KANSAS CITY, Mo. — You could write epic poetry about the season the Kansas City Chiefs just had, dragging your reader through dizzying highs, puzzling lows and briefly renewed hope to a devastating, surprise ending. It’s hard to believe any team has ever started 5-0, gone 1-6 in the middle, recovered to win its division and then blown an 18-point halftime lead to a bottom-10 offense in a home playoff game. The 2017 Chiefs were unprecedented — Star Wars meets Shakespeare meets Andy Reid’s gruesome postseason career.
But all of that is over, and as a stunned group of Chiefs dressed and packed and tried to explain themselves in the locker room following Saturday’s loss to the Tennessee Titans, you couldn’t help but think about what comes next.
As great as the 2017 Chiefs were, the 2018 Chiefs are almost certainly going to look a lot different. The question, in the wake of Reid’s worst Kansas City postseason flop yet, is whether they’ll be better.
This question is most prominent at quarterback, where it’s not certain but likely the Chiefs move on from Alex Smith and promote 2017 first-round pick Patrick Mahomes. They traded a boatload of picks for Mahomes, he looked tantalizingly good in his Week 17 cameo and Smith is coming off a career year that should help the Chiefs get a nice return for him in a trade.
“I mean, the game just ended,” Smith said Saturday night. “I’ll get into all that here in the next couple of weeks.”
But he knows what’s likely coming, and the people who run the Chiefs do, too. Once the move from Smith to Mahomes is complete, the Chiefs’ offense will be a model of breathless volatility. Exciting but unpredictable playmakers such as Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce will be catching passes from a quarterback with remarkable talent but very little experience. The way Reid and offensive coordinator Matt Nagy designed and ran his offense this season, Mahomes’ athletic abilities open up enthralling possibilities for what they all can accomplish together. But once they go that way, they’re forfeiting one of the great benefits Smith provides — the near-certainty that the quarterback won’t turn the ball over.
That might be the next natural evolution in what Reid and the Chiefs want to do on offense — keep elevating the ceiling with hyper-athletic playmakers who allow him to keep using all those different motion calls and shifting personnel groups. Not that there’s anything wrong with Smith’s athleticism, but Mahomes is the Chiefs’ future or they wouldn’t have made the draft-day trade to get him. Going into next season, they feel good about the running game with Kareem Hunt, they love what Kelce and Hill bring in terms of downfield mismatches, and now they’ll almost certainly plug in the quarterback they hand-picked to grow and flourish in their system with all of those stars around him.
It could backfire, sure, but it could be great. And to get past this ditch into which the Chiefs keep crashing — they have won just one playoff game since the 1993 season — and compete for AFC titles with the likes of the Patriots and Steelers, the Chiefs know they have to keep pushing the envelope on offense. Expect them to continue to try to do that.
But the other way things have to look different here is on defense. The Chiefs’ offense is going to take the heat for Saturday’s loss, but don’t overlook the fact that the defense couldn’t get off the field against Marcus Mariota’s Titans. Tennessee converted all seven of its second-half third downs (if you don’t count the game-ending kneel-down) in spite of having an average of 6.9 yards to go on those plays. That’s a total meltdown by a defense whose core players have a little bit of age on them. Tamba Hali and Justin Houston aren’t scaring quarterbacks the way they used to. Derrick Johnson had a nice game but is 35. This team needs a defensive overhaul much more than it even needs its expected quarterback change.
The problem is that the Chiefs traded their 2018 first-round pick in the Mahomes deal and at the moment have only four picks in this upcoming draft. And sure, they theoretically pick up one or two nice ones in a deal for Smith, but they’re probably going to have to hit, Saints-style, on a couple of early-round defensive picks if they’re going to replenish this thing in time for next year’s playoff run. They’ll get back star safety Eric Berry, but they need more help on that side of the ball, and there was no way to come out of Saturday thinking otherwise.
Will the 2018 Chiefs be as thrilling as the 2017 version was? Will they be as good as the 2017 version was? More important to the fan base, can they build a team that will go further in the postseason?
All remains to be seen. What we know as of now is that this Chiefs group is likely done, and what comes next will look different in several key ways. Whether that’s good or bad? Well, wondering that is part of the fun.