerning, with the season about to kick off.
4) An efficient run game. The run game is often overlooked when a team's quarterback is so good. While the Chiefs haven't finished better than 16th in rushing since 2018, they have been efficient, ranking 12th or better in yards per carry in four of the last five seasons, with top-eight finishes in three seasons. No matter how good a team's passing offense is, you have to be able to run the ball efficiently in the postseason, and the Chiefs are again built to fit the bill.
While the Chiefs have so many pieces in place heading into the 2023 --- a future Hall of Fame coach, an all-time quarterback and strong overall roster -- they still need a lot of things to go their way in order to meet their dynastic standard. That said, I won't be surprised if Kansas City builds on the last half-decade of success because its system, created with thought and executed with the proper preparation and execution, is built to stand the test of time.