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MAQB: Is It Time to Worry About Kansas City?

It’s not just one thing troubling the 3–4 Chiefs, it’s many. Plus, the risks in Arizona are paying off big, what makes Joe Burrow a good leader, the Texans QB decision that doesn’t revolve around Deshaun Watson and more.

Lots of blowouts this week. Maybe we get a good one in some messy weather in Seattle on Monday night? In other news …

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• The time is right to ask real questions on where the Chiefs stand. Now at 3–4, Kansas City has as many losses as it’s had in any season since Patrick Mahomes became starter, despite being just seven games in. And as you might imagine, after kicking around with some teams that have played the Chiefs, it’s not just one thing. It’s a number of things.

  1. The offensive line. With five new starters, this was always going to take a little time. But I’m not sure the Chiefs accounted for the transition lingering into midseason, and forcing a benching at right tackle (with veteran Mike Remmers coming in for second-year rookie Lucas Niang). Making matters worse is what opponents see as a result of this: a quarterback who’s not trusting his protection.
  2. Mahomes’s willingness/ability to get easy completions. The fifth-year star has made his name doing the impossible. But the impossible isn’t what the Chiefs need right now. More often, they need the probable. In some cases, Mahomes is passing up on easy completions. In others, the lack of a viable third threat after Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce has been a problem. Overall, there’s just a need to manage possessions better.
  3. A spotty run game. In games against the Chargers and Eagles, this element seemed to come alive. But Kansas City hasn’t been consistent with it—failing to break 80 rushing yards in three of seven games, and starting to move away from the run game altogether in the aftermath of Clyde Edwards-Helaire’s injury. Thing is, running the ball would make things easier on both the line and Mahomes. I’m not saying the Chiefs should become the Titans. But other teams have told me the run game should be a tool for calming down some of the troubles, regardless of whether Edwards-Helaire can play.
  4. The best players on defense haven’t played like it. Part of that’s injury, of course. But the fact is that Frank Clark and Chris Jones have been very up and down, and this has exposed an ordinary back seven.

So if you add that up, you can see a path back for Kansas City—get the line more time together, get Mahomes to take easy money more often, commit to running the ball to help manage the offense, and get Clark and Jones going. It’ll be interesting to see if they can make all that happen.

• Maybe my continued insistence that you pay attention to him makes me a Jonathan Taylor evangelist, but the last few weeks have shown how Indy’s bellcow is getting better with his vision, and adding a real edge to the Colts’ offense—the Sunday Night Football game against the Niners was his fourth straight with over 100 yards from scrimmage. I picked him to win the rushing title before the year, and I’m sticking by it. He’s also been huge in the way of getting Carson Wentz more comfortable running Frank Reich’s RPO-centered offense. Combine that with Taylor’s draft classmate Michael Pittman emerging as Wentz’s top target, and Indy’s flashing real potential on offense now.

• It’s pretty amazing that Texas Tech fired Kliff Kingsbury’s replacement, Matt Wells, just as Kingsbury, the coach the Red Raiders fired three years ago, is pushing the Cardinals to 7–0. And you gotta give Arizona GM Steve Keim credit—pulling the plug on Steve Wilks after a year (Wilks is now defensive coordinator at Missouri) wasn’t the most popular move, nor was hiring a coach who failed in the Big 12. But I can still remember what Keim told me last year about where the Cardinals were at back in early 2019, going through his thought process and how this way of thinking eventually moved him off Josh Rosen too. “Well, it’s crazy to think about it. You really do look back, and you say to yourself now, You fired a coach after one year, you drafted a kid in the first round and moved on from him, you hired a fired college coach, and you drafted a 5-foot-10 quarterback with the first pick. You’d think, ‘O.K., this guy needs to check into a mental hospital.’ But it was one of those things—[owner] Michael Bidwill, it starts with him, he supported me, and we together made the decisions. I just felt like, where we were as an organization, we had to do something, maybe for lack of a better term, drastic. The Rams were getting better fast, the Seahawks are always a good team, the Niners were doing the same thing as the Rams, getting better fast, making some great moves. And I respect all those GMs greatly, so it was like, We have got to propel this organization forward, how do we do it? Sometimes, you gotta think outside the box.” And in this case, Keim trusted his instincts—and what he saw Kingsbury actually do with less talent and different types of quarterbacks at Texas Tech—before tossing up what looked like a Hail Mary at the time. There’s a long way to go, but it sure looks like Kingsbury’s come down with the ball in the end zone for his GM. And Kingsbury’s alma mater is in a worse spot than it was three years ago.

• There have been rumblings the last couple weeks of a leadership void among the players in New England, and whether or not players like Devin McCourty, Dont’a Hightower or Kyle Van Noy can get through to younger players (since the veterans aren’t quite who they once were as players, and the age gap is around a decade with some teammates). And without many homegrown, in-prime stars to take the wheel, I’d heard questions around if the new faces could step into the void. I think we started to see it Sunday. Kendrick Bourne had four catches for 68 yards. Hunter Henry and Nelson Agholor scored touchdowns. Jonnu Smith made a couple big plays. Matthew Judon was a menace on defense again. And Mac Jones had his best day as a pro. Yes, it was against the Jets. But I do think there’s some significance here to the new players taking the torch, based on where the 2–4 team was at. I said on TV yesterday that this would be a spot in the Brady years where the Patriots would come in angry and blow the doors off an opponent. Well, that happened yesterday, and it was players who weren’t there last year leading the charge. Now, we’ll see if they can repeat it against a really good Chargers team they actually match up well with.

• And now, it’s story time. Last night, in talking to Giants coach Joe Judge, I raised the fact that, since he was at Alabama and then the Patriots from 2009–19, managing a 1–5 start like he had to last week might be new territory for him. He was quick to list his coaching stops before he landed in Tuscaloosa 12 years ago. “When you're coaching at Birmingham Southern and you're 3–7 for the season, and you got guys in the stadiums with close friends and families only, you play in high school stadiums in Division III football, keeping those guys in it, motivating those guys, what's making them think it's important?” Judge says. “We were just keeping them together as a team and playing for each other. Look, I was at Mississippi State in 2006, we went, I think it was 3–8. And we looked at all of our losses at the end of the season, and all of our losses were very, very close. And it was one of those deals where it's like, 'Oh, if only this, if only that.' And you bring it back to, 'Alright, well how do we improve that?' And it was the focus on the fundamentals and each play at a time. And our head coach Sylvester Croom, his motto for that next year was, 'One play, this play.' That's all we're playing. We're playing this play right now. Win that play, and we'll deal with the next one when we get to it. In 2007, all of a sudden, he's the SEC coach of the year and we had turned a lot of those close losses into wins. … Look, anybody, when they're 5–1, 6–0, is gonna come in motivated and yep, let's go full-speed. It's like, 'Alright, now how's the team responding when they're going through adversity?' And that, I say all the time, that's when you find out who they really are.” In Monday’s MMQB column, we detailed how Judge used the lessons from then to reset the Giants with fundamental work this week. But it’s pretty obvious there were other lessons he took from those times that were just as important.

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• Talk to enough of Joe Burrow’s teammates, and you’ll learn about a sort of belief the QB brings to the groups he’s led. So when I had Ja’Marr Chase on the phone Sunday, I figured he’d be the perfect person to ask about it, since he saw it happen at LSU, and is seeing it again in Cincinnati. “I think it's the way he carries himself. He shows no emotion, his face never changes. We want a quarterback like that, when he's around the offense, and around the rest of his playmakers, he's always being straight-faced, not showing no emotion. I think that helps everybody else not crack, not feel no pressure. You know—it's football, play your game, execute and come out with a chance.” Burrow has certainly given the Bengals a chance.

• Seeing Bears coach Matt Nagy and Packers defensive coordinator Joe Barry pop positive COVID-19 tests on the same day certainly makes you think about what could be coming as the weather turns and cold-and-flu season makes its way. For one week, this is manageable. Matt LaFleur happens to have a guy on his staff with NFL experience going back to the mid-1980s, and one who’s been a coordinator for two teams, in Jerry Gray to take the reins from Barry. And Chris Tabor’s been a mainstay on the Chicago staff, having come in with Nagy in 2018. But what happens if we see chunks of staffs taken out later in the year? Or like last year, position groups? I think it’s reasonable for teams to be over-the-top with their diligence in the coming weeks, and maybe even adopt some of the practices from 2020 to try and mitigate spread. That, by the way, wouldn’t even be much of a statement on where we all are now with COVID. It's simply about wins and losses.

• It was interesting to see Carson Palmer mention Mike Tomlin as a potential candidate for the USC job—on the premise that maybe, just maybe, after 15 years (Tomlin’s now been in Pittsburgh as long as his predecessor, Bill Cowher, was), the Super Bowl champion coach might be open to a change. I wouldn’t blame SC in the least for making that call. And we mentioned a couple weeks back that the Raiders could make a run at Tomlin over the next few months. As I see it, that’s a call Mark Davis has to make. You’d think Tomlin would say no. But it’s on Davis to make sure of that, by making him actually say no.

• I thought Mike White actually looked mostly fine running the Jets offense in a pretty trying circumstance Sunday—it was his first real NFL action, and he entered the game having to play from way behind. And so I’m not quite sure that it was really necessary to throw a draft pick at the hole Zach Wilson’s injury created, if he’ll be back within the month. But Joe Flacco’s a Jet now, and it’s fair to question why they’re doing this now, if they didn’t want to in the offseason, when it wouldn’t have cost them a pick.

• The Texans have an interesting quarterback decision that doesn’t involve Deshaun Watson: Do they want to just keep playing Davis Mills to see what they have in him going into 2022, or give themselves a better chance to win in the here and now with Tyrod Taylor? The first option probably makes more sense organizationally. But the coaches and staff also have to worry about keeping the team engaged down the stretch. And that would be harder if the team is choosing not to play the best player they have at the most important position on the field (assuming that, for the Texans, that’s still Taylor). 

More NFL Coverage: 

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