Where does your franchise stand heading into 2021? Adam Rank sets the table by providing a State of the Franchise look at all 32 teams, zeroing in on the key figures to watch and setting the stakes for the season to come.
Members of the Chiefs organization, Chiefs fans around the world and those who are going to miss Paul Rudd's ongoing gag with Conan O'Brien:
The Kansas City Chiefs are enjoying an era of unprecedented prosperity this team hasn't seen since perhaps the very beginning of the Super Bowl era. Back when Hank Stram was imploring his team to matriculate the ball down the field. The Chiefs have won back-to-back AFC championships. A first in club history. Got back to the Super Bowl in what was expected to be a crowning for Kansas City as the new model franchise in the NFL. But a familiar foe -- Tom Brady, a man who has caused this franchise great pain in the past -- once again helped keep the Chiefs from another Lombardi Trophy.
And while the Super Bowl loss was a disappointment, the Chiefs still have one of the best coaches and arguably the best quarterback in the game. It's time to look forward to 2021, time to complete the mission they set out on last season.
How the Chiefs got here
Let's take a quick look back at the highs and lows of the 2020 season.
- Most wins. The Chiefs did not suffer any sort of Super Bowl hangover, putting together 14 wins and taking the top seed in the AFC. In fact, the team won 14 of its first 15 games and looked unstoppable at times.
- Beating their new rivals. The AFC West has many blood feuds. But I love the rivalry that has developed between the Chiefs and Ravens. Though it's kind of one-sided in K.C.'s favor at this point. The Chiefs knocked off the Ravens in Week 3 -- kind of convincingly, too.
- Conference champions. Hey, it's not easy to win games when you're the team to beat. And the Chiefs fended off spirited challenges from the Browns and Bills in the playoffs.
- The autumn non-win. You lost to the Raiders. You never want that. But you eventually paid them back, so it really wasn't that bad.
- Achilles' heel. Once Eric Fisher tore his Achilles in the AFC Championship Game, we should have seen this as a fundamental problem.
- The Super Bowl. I was at SmackDown in Los Angeles in 2019 (the first night it was on FOX), and Brock Lesnar destroyed the super-over Kofi Kingston. I got the same kind of feeling watching the Buccaneers punish the Chiefs in the Super Bowl. That was an old-school beatdown we haven't seen since the Seahawks did it to Peyton Manning. (Although you can't blame Patrick Mahomes for that outcome, given the sieve that was his the offensive line.)
Head coach: Andy Reid. I'm not sure if Andy is the best coach in the NFL, but is he the coach you'd want to play for most? All right, not you, Le'Veon Bell. But who else would you pick? Bill Belichick? I mean, think of Andy and Bill as fathers of straight-A students. Belichick mans the house where video games are off by 6 p.m. Lights out by 7:30. Andy is up playing Madden with the kids at midnight. Beastie Boys blaring at unacceptable levels. Two different ways to go about it. Both successful.
Andy's pretty vacation dad in his play-calling style, too, typically eschewing the "play it safe" route. Like when he called for injury replacement Chad Henne to throw it on fourth-and-inches (with Tony Romo telling everyone there is no chance) to seal the Divisional Round win over the Browns. Now, does that happen if Reid doesn't already have a freshly minted Super Bowl ring? We will never know. What I do know is that Andy is one of the best to ever do it. And honestly, he's just legacy building at this point. Making his case for a prominent place among the greatest of the greats. Of course, some will say this is all Mahomes. But look at Reid's success in Philadelphia -- which included four straight NFC title games, as well as a Michael Vick redemption -- and then the way he churned out wins with Alex Smith in Kansas City. I don't know. It's not like he's had 20 years of Tom Brady. I'm saying Andy might ultimately prove to be the best.
Quarterback: Patrick Mahomes. Super Bowl LV was supposed to be Patrick's coronation as the best quarterback in the game. Kind of like when Hulk Hogan faced The Rock in WrestleMania X8. I'm not sure we got the double-turn of Brady becoming the good guy and Mahomes becoming the heel (though it was a home game for Brady), but there were many parallels. That said, life didn't imitate art, as Brady ended up winning the game and holding the throne as the G.O.A.T. At least for now.
Mahomes is 37-8 since becoming the starter for Kansas City in 2018. He is one of just three quarterbacks with at least 10 wins in each of the last three seasons -- Brady and Russell Wilson being the others. He's second in passing yards over that time (behind Matt Ryan) and first with 114 passing touchdowns. He's awesome -- that's pretty much what I'm trying to get at.
Projected 2021 MVP: Mahomes. I was going to try to do something cute and pick the offensive line or something like that. Especially with the way Super Bowl LV shook out. But even with Mahomes running for his football life in that game, he made some plays that really could have changed the tide if he had gotten a few breaks. So this clearly comes down to Mahomes and what he can do.
One more Mahomes fun fact: Pat was the fifth quarterback in NFL history with at least 14 wins and 300 passing yards per game in a season. The others: Aaron Rodgers (2011), Tom Brady (2007), Kurt Warner (2001) and Dan Marino (1984). All of those other dudes won the MVP award. Mahomes did not. Because the only person NFL writers love more than Mahomes is Rodgers.
2021 breakout star: L'Jarius Sneed, defensive back. The Chiefs get so much praise for what they do offensively, so it figures nobody noticed when Sneed was an absolute stud during his rookie season. It's like being a small indie band crushing it on a side stage at Coachella, while The Killers are rocking on the main stage. (I don't know why The Killers were my go-to band here, but they are great.) Sneed lines up all over the field. He can even get to the quarterback, as he had two sacks and three quarterback pressures. But he was great in coverage, limiting quarterbacks to a passer rating of 54.2, the third-lowest among nearest defenders with a minimum of 40 targets, according to Pro Football Focus. And he missed time last year (seven games). He's going to be even better in 2021.
New face to know: Orlando Brown, offensive tackle. The biggest issue for the Chiefs last season, as exposed during the Super Bowl, were the issues on the offensive line. Kansas City wasted no time in the offseason jettisoning a pair of longtime stalwarts waylaid by health issues, Mitchell Schwartz and Eric Fisher. That's why the Chiefs traded three draft selections (including a first-round pick) for the veteran who had requested a trade from the Baltimore Ravens. Brown brings versatility, having been selected to the Pro Bowl at both left (2020) and right tackle (2019). He started nine games at left tackle last season after playing 32 at right tackle from 2018-19. Brown didn't allow a sack or quarterback hit at left tackle in 2020, according to Pro Football Focus. And this wasn't the only big move on the offensive line. I'll circle back to this in a bit.
The 2021 roadmap
The competitive urgency index is: AS HIGH AS IT COULD POSSIBLY BE. The Chiefs are coming off back-to-back Super Bowl appearances. They are literally (not figuratively) expected to compete for -- and win -- a Super Bowl title. Nothing else will suffice. There are no moral victories at this juncture for this franchise.
Three key dates:
- Week 2 at Baltimore Ravens. Wait, this isn't in Week 3 this year? Man, that had become a tradition. But as noted previously, this has become a fun little rivalry. And wow, this is a tough stretch for the Chiefs to open with: vs. Browns, at Ravens and home against the Chargers.
- Week 5 vs. Buffalo Bills. OK, this is a really tough opening stretch for the Chiefs. Here it's a rematch of the AFC Championship Game.
- Week 15 at Los Angeles Chargers. Justin Herbert made his debut against the Chiefs last year and looked amazing. Oh, and this game could be for the AFC West. Or the Chargers could start 4-10, primed to close the season on a pointless three-game winning streak.
Will the Chiefs be able to ...
Compete with this rebuilt offensive line? I might have glossed over how bad the offensive line was in Super Bowl LV. Like telling somebody Gal Gadot is moderately attractive. Might be a bit of an undersell. But it should be noted Mahomes was pressured 16 times with four-or-fewer rushers (which means it wasn't a blitz) in that game. Mahomes traveled nearly 500 yards on pass attempts and sacks. It's why the Chiefs went out and traded for Orlando Brown. The Chiefs also invested in Joe Thuney, one of the best guards in the league, as rock solid as they come. My favorite move, personally, was K.C. getting my guy Kyle Long to join the club. Kyle battled injuries during his final seasons with the Bears, but always gave his entire heart to the team. Hopefully, he can recover quickly from the lower-leg injury suffered in June and get back on the field sooner than later. If I'm being completely honest, had the Bears not drafted Justin Fields this year, I'd be rocking a Kyle Long jersey, telling everyone I was a life-long Chiefs fan. (I'm still pulling for him.) But this is going to be one of the keys for this season in Kansas City. Keeping this talented O-line healthy and harmonious. Also should be noted that the club returns Laurent Duvernay-Tardif (who opted out in 2020) and welcomes in second-rounder Creed Humphrey at center.
Continue to count on Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill? I'm not sure people understand how great a pass-catching duo this is. Like, you sort of understand, but you don't fully get it. Like when your friend says he loves the Beastie Boys. Like ... Do you REALLY love the Beastie Boys?Do you know the song "Rock Hard"? Hill and Kelce have the most combined receiving yards by a duo in any four-season stretch (2017-2020) in NFL history. Of ANY tandem. That includes Randy Moss and Cris Carter. Torry Holt and Isaac Bruce. All of them. And Kelce is a tight end! My pro tip to anybody who plays fantasy is to take Kelce as your top pass catcher because the drop-off from Kelce to, say, Darren Waller is greater than the chasm between Hill and like DeAndre Hopkins.I know it seems dumb to wonder if these two can continue this epic pace, given that Mahomes is delivering them the football, but Travis isn't getting any younger. He's in his 30s now. OK, no, I wouldn't sweat it. Have to imagine the Chiefs will once again field one of the top offenses in the NFL.
Take the next step defensively? The Chiefs have been pretty good on defense, allowing an average of 20.9 points per game under Steve Spagnuolo since he took over in 2019. Kansas City being good on defense is often overlooked. Must have been like when people first went to Dunkin' for the donuts, before they realized the coffee was also delicious. Now you kind of forget they even have donuts. Not that we will forget the Chiefs' offense, but you know what I mean. But the D could be even better this year. The Chiefs allowed a 76.6 red-zone TD percentage to opponents last year (worst in the NFL). If they can get back to the 50.9 percent they posted in 2019, this team might be unstoppable.
One storyline ...
… people are overlooking: Chris Jones is pretty good. Jones led the Chiefs with 7.5 sacks, 28 quarterback hits and two forced fumbles in 2020. Only Aaron Donald has more sacks among interior linemen since 2018. What could make things even scarier? The signing of Jarran Reed, who has 19 sacks since 2018 (seventh over that span).
… people are overthinking: Mahomes faded down the stretch. Mahomes threw four of his six interceptions of 2020 in his final three regular-season games (he didn't play in Week 17). He had 31 touchdown passes and just two picks with a 113.8 passer rating from Weeks 1-13. He had seven touchdown passes and four interceptions with an 87.6 passer rating in Weeks 14-16 -- a.k.a., the fantasy football playoffs. Unfortunate for us nerds. For anybody worried about Mahomes' toe, though, he recently took a break from golf out in Lake Tahoe to tell Patrick Claybon on NFL Total Access that he's doing great.
… people are also overthinking: Clyde Edwards-Helaire was a bust. Hahaha. Dude had 1,110 scrimmage yards and five touchdowns as an NFL rookie. You shouldn't have picked him in the first-round of your fantasy draft. Dude was fine and will be even better this year.
For the 2021 season to be a success, the Chiefs MUST:
- Win the Super Bowl. Yep, it's Super Bowl or bust. This is how K.C.'s current coach/quarterback duo is going to be judged for the remainder of their days together. It was impressive last season to get back to the Super Bowl. That's not the goal. The goal is winning the whole damn thing.
This is an interesting time for the Chiefs. They are in some familiar territory. A number of years ago, Tom Brady ended a budding dynasty in St. Louis. And he did the same thing just recently to Seattle. Neither city's team has been the same since. Heck, the St. Louis Rams no longer even exist. And Tom just hit Kansas City with an embarrassing setback. But if there's a coach and quarterback I'd pick to overcome this adversity, it's Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes.