Home NFL How the Chiefs learned from their Super Bowl mistakes this offseason: evolution of the OL

How the Chiefs learned from their Super Bowl mistakes this offseason: evolution of the OL

By: Brady Akins

The Kansas City Chiefs, the champions of 2019’s Super Bowl 54 and the back-to-back champions of the AFC, are not stupid.

Perhaps you don’t need anyone to tell you that, but regardless, it bears repeating. The Kansas City Chiefs, a model of consistency for years in the NFL and more recently the model for championship-level success, are not stupid.

Rather, the Kansas City Chiefs are well built, from top to bottom. Andy Reid has never been the kind of coach who attempts to fit square pegs into round holes. You will never see Reid attempting to force an outdated style of offense into the modern NFL simply because it’s how things used to be done. Rather, Reid adapts. His offenses change as the personnel changes. Because of this, Kansas City thrives.

Similarly, Brett Veach has never been the type of general manager who sat on his hands when an opportunity presents itself. He was in the front office when the team traded an arm and a leg to trade up 17 spots and draft Patrick Mahomes when they had the chance. He was the man in charge when they offered Mahomes a historically high-value contract, and he’s been in lock-step with Reid since day one, building a roster that has recognized its championship window and capitalized on it. 

One more time, for those in the back of the room, the Kansas City Chiefs are not stupid.

And so, it comes as no surprise that the smart, well-coached, well ran Chiefs have had an offseason for the ages. It’s no surprise that a coach as sharp as Reid and a general manager as aggressive as Veach were able to identify their roster’s most glaring weakness, address it in a variety of ways over the span of months, and transform that weakness into a strength.

That weakness of course being the offensive line. 

It doesn’t take a football mastermind to figure that out. You don’t need hours of film study to identify the holes in the Chiefs’ near-perfect roster.  One look at one game, Super Bowl 55, will show you all you needed to know. One glance at the stat sheet, one that shows that Patrick Mahomes was pressured on nearly half of his total dropbacks, lets even the most casual of NFL observers know that this line was a problem.

But not anymore.

Patrick Mahomes is an All-Pro, and possibly the best player in the league at his position. Tyreek Hill is an All-Pro, and possibly the best player in the league at his position. Travis Kelce is an All-Pro, and, well, you get the idea.

And that’s just on offense. Look toward the opposite side of the ball and you’ll see more of the same. Players like Chris Jones and Tyrann Mathieu are established NFL superstars, while players like L’Jarius Sneed and Willie Gay are fast approaching that level. 

All of this star power is what drove the Chiefs to a 14-2 regular-season record, the best in the NFL. It’s the star power that propelled Kansas City to win yet another AFC Championship with relative ease, despite that nagging issue on the line.

But all the star power in the world couldn’t mask that weakness when the chips were down. Super Bowl 55 was a blowout, and not in the favor Kansas City had come to expect with their recent playoff success. 

But Kansas City’s offseason overhaul happened. Their efforts to address the offensive line weren’t a patchwork job, but rather a top to bottom remodeling. Combine the superstars from the 2020 Kansas City Chiefs with the solidity of the 2021 Chiefs offensive line, and what you have is a perfect storm brewing in Kansas City.

This team was one game away from back-to-back NFL titles. Now, they’ve fixed their only issue. And they’re coming for the throne. Not just for another Super Bowl, but for the honor of the greatest football team in decades.

Who Were the Kansas City Chiefs in 2020?

A wrecking ball. A nearly unstoppable force. Perfect? No. Well, actually, they were pretty close to perfect. At least as perfect as you could expect.

Football is the ultimate team game, one where all 11 offensive starters, all 11 defensive starters, all the backups, all the coaches and coordinators and just about every member of the franchise in the stadium on game day needs to be constantly on their game. One position group, one player, or any deficiency whatsoever can be the difference between winning and losing.

And the Chiefs weren’t just better than any team in the AFC, or better than every team in the regular season, but they were among the best in just about every conceivable metric.

Despite having a quarterback who earned a reputation as a gunslinger in college, one who threw 29 interceptions through 32 college games, the Chiefs finished top five in the NFL in total turnovers, and were top ten in turnover differential.

Despite having a rushing attack that ranked toward the middle of the pack, the Kansas City offense as a whole flourished, finished ranked sixth in points per game and first yards per game. No other team in the league averaged more than 400 yards per game. The Chiefs broke that mark with room to spare, averaging over 415 in 2020.

Somehow, the individual stats are even more impressive.

Mahomes in 2020 was, once again, among the league’s best quarterbacks in just about every aspect you could ask for from a burgeoning Hall of Fame player. Not only was he first in wins, but Mahomes finished second in passing yards, second in quarterback rating, third in passer rating, fourth in total passing touchdowns and first in interception percentage. And after rewriting the standard for quarterback greatness in 2018, winning MVP honors in just his first year as a starter, this 2020 season was considered a relatively down year for Mahomes.

Of course, the quarterback had help, namely in the form of Kelce and Hill, two pass-catchers who have proven to be elite in their own right. Kelce, a tight end, finished second overall in 2020 for receiving yards with 1,416. The next highest tight end, Darren Waller of the Raiders, ended the season with 1,196 yards, despite playing one more game than Kelce. In fact, Kelce’s season marked the first time that a tight end has ever had more than 1,400 receiving yards in one year.

Hill had an impressive season himself, albeit in the shadow of Kelce’s historic 15-game stretch. On 87 catches, only the 17th most in the league in 2020, Hill ended the year with 1,276 receiving yards, the eighth-best in the league. Hill outdid himself in his ability to reach the endzone too, ending the year with 15 receiving touchdowns, the most behind only Davante Adams.

The offense is the bread and butter of the Kansas City Chiefs’ well-oiled operation, but it’s far from the only standout part. The Kansas City defense also finished as a top ten unit in points allowed per game, as well as quarterback rating allowed and turnover percentage.

The defense will never be mistaken as the strength of the Kansas City roster during the Reid era, but it’s far from a weakness. With an offense as star-studded as the one the Chiefs wield, the defense can afford to allow some touchdowns,  but they don’t even do that. Finishing top ten in both scoring offense and defense, Kansas City ended up second in point differential following the regular season.

And remember, all of this statistical dominance and offensive spectacle came before the moves made to address the offensive line. Kansas City retained all of their key contributors from the team that made the Super Bowl in 2020, the team that played so brilliantly for so long. The one thing holding them back from immortality, that pesky offensive line. 

Heading into 2021, the Chiefs made it their mission to make sure that one issue was addressed.

Fixing The Offensive Line

The Chiefs’ depth chart for Week 1 listed these five men as starters on the offensive line. From left tackle to right, the list went Eric Fisher, Kelechi Osemele, Austin Reiter, Andrew Wylie and Mitchell Schwartz.

Only Wylie remains on the Chiefs roster of those original five. Replacing them, a series of trade assets, free agent signings, and even draft picks looking to prove themselves. After the remodel, the Kansas City line has the chance to ascend from the group that gave away a Super Bowl, to a group that can help carry a team to a Super Bowl.

Fisher is gone. Stepping into his place at left tackle, the much younger Orlando Brown, a player who has made two Pro Bowls in his first three seasons. Brown fell all the way to the middle of the third round in the 2018 NFL Draft, and the Baltimore Ravens took him and made him a star. After trading a collection of draft picks to Baltimore, that star power is now coming to Kansas City.

Osemele is gone. Likely to replace him is Kyle Long, one of Kansas City’s free-agent acquisitions. Long is an NFL veteran, but a plug-and-play talent with three Pro Bowls to his name. After not playing for the entirety of the 2020 season, Long is back, and looking to prove himself. 

Reiter is gone, but a rookie steps in to potentially take his place as a starter. Creed Humphrey, Kansas City’s second-round pick in 2021, comes from the Oklahoma Sooners after a decorated college career. Humphrey finished as a freshman All-American in 2018, a Second-Team All-American in 2019, and a Third-Team All-American in 2020. He was the Big-12 co-offensive lineman of the year in 2019, and the sole winner in 2020. All this to say, the big guy can play. And he could be just the right player to put the Chiefs’ offensive line back on track.

Wylie isn’t gone, but he might be gone from the opening week starting spot. Joe Thuney comes in from New England as another free agent guard signings. Thuney has played five seasons in the NFL, has never missed a start, and was a part of two Super Bowl-winning Patriots teams. 2016 and 2018, New England’s two championship seasons with Thuney, the guard started on an offensive line that finished top five in sacks allowed.

The depth behind these new potential starters might be even more solid than the starters themselves. Lucas Niang will be a second-year tackle for the Chiefs and is a player with a decorated college resume that rivals Humphrey’s. Laurent Duvernay-Tardif rejoins Kansas City as a more than capable guard, one who sat out the 2020 season, but actually started for the Chiefs in their 2019 Super Bowl victory. And Austin Blythe, another Chiefs free agent signing, could even be Kansas City’s starting center himself, coming off the Rams roster where he started all 16 games at the position for Los Angeles.

The influx of talent on the Kansas City roster is concentrated nearly entirely on the offensive line, and in a way that covers all their bases. If the team needs youth and high ceilings, they have that in Brown, Humphrey and Niang. If they need seasoned veterans to come in and be solid, above-average players, Long, Thuney and Blythe will be there.

The Kansas City Chiefs were a couple of offensive line offseason acquisitions away from building an NFL superweapon. A Death Star of an offense, ran by Sith Lord Patrick Mahomes and all the toys he could need to wreck shop on a regular basis.

What Kansas City did instead of making a couple of moves was go all the way in. The Chiefs have completely remodeled their biggest weakness, and it could spell trouble for the rest of the league. 

The Ascension of Kansas City

As a reminder, the Kansas City Chiefs are not stupid. They are not a stubborn team that simply seeks to run it back. 

The Chiefs got close, and how could they not? Their control over the rest of the NFL shows up on the stat sheets. Kansas City players constantly found their names on the top of the stat sheets, some of them even made history, and it all came together to form a complete group that coasted to 14 wins. 

And rather than chalking up their Super Bowl defeat to bad luck, rather than sitting on their hands and opening the dice roll better for them next year, Kansas City took action. The Chiefs identified their weakness after that Super Bowl loss, and moved Heaven and Earth to fix it. The near-perfect team, with Hall of Famers lining the roster like it’s a Madden Dynasty, just got a whole lot better at roster spot that needed the most attention.

All of a sudden, that near-perfect team from 2020 is looking about as close to perfect as you can get for 2021. 

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