KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — The Kansas City Chiefs have some of the biggest names in the NFL, from Patrick Mahomes and Travis Kelce to Chris Jones and JuJu Smith-Schuster, yet they’re playing in their third Super Bowl in four years mostly because they refused to give up to players that only their most passionate fans know about.
There is the quartet of rookie defensive backs who have been drafted all season, but who largely shut down Ja’Marr Chase and the Bengals’ other talented wide receivers by picking off Joe Burrow twice in the AFC championship game.
There’s Skyy Moore, their fumble-prone rookie punt returner whose fumble cost them a Week 3 win in Indianapolis, but whose big comeback in Sunday night’s waning seconds helped set up the game-winning field goal in the win for 23-20.
And there’s their kicker, Harrison Butker, whose sprained ankle in Arizona’s regular season opener led to the most inaccurate season of his career, but who drilled the 45-yard dash with 3 seconds left that eventually put off the Chiefs in the desert.
“Really, those are the redemption stories you get into,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “It was a real deal to watch.”
In fact, Reid has been around long enough to understand the cutthroat nature of the NFL, where player careers are often measured in weeks rather than years. He’s seen hundreds of up-and-comers go out, their chances of making it thwarted by fumble problems, missed block assignments, missed tackles, or other seemingly minor mistakes.
He likes to say that the line between success and failure is so small as to be almost imperceptible.
Even his players understand this.
“With circumstances this high,” admitted Chiefs offensive tackle Orlando Brown Jr., “the margin for error is so small.”
So no one would bat an eye if the Chiefs relegated Moore to the mothballs early in the season when the first-year wide receiver couldn’t even make a good catch. To be fair, Moore had never really been put in that position, but that didn’t stop fans from groaning every time he fumbled a punt.
The Chiefs eventually pulled him from return duties, at least during games. But Moore kept working in practice and it ended up paying off for him. Their new comeback, Kadarius Toney, injured his ankle against the Bengals, and his backup Justin Watson was already inactive with illness. Then, the Chiefs sent Moore back to recover the biggest punt of the season.
Not only did he field it cleanly, but he ran to the sideline to give Kansas City a chance to win the AFC title in regulation.
“I just had to remind myself who I was and why I was here,” Moore said. “I was doing something new, and I was about to get my bumps and bruises. I kept working at it. I didn’t think I’d ever get a punt return again this season. But I haven’t stopped catching pounds. I was prepared for that moment and it has borne fruit.
So did the Chiefs’ decision to continue to field rookie cornerbacks Trent McDuffie, Jaylen Watson and Josh Williams together, often with rookie safety Bryan Cook, even as the wily wide receivers kept outplaying them and the flags kept flying for pass interference. Just like Moore, they got their lumps in early in the season so they’d be ready later.
In the AFC title game, Watson and Williams both picked up passes, one of which was after Cook tapped the ball in the air.
“They told us we would be an important part of this defence. They threw us into the fire,” said Williams. “They definitely gave us every information and every detail to prepare us to play well in difficult situations. They didn’t just tell us to go out and play. They gave us a game plan and showed us how to execute it. We did and we accepted.
Butker was a slightly different case. His ankle injury in the Arizona opener not only caused him to miss three weeks, it also forced him to alter his approach to kickoffs and field shots. The result was a shaky season in which the big-legged veteran kicker missed a career-worst six field goal attempts and dropped three extra points.
However, when Moore’s punt return gave the ball to Patrick Mahomes and Co., and the All-Pro quarterback scrambled up the field with his own sprained ankle, the Chiefs had enough faith in Butker to send him trotting into the field.
It was freezing. The wind was swirling. The ball probably looked like a rock. Yet Butker managed to get just enough grit on the 45-yarder that creaked over the crossbar and gave the Chiefs their third AFC title in four years.
“You dream of big kicks. That’s what people remember,” Butker pointed out in the cheering Kansas City locker room afterward. “They don’t remember your field goal percentage on the year.”
Nor do people remember the hardships players like Moore, Butker, and the Chiefs defensive backfield faced when they suddenly found themselves playing in the Super Bowl.
“Everyone pushed and made it work,” Reid said, “so I’m very proud for our guys.”