by John Unrein
The sun did rise for Chiefs Kingdom following their 31-9 loss in Super Bowl LV against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on February 7th. “Tompa Bay” is now title town again. Patrick Mahomes spent much of the game scrambling to extend plays, completing only 53% of his pass attempts for 270 yards and two interceptions. The Houdini like effort by the Chiefs quarterback to find a way to keep his team in the game was to no avail.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive coordinator Todd Bowles put forth a defensive game plan that may end up in Canton, Ohio in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Bowles would call a zone defense with two deep safeties on first and second downs predominately. Third down would see the mixing in of man defense so that the 24 year football coaching veteran (dating back to being the defensive coordinator at Morehouse College in 1997) had the option of bringing pressure.
The result was a previously prolific Chiefs offense that did not score a touchdown during the Super Bowl. Kansas City would only be able to muster 9 points from three Harrison Butker field goals on the Buccaneers home field at Raymond James Stadium.
Bowles has ascended through the coaching ranks since playing college football at Temple University for then head coach Bruce Arians. Bowles would enter the National Football League as an undrafted free agent in 1986 and go on to enjoy an 8 year NFL career with the Washington Redskins and San Francisco 49ers. Bowles would be reunited with Arians in Tampa Bay at the start of the 2019 season, after a prior stint with Arians in the same capacity with the Arizona Cardinals from 2013-2014.
Mahomes, Chiefs head football coach Andy Reid, wide receiver Tyreek Hill, and tight end Travis Kelce all acknowledged the strong game plan that Bowles organized after the Super Bowl.
“Todd Bowles, he did his thing tonight. They just had a better game plan,” Hill said during the postgame press conference.
Reid added, “Todd (Bowles) had a good plan, but like I said, I could have done a whole lot better job of putting these guys in a better position to make plays. My guys busted their tails and it just didn’t work.”
Kelce concluded, “It’s frustrating. It felt like one of those days where anything you did, they had an answer for it.”
Time will tell if the coaching effort by Bowles will get him another opportunity to be an NFL head coach after a previous tenure at the helm of the New York Jets from 2015 to 2018.
The Chiefs organization will turn their attention to the start of the new league year on March 17th that will coincide with the opening of free agency. The NFL salary cap has been adjusted for the 2021 season due to the economic strain from profit lost by franchises during the current pandemic. As first reported by Field Yates of USA Today, that is $23.2 million less than the 2020 salary cap.
The adjusted salary cap for next season was no doubt a sobering projection for general managers across the league who planned to have over $200 million to work with during 2021. The Chiefs will receive some relief rolling over $5.1 million in unused salary cap space from this season to next. This number is subject to change as the NFL will conduct audits of each team’s salary cap for the 2020 season.
Various sources have the Chiefs $17-18 million over the salary cap heading into the start of the new league year. Something Chiefs General Manager Brett Veach will have to address through trades, contract extensions, contract restructuring, or cuts. That is the opposite way franchise leadership would prefer to be headed after a painful Super Bowl loss. Thus, the Chiefs Super Bowl hangover begins.
The Chiefs currently have 16 unrestricted free agents heading into the 2021 season. The list of those to hit the open market for Kansas City include starters and those who contributed significant playing time to the team this season. The following is a list of soon to be Chiefs free agents (ages listed will be for the beginning of the 2021 season).
Sammy Watkins, Wide Receiver, Age 28
Alex Okafor, Defensive End, Age 30
Daniel Sorenson, Safety/Nickel Linebacker, Age 31
Bashaud Breeland, Cornerback, Age 29
Damien Wilson, Outside Linebacker, Age 28
Demarcus Robinson, Wide Receiver, Age 27
Austin Reiter, Center, Age 30
Kelechi Osemele, Guard, Age 32
Mike Remmers, Offensive Tackle, Age 32
Anthony Sherman, Fullback, Age 33
Tanoh Kpassagnon, Defensive End, Age 27
Daniel Kilgore, Center, Age 34
Mike Pennel, Defensive Tackle, Age 30
Antonio Hamilton, Cornerback, Age 28
Le’Veon Bell, Running Back, Age 29
Taco Charlton, Defensive End, Age 27
Compounding the list of things leading to the current Chiefs hangover is the injury status of offensive tackles Eric Fisher and Mitchell Schwartz. Fisher went down with a ruptured achilles in the AFC Championship game against the Buffalo Bills. His injury is paramount for several reasons.
Fisher protects the blindside of Patrick Mahomes. The two time Pro Bowl selection (2018 and 2020) of Fisher at left tackle speaks to what his peers, fans, and fellow coaches think of his abilities. The recovery time to rehabilitate from a ruptured achilles is from 4 to 12 months. That puts the 2021 season of the 30 year old former overall number 1 pick during the 2013 NFL Draft in jeopardy.
Schwartz left the field on October 19th against the Buffalo Bills with a back injury and has not returned. The 31 year old right tackle has been a four time All-Pro (2016-2019) since signing as a free agent with the Chiefs in 2016 from the Cleveland Browns. Schwartz is also a member of the 2010 decade Pro Football Focus All-Decade Team. Being on the wrong side of 30 does not statistically speak well to the longevity of Schwartz’s career as the retirement whispers among pundits and the media has started.
Having extremely talented bookend tackles was by the design of former Chiefs General Manager John Dorsey. Quarterbacks at any level have a better chance of completing passes if they are upright. Especially young ones like Patrick Mahomes who the Chiefs traded up to draft 10th overall in the 2017 NFL Draft.
Injury replacement offensive tackles Mike Remmers and Andrew Wylie for the Chiefs gave their best effort in the Super Bowl against a strong Tampa Bay pass rush. Remmers had previously battled back and groin injuries during the season before filling in for Fisher at left tackle. Wylie suffered an ankle injury in the AFC Championship game that he played through while shifting from right guard to fill in at right tackle for the injured Schwartz (with Remmers moving from right to left tackle) during the Super Bowl. The result of the position shifts for both players left Mahomes under constant pressure on football’s biggest stage.
Offensive tackle is definitely a position that the Chiefs will need to address this offseason with limited salary cap space and without a plethora of high draft choices. The following is a list of Chiefs draft picks heading into the NFL Draft on April 29-May 1. The team is also projected to pick up as many as two compensatory picks on day three of the draft due to free agency loses from last season that are not listed below.
Round 1, Pick 31
Round 2, Pick 63
Round 3, Pick 95
Round 4, Pick 127
Round 5, Pick 159
Round 7, Pick 223
The Chiefs history of picking at 31st and 63rd overall is a mixed bag. Kansas City has previously selected offensive tackle Trezelle Jenkins and running back Elijah Gibson with the 31st pick in 1995 and 1966, respectively. The franchise picking 63rd overall has led to the recent selections of free safety Juan Thornhill and linebacker Willie Gay Jr. This conundrum of selections demonstrates that the NFL Draft is not always an exact science when it comes to finding starting players with longevity. Furthermore, it statistically becomes harder to find immediate starters past the second round as you look through the history of the draft.
Despite a 14-2 regular season record, the Chiefs have work to do on the defensive side of the football as well. Replacing four starters on a defense that was ranked 16th overall during the regular season, including 14th against the pass and 21st against the rush might provide some sleepless winter nights for Veach despite the team’s recent success.
The final element compounding the post-Super Bowl letdown headache for the Chiefs is the retention and hiring of the coaching staff. Running Back coach Deland McCullough has already announced he is leaving Kansas City to return to the University of Indiana football program. McCullough will serve in the same capacity in Bloomington, Indiana as the Hoosiers running back coach, with the added responsibility of Associate Head Coach.
Reid has suggested that the Chiefs organization could re-sign offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy during the week of February 15th. Bieniemy recently made the interview tour for head coaching positions within the league only to come away empty handed again. Mahomes has lauded Bieniemy in the past for his ability to hold professional players accountable. Not letting Bieniemy walk would be a welcomed site for Reid and the Chiefs locker room.
There is much to celebrate regarding the accomplishments of the Kansas City Chiefs back to back Super Bowl appearances. The Chiefs erased a 50 year title drought by winning the Super Bowl LIV in 2020. To be able to watch the Royals parade in 2015 and the Chiefs parade in 2020 was a joy for Kansas City sports fans young and old alike. The Chiefs have also won five straight AFC West titles under Reid’s leadership.
The scope of the work to be done this offseason to keep the Chiefs in contention within a league ripe with parity is a daunting task. Doing it under the guise of a Super Bowl hangover will test the leadership of Veach, owner Clark Hunt, and the entirety of the Chiefs front office, scouts, and coaching staff.