Notes From A Crumbling NFL Empire

I think this, right now, is the most sobering football Sunday I’ve experienced since Patrick Mahomes arrived as starter of the Kansas City Chiefs in 2018. Tonight’s 38-20 home loss to the Buffalo Bills isn’t the most lopsided defeat KC has absorbed in that time (that would be the 31-9 loss to the Bucs in last year’s Super Bowl), nor is it the most devastating outcome (that would be the 37-31 overtime loss at the hands of the Patriots in the 2018 AFC Championship).

But in a meaningful way, it might be the hardest one for me to accept.

That’s because the excuses that were built in — the excuses that were givens, that for the last 2-3 years have just been part of the deal — feel like they should no longer apply. In the 31-9 Super Bowl loss it was the offensive line; that was the excuse. In the 37-31 loss in the AFC title game the ineptitude of the defense was the excuse. The narratives from those two games were that there was nothing Patrick Mahomes, the most talented quarterback in the whole world, could do. It was out of his hands.

That passage of blame doesn’t, to me at least, feel acceptable anymore. I mean yes, it is true that this year’s defensive unit has more leaks than a sieve. If anything its closest rival is that 2018 team. But then again, even the 2018 Chiefs weren’t aware of the seemingly singlehanded power Mahomes possessed. They knew he would be good, eventually, but they didn’t know he would be that good right away. That team was still building for the future.

Since we are now in 2021, three years removed from that 2018 AFC Championship loss, two years removed from a Super Bowl win in 2019, and one year removed from a Super Bowl appearance, it would be irresponsible to say that this time around the Chiefs didn’t know better. It’s simply invalid to direct all the blame at the defense, because Kansas City is supposed to be competing for the Super Bowl every year. To some extent everyone knew the defense was going to be a weakness heading into this year, so it required some level of arrogance for the front office to assume they could just roll with what they already had and expect it be decent enough to win on most days.

It’s been well documented that, due to the way in which Kansas City lost last year’s Super Bowl, they infused the bulk of their offseason resources into ensuring the offensive line would never be that bad again. What I’m now wondering is (a) was that strategy a mistake(?), and (b) is it possible that a nominally inferior offensive line was effectively “better,” for at least Patrick Mahomes knew how much it stunk, and was familiar with its shortcomings?

At this stage of the season all I know is that, up front, something is missing. Theoretically Orlando Brown Jr. — the left tackle the Chiefs traded a first round pick for — is more talented than Eric Fisher (the guy he replaced). Theoretically left guard Joe Thuney, who KC gave a four-year, $80 million contract to in free agency, is better than the gaggle of interior linemen he replaced. Theoretically right tackle Lucas Niang is better than backup swing tackle Mike Remmers. And theoretically both rookie center Creed Humphrey and rookie right guard Trey Smith are upgrades over their replacements.

I’m just saying I think we all underestimated how the group, as a whole, would fare having never played a snap together until Week 1. There was clearly a lot of garbage on the offensive line last year, but Mahomes knew how bad they were, and he was able to adjust his freelance style and improvisational playmaking skills accordingly. This year, surrounded by better players, it’s as if every passing down is akin to spinning a roulette wheel. Is the pressure coming from one of the edges, or is it coming from up the middle? Which lineman is going to get beat this time?

I am speaking in somewhat abstract terms, and I don’t want to make it seem like the offensive line has been the glaring issue on this team. What I’m really arguing is that Mahomes has never been particularly strong passing from within the pocket, since historically the weakness of his offensive line has forced him to speed up his game and drift backward, or outside the pocket completely to buy himself a couple more seconds. This is his first year where being protected was the expectation, and to this point it’s like he doesn’t know how to deal with trusting that protection.

The second, and most important, issue with the offense has been its lack of playmakers beyond Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill. I was banging that drum during the offseason, but in the end I was willing to give the benefit of the doubt to head coach Andy Reid and GM Brett Veach since, you know, they have been to three straight AFC Championships and two consecutive Super Bowls.

For the last three years everything has come so easily for the Chiefs. Through five games this season, it’s been the opposite. Every offensive possession seems like Mahomes and the boys have to slug through 10 or 15 plays to get in the end zone. And every defensive possession seems to be far too easy for the opponent.

That specific combination is the obvious worst-case scenario, and a direct role-reversal of what Kansas City Chiefs football has been for the last three years. Much of the beauty of the NFL since Patrick Mahomes took over is that he, and the offense he leads, always dictated the terms to the opposition. It was up to Mahomes to create, and it was up to everyone else to react.

It took only four years, but the defenses have finally started to respond. And the Chiefs have not yet found the necessary adjustments, let alone the answers. They are allowing everyone else to dictate the action, and they are the ones reacting. In a league that is constantly tinkering and experimenting, I’m going to assume Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes figure it out. But the one thing I’ve learned through five weeks is that nothing is going to be as easy as it has been.

The Bills are the logical AFC team for whom the Chiefs pass the torch, if indeed it has come to that. They have the league’s second most talented quarterback in Josh Allen, they have enough skill position players to drive the ball, and their defense — which the Chiefs shredded in different ways twice last year — is improved. It is a team worthy of sending a message to Kansas City on Sunday Night Football in the fashion they did.

Chiefs fans have been melting down all season long, struck week after week by the idea that their favorite team is no longer invincible. In writing this blog specifically I am not immune from echoing some of those sentiments. I guess when you go 12-4 in 2018 and 2019, and then 14-2 in 2020, it is easy to fall into the trap that Kansas City again would coast through a comfortable regular season before getting the real season underway in the playoffs. The idea that the 2021 team would struggle, have to fight, and earn their way again seems like sacrilege.

In fairness, the schedule hasn’t been a cakewalk. An easy argument can be made that Kansas City has already played the four best teams in the AFC. A quick look shows the Browns (3-2), Ravens (4-1), Chargers (4-1) and Bills (4-1), combining for a healthy 15-5 (.750) record through five weeks. Remove the Chiefs’ game for all those teams and the record stands at 12-4 (still .750). The only non-AFC opponent Kansan City faced were the Eagles, who the Chiefs defeated 42-30.

I only mention the schedule as a matter of fact, not as an excuse for how hard this team has had it. The fact is, if the Chiefs are playing their game it doesn’t matter which team is on the other side of the field.

Before the year I looked at these first five weeks, and perhaps with some obliviousness I assumed going 4-1 was acceptable. And truth be told, if the ball had broken in their direction against both the Ravens (36-35 loss) and Chargers (30-24 loss), the Chiefs would be right there. With a record of 2-3, Kansas City is forced to confront themselves a lot sooner than I would have imagined. And I think it will be good for them.

I’m going to stray away from all the Sky Is Falling rhetoric reserved for most other Chiefs fans right now. That isn’t my bag. But I sit here with a clear mind about my favorite sports team. I recognize they are far from perfect and have a lot of work to do. I much prefer being the overwhelming favorite, and winning, but I’m actually looking forward to seeing what this year’s team is capable of when their backs are against the wall.

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