How the Chiefs Reached Super Bowl LIV

Kansas City’s road to Miami for the Super Bowl didn’t start when the 2019 NFL season did five months ago—it actually began all the way back in ’13, when Andy Reid was hired.
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You can’t look at an NFL season in a vacuum. There are defining moments in a franchise that may happen years before the club’s eventual berth into the Super Bowl, which is what we’re trying to focus on here. Yes, the Kansas City Chiefs were special in 2019, weathering countless injuries, a coordinator shift on defense and the departure of a few franchise legends. But in the end, they’re one of two teams left standing.

Here’s how they got to Miami:

Hiring Andy Reid

When Andy Reid was dismissed by the Eagles in late December 2012, he had no shortage of coaching options. The belief was that Reid—one of the best play-callers in the NFL and a coach who had nine playoff appearances, four straight division titles (2001-‘04) and a Super Bowl appearance during his time in Philadelphia—had simply run into some bad luck. Coaches who reach the postseason with such regularity don’t do so by accident.

Arriving in Kansas City, Reid immediately began remaking the offense in his vision of a Bill Walsh–ian West Coast fever dream. In 2013, the team traded for Alex Smith instead of taking a swing at a rookie quarterback in a historically grim draft class (Geno Smith was the first passer drafted that season in the second round). From there, the Chiefs steadily ascended from AFC West also-ran, stuck under the thumb of the Denver Broncos, to serial contender. Having gone 2-14 in 2012, the Chiefs jumped to 11-5 in Reid’s first season and have not had a losing record since. They have made the playoffs every year save for 2014.

Drafting Chris Jones

Jones, a second-round pick in 2016, became one of the best interior pass rushers in the NFL, and when healthy, he’s a critical piece on the team’s defensive line. But it wasn’t just Jones—it’s impossible to tell the story of the Kansas City Chiefs this season without noting their recent success in the draft, for better or worse. Some of their best players were not first-round picks, like Jones, wide receivers Demarcus Robinson and Mecole Hardman, and versatile defensive end Tanoh Kpassagnon, who came into his own during the 2019 season and logged four sacks.

Tyreek Hill, arguably the team’s best offensive weapon behind quarterback Patrick Mahomes, was also a late-round draft pick in 2016—though most other teams were wary of taking him due to the fact that he was removed from the Oklahoma State football program for alleged domestic violence. Drafting him at all seemed to raise eyebrows around the NFL. Hill was also subject to an investigation of child abuse in 2019 after a recording was released alleging as such; the county district attorney’s office declined to file charges, and the NFL followed the DA’s office’s lead by not disciplining Hill.

Patrick Mahomes

Drafting Patrick Mahomes/Trading Alex Smith

The selection of Patrick Mahomes in 2017 represented the moment that Reid and the Chiefs organization went all in. Alex Smith was still their entrenched starter and Mahomes, who had collegiate success in an Air Raid system with principals that had yet to be adopted by the NFL, was seen as a bit of a wild card.

However, Mahomes got the chance to sit under Andy Reid’s wing for an entire season—a rarity in today’s NFL—and emerged as a destructive force in 2018, throwing for 50 touchdowns in his first season and another 26 in his second (Mahomes missed a little more than two games with a dislocated knee cap this year). In the year he spent sitting behind Smith, Mahomes watched as the Chiefs began creating the underpinnings of an offense that would redefine the NFL. The adoption of Air Raid principles would later become a league standard, as would Reid’s instance on using whatever the quarterback was comfortable with in college in the pros as well.

Because of Mahomes’s emergence behind the scenes, the Chiefs were able to deal Alex Smith to Washington, netting them a third-round pick and Kendall Fuller.

From draft curiosity to MVP, Mahomes is expected to rewrite the record books in terms of quarterback salary when he signs his next NFL contract.

Signing Tyrann Mathieu

In March 2019, the Chiefs kicked off free agency with a bang, signing Tyrann Mathieu and pairing him with a new-look defense headed by journeyman coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. Spagnuolo’s fast break style defense is perfect for heady, versatile players like Mathieu, who can seamlessly float from the safety position to cornerback and flummox opposing passers in the process.

Mathieu, who, after rising to prominence in college football at LSU, has had a redemptive arc of his own. From a pre-draft process that dug issues out of his past and caused him to fall to the third round, he became a rising star in Arizona, a short-term rental project in Houston and finally, in Kansas City, a conductor of a secondary befitting of his talents. Mathieu has had four interceptions, 12 pass breakups, two sacks, 75 tackles and three tackles for a loss in 2019.

Losing to the Tennessee Titans on Nov. 10

At the time, the Chiefs seemed to be plodding along through the season. They were still trying to figure out how to play with a cadre of inexperienced running backs and free-agent acquisitions. Mahomes was still recovering from his knee injury. The offensive line was reeling from ailments of its own.

But the Chiefs have not lost since, and while we can sometimes overstate the symbolism of such things, the game certainly sits as a pivot point in their season. Once they became fully healthy, a glimpse of the 2018 juggernaut we all seemed to forget about emerged and began ripping its way through the NFL. Since that moment, the Chiefs hung 40 points on a Raiders team still in contention, beat the New England Patriots in Foxborough, pummeled the Broncos and Bears in consecutive weeks, giving up a total of six points in the process, and emerged from a 24-point deficit at home against the Texans to reach the conference championship game.

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