The Harder They Fall

A season of low lows and higher highs ends with an epic face-plant—and a renewed determination to get back on top.

Since Patrick Mahomes became their starting quarterback in the 2018 season, the Kansas City Chiefs have been to four consecutive AFC championship games and back-to-back Super Bowls, and they extended their reign as kings of the AFC West division to a sixth straight year.

In just those four seasons, Mahomes has wrecked the NFL stat books, soaring to No. 1 on the all-time quarterback rating list. He ranks just ahead of Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers, and well ahead of Tom Brady, who carries seven Super Bowl championship rings into retirement. Go ahead: Think of a famous quarterback in NFL history—any one. Mahomes out-stats all of them.

Beyond the statistics, though, a sobering truth has emerged: As goes Mahomes, so go the Chiefs. And when Mahomes was stymied by frequent packages of eight-man pass coverage in the second half of this year’s AFC Championship game, Kansas City saw the last vestiges of an 18-point lead vanish into a bitter 27-24 overtime loss.

End of season. 

The pain of the way it ended, however, can’t overshadow the achievements of the 2021 version of the Chiefs. They got off to an unexpectedly slow start, dropping a pair of home games—blowing fourth-quarter leads in each—to start a 17-game season with a 3-4 record. The offense was turning the ball over at unprecedented rates; the defense was among the leakiest in the league.

Then came what you might consider a season within a season, as the Chiefs ripped off an eight-game winning streak and regained the offensive form that has terrorized the NFL for years. That form held true in crushing Pittsburgh in the Wild-card round. It held true in the furious response to the Buffalo Bills’ ridiculous obstinance in the division round. It held true yet again in a first-half explosion against the Bengals in the AFC title game.

And then . . . it didn’t.

How dramatic was the turn-around against the Bengals? In churning out a 21-3 lead and going into the half up 21-10, Mahomes notched a QB rating of 149.9. That’s pretty close to the maximum of 158.3. The second half? His rating was . . . 34.0. Then came a dead-flat zero in the overtime, when, after a pair of incompletions on the first possession, his final pass of the season was intercepted. That set up Cincinnati’s walk-off winning field goal.

Of all the blown opportunities that prevented an outright win—the defense also provided a number of them—none will haunt the Chiefs more than their experience in the final minute of the first half. Thanks to a penalty, they had a first-and-goal with just 13 seconds on the clock—that ring a bell?—and a chance to go back up by 18.

After a first-down incompletion, 5 seconds remained. Conventional coaching wisdom in the NFL says that, when faced with a choice of points or nothing, take the points. Mahomes wanted more, and coach Andy Reid conceded. With no time-outs, Mahomes tossed left to Tyreek Hill, who was corralled a yard short of the end zone just before time expired.

The rest is now commended to the depths of pro football history.

Was it just another game? That’s one way to look at the Chiefs final loss, which concluded a remarkable season—one that saw the early disappointments, then the monster reversal that included an 8-game winning streak, and the division-round overtime victory over the Buffalo Bills (a game that many say will rank among the greatest ever played in the league’s 101-year history).

Here’s another way to look at the Chiefs’ heartbreak, and the season overall: Think of what we witnessed in terms of daily life in business leadership. The MBA schools drill into prospective leaders that the challenges they will face in their executive careers include poorly executed strategy, payroll issues, staffing balance, talent retention, risk assessment, and setting pace of change. So how does the Chiefs 2021-22 season and finale look through that lens?

• Staff balance/talent management. Clearly, Mahomes has made the Chiefs an elite offense, but not an entirely balanced one. While the team’s 4,937 regular-season passing yards ranked fourth in the league, the ground game was a dead-middle-average 97.5 yards a game—16th out of 32 teams. Injuries had a lot to do with that, but historically, if you can’t impose your will with the running game, you’re not likely title-town bound. (That said, note that the Bengals (23rd) and Los Angeles Rams (25th) are Super Bowl-bound. So, maybe a powerful rushing game is over-rated after all in the modern era.)

• Risk assessment. Need we go over that final minute of the first half against the Bengals again? Enough said there. But the reason the Chiefs found themselves in a big hole nearly halfway through the season was a team-based carelessness with the ball. Mahomes, through seven games, was throwing more interceptions than at any point in his career, in part because his receivers weren’t making clean catches—tipped passes helped distort his INT rate. Fumbles, too, were win-killers in those early losses. One could argue that in the end, it didn’t matter—the Chiefs enjoyed home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, despite their failure to secure a first-round bye. But one must also concede that their offensive season ended with a turn-over that gave the Bengals—and the league’s most lethal field-goal kicker—a short field. Protect the ball, or risk everything.

• Poorly executed strategy. Andy Reid teams have something of a history with goofy clock management in close games, and it showed (again) on that final play of the first half with the Bengals. The reason the Chiefs couldn’t call a time-out after Mahomes’ pass to Hill came up short? They had none to call. They burned one, inexplicably, before throwing a challenge flag on a disputed spot of the ball earlier in the half. The thing was, the Chiefs won that challenge, which wouldn’t have dinged them for a time-out—had the red towel been tossed first. A secondary example came on defense, with a pass rush that generated just a single sack of Cincinnati’s Joe Burrow in the final game—a week after the Bengals allowed Tennessee to get to him nine times. If the strategy was to pressure him, against an average offensive line, it was poorly executed. If the strategy was to let Burrow beat you with his arm and legs, it was just a bad design overall. Either way, same result: They gave up four points too many.

• Payroll issues. The Chiefs enter the post-season yoked with salary-cap issues. One reason for that is the cost of their franchise quarterback. But his supporting cast needs an upgrade. Running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire has flashed brilliance at times, but has been injury-prone in each of his first two years. It’s not certain Darrel Williams returns as the No. 2 back, and there are questions about every-down durability for Derrick Gore and Jerick McKinnon. The need for a stronger running game is evident, and that will be costly—either in dollars, or draft picks.  On defense, Tyrann Mathieu was ranked No. 11 among safeties by the fantasy site pff.com, while Juan Thornhill just cracked the top 32 at No. 31, and neither of the corners was Top 32. If Mathieu isn’t back next year, a defensive backfield lacking anyone among the top 60 in the league will always be a welcome site for Burrow, Buffalo’s Josh Allen or the Chargers’ Justin Herbert. Those three teams accounted for four of Kansas City’s six losses this year.

• The Pace of Change. This ties in with another grad-school caution: knowing how to make decisions that might prove unpopular with customers. But time is relentless: Tampa Bay tight end Rob Gronkowski, the best in the game until KC’s Travis Kelce hit his stride, has already retired once before coming back. (Oddly, they’re the same age: 32.) Kelce has been a monster, but the hits must inevitably take their toll, and before too long. Even Tyreek Hill, generally regarded as the fastest player in the game, acknowledged after a huge punt return against Buffalo that his younger self would have housed it, rather than getting caught (by the punter!) at the 15. Will the Chiefs be ready—and more importantly, willing to act—when Father Time calls the numbers of Mahomes’ favorite targets?

• Retaining Key Leaders. For now, most of the pieces for a successful run in the 2022 season are in place. Wunderkind Brett Veach has infused terror in the hearts of general managers throughout the league with his ability to find the right pieces—Exhibit A being the trade that allowed them to draft Mahomes in 2017. There’s no reason to think he won’t be just as savvy in the coming off-season and April draft. The coaching staff might be raided—offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy is a perennial contender for head coaching jobs elsewhere. Then there’s Andy Reid himself, who turns 64 next month. He’s already had one health scare after the brief hospitalization that followed an agonizing home loss to the Chargers in September. Even before the dust settled on the final-game loss, he was fielding questions from the media about his own future in coaching. He’s already secured his place in the Hall of Fame; how many more seasons can he—or we—realistically expect?

As noted previously, each of these events, developments and conditions can, by itself, be thought of as no more than a topic of debate for fans and the sages of sports media. But all of them, combined, present the need for thorny, real-life business decisions. Veach, in his season-wrap news conference, said point-blank that the defense would be a primary concern in the off-season, and the defensive line in particular. A single drive-killing sack against the Bengals in the season finale might have made the difference between going home and going to Los Angeles for Super Bowl XVI. Look for some changes there in the effort to bring in more support. 

Come training camp in July, we’ll have a better idea of how the team’s leadership has moved to meet those challenges.