There’s no question our level of confidence in sports teams often has as much to do with the past as it does the present. You’ve seen something enough times that you give credit in your mental memory bank to some, and are much more stingy in being a “credit-loan officer” to others who haven’t earned it yet.
This makes what to do with the 2017 Kansas City Chiefs incredibly confusing. I’m not sure what they are or aren’t yet, despite four games of seemingly overwhelming evidence that they’re really, really good.
But what might be tripping us up in making that full-on declaration that the Chiefs are “great” is more based on their history than in the here and now. Their fanbase is far from “long-suffering,” but perhaps I can make the case that they are the NFL’s most notable and obvious underachievers for going on decades now.
Why? Well, I don’t think it’s that difficult a case to lay out.
Look, if it’s all about the Super Bowl, then they check that box. It’s been a remarkable 47 seasons since the Chiefs won Super Bowl IV over the Minnesota Vikings on Jan. 11, 1970. I wasn’t even close to being born then (though I may have been in the “planning stages”), and there’s a reasonable chance you weren’t either.
Only the Detroit Lions and New York Jets have longer Super Bowl droughts. Yes, Cleveland Browns fans, I see your hand waving frantically in the air, but you do realize that your franchise became the Baltimore Ravens and swiftly won the Super Bowl in the 2000 season, and added another one a few years ago? So your drought was somewhat discontinued by three years of dormancy in the late 1990s before resuming the true misery of being a Browns supporter in 1999.
But mathematical semantics aside, the Chiefs haven’t been to the Super Bowl in forever, and it’ll be weird when they finally do appear. And then there’s the notable disparity that since about 1990 they’ve had tons of success in the regular season and a complete lack of it in the post-season.
I’m actually being kind starting this autopsy in 1990 because the Chiefs didn’t win a playoff game between 1970 and 1990 — making the post-season just once in the 1970s, and once in the 1980s.
But since 1990, only three NFL franchises have had more double-digit win seasons than Kansas City. The Chiefs have made 13 trips to the playoffs in that time, raising six AFC West Champion banners at Arrowhead Stadium.
Playoff games won?
You really want this, huh?
Four. Four playoff wins in thirteen playoff trips, and only two seasons ago did they shake off a laughable nine-game playoff losing streak, punching out the Texans in Houston 30-0 in the wild-card game in January 2016.
Hey, you’ve heard Arrowhead Stadium is a real tough place to play and win? Well, in the playoffs, guess again. The Chiefs have lost five straight home playoff games, including last year’s miserable 18–16 loss to Pittsburgh in which they mustered up a meagre 227 yards of total offence.
So, none of this will make a Bills fan with their near two-decade playoff drought — or a Lions fan who has only seen one playoff win since electricity (only a modest exaggeration) — feel empathy. But you get the point — we wait for things to go wrong with the Kansas City Chiefs.
Even this weekend, there’s a level of disrespect against the team that Sunday evening’s game in Houston is basically a “pick ’em” game against a 2-2 team with a rookie quarterback, and a team that gave up 29 points at home in the season opener to Jacksonville.
So is this a different Chiefs team? Will it be a different Alex Smith in the playoffs than the quarterback who is 1-3 in his Chiefs playoff career, and didn’t complete a pass over 25 yards against Pittsburgh last year, and was 1-for-8 in passing attempts on third down?
Well, the theory goes that Smith is more desperate to protect his job after the Chiefs drafted cannon-armed Patrick Mahomes 10th overall out of Texas Tech this past spring. Smith will be 34 next off-season, and holding off Mahomes may actually require a great year, which so far he’s compiling.
The weapons seem more dangerous than ever. Kareem Hunt looks undeniable as a rookie running back and could flirt with a 2,000-yard season at this pace. Travis Kelce looks the part of a tight end that does it all, and brings a screw-you attitude that is more commonly associated with the Raiders or Broncos.
Tyreek Hill, despite a quieter night of production than expected against Washington Monday (five catches, 35 yards), is a home-run hitter of a receiver and is awfully hard to run with if he gets a step on you, as several Patriots secondary players found out in the season opener.
On the defensive side, Terrance Mitchell is shining brightly at cornerback, and though the yardage numbers are amazingly deceiving, the Chiefs are tied for 10th in Points Against through four games at 19.1, and their Red Zone defence has come up big, allowing only 7 touchdowns on the 16 occasions an opponent has gotten past the 20-yard line.
But the Chiefs sad history of getting it done when it matters the most is a factor here. At most sports betting sites, the Chiefs still have worse Super Bowl-winning odds than three clubs: New England, Green Bay, and Pittsburgh, with Atlanta not far behind Kansas City. They’ve done this to themselves. They have a future Hall of Fame coach in Andy Reid, but even his own playoff foibles play into our view of Kansas City as “clutch” in December and January.
Reid is 11th all-time in regular season wins with 177 in 19 seasons. And yet we think of him as a coach who loses replay challenges more frequently than he wins them (not a myth, the numbers bear this out). He’s also lost an awful lot of home playoff games (in Philadelphia his teams went 1-4 in NFC title games, including three home losses), and last year’s sloppy playoff exit at Arrowhead didn’t help.
Bottom line, the Chiefs have to keep making noise and getting wins, but even then there’ll be a strong chorus of “Show us in the playoffs.” Fair? Maybe not, but their history and track record allows us, even encourages us, to be what I’d deem responsibly skeptical. Another double-digit-win season does little to change things unless playoff wins accompany it.