This column is not going to be much more about the influence of attendance, or lack thereof, on NFL games this fall. We’ll have time to consider that. I did think that because of the oddness of the sports games we’re seeing, and the guerilla attacks of COVID on the MLB season and the potential of that in football, Merrifield’s take about the effect of an empty park on players was compelling. So there it is. At some point or points this year, teams will have to manufacture the emotion that normally would come from a full house of crazies. “If a team’s out of it, and no one’s in the stands, and that team has to manufacture the emotion you need in a football game, who knows?” said Chiefs GM Brett Veach.
This is more about the defending Super Bowl champs, what I saw in two padded practices last week, what I heard from their key people and what I think of their chances to beat back the Ravens and Niners and Titans and whatever surprise teams there will be in a COVID-plagued season that I increasingly think will be played in full. In brief:
• I liked the spirit of the team and the needed depth at receiver. As we all saw last year, Mahomes’ weaponry is deep, and it needs to be.
• Football Mahomes spent time during a mostly homebound offseason in a new home he bought in Dallas. What’d he do to get better? He studied tape, “trying to diagnose defenses even quicker,” he said.
• Life Mahomes is quite mature for a 24-year-old man who already has won the trifecta of NFL stardom: the MVP, the Super Bowl MVP, the huge contract. I asked him about signing the biggest deal in NFL history, the $472-million pact putting him in the LeBron/Trout/Mookie stratosphere. “For me,” Mahomes said, “it was about building generational wealth, wealth for my kids and my kids’ kids.” Generational wealth. Who says that at 24? When Andy Reid says of Mahomes, “He just gets it,” that’s precisely what he’s talking about.
• Draft Clyde Edwards-Helaire in the first round of your fantasy draft. Believe me, you’ll thank me for that tip on the LSU rookie.
• With sun occasionally reflecting off his coronavirus-protective face shield like a popping flashbulb, Reid looked very into the work of repeating his first Super Bowl title, and sounded a little feisty. “He’s just as energetic as when I first met him [in 2004], working with the Eagles,” Veach said. “Maybe more.”
• The continuity thing is big here. All but two of 22 starters return (though cornerback Bashaud Breeland is here, he’s suspended for the first four games for an NFL rules violation), and 21 of 22 coaches are back. I saw QB coach Mike Kafka showing Mahomes some mechanical tweak about handoffs on the sidelines, Mahomes nodding and soaking it in. To me, those almost imperceptible things show the respect of players for coaches they’ve gone to battle with, and the importance of 96 percent of them returning. Remember Mahomes coming to the sideline in that desperate moment of the Super Bowl, down 10 with eight minutes left on third-and-15, asking offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy: “Do we have time to run Wasp?” They did. The 44-yard heave to Tyreek Hill turned the game around, 2-3 Jet Wasp ended up on T-shirts throughout the Midwest, and the rest is history. Kafka, Bieniemy, Reid, architects of the offense that put up 51, 35 and 31 points in the postseason—all still here. “They think as one mind,” Mahomes told me.
• Concerning desire . . . I can’t see guys like Tyrann Mathieu, 2019’s instant defensive leader, getting fat and happy now that he’s got a ring. Scene from 1-on-1 WR-DB competition Thursday: Wideout Demarcus Robinson ran an eight-yard curl on Mathieu. As the pass got near Robinson, Mathieu powered through him and deflected the pass away. “Woooo!” Matthieu yelled, jumping up and making the “incomplete” motion with his hands.
“It’ll be a special team,” Mahomes said.
Two newsy things I saw at the two practices: a very heavy dose of Edwards-Helaire, who played with the sensational Joe Burrow at LSU last year and now fortunately upgrades to Mahomes. Edwards-Helaire will start and should be an impact player from day one. Also, the dangerous Tyreek Hill looked like he tweaked a groin muscle Thursday on a go route, sprinting for a deep pass. He went inside after that, and still wasn’t practicing Saturday. I hear he’ll be back this week and it’s not serious. But groin and hamstring tweaks are worries with a finely tuned athlete like Hill, so we’ll see how he responds. The Thursday night opener against Houston is 17 days away. This is why depth at receiver is so vital and why, honestly, the Chiefs were seriously considering drafting Alabama speedster Henry Ruggs in April if he plummeted in round one; instead, he went 12th overall to the Raiders. Gluttonous? Maybe. But for Reid and Veach, the idea that you can’t have enough speed is not a cliché.
Regarding Edwards-Helaire, check out the first four plays of 11-on-11 practice Wednesday:
• Mahomes handed to Edwards-Helaire, through the right guard-tackle hole.
• Mahomes handed to Edwards-Helaire, around left end.
• Mahomes handed to Edwards-Helaire, over right guard.
• Mahomes handed to Edwards-Helaire, over right tackle.
On Thursday, Edwards-Helaire was back in the same spotlight. First three snaps of an 11-on-11 period, all handoffs to him. He ran a wheel route out of the backfield, Mahomes threw it slightly behind him, and the kid caught it in stride, one-handed, and headed upfield like he’d done this a thousand times before. Built low to the ground, with powerful-looking legs, sort of like Kareem Hunt, Edwards-Helaire could not have been much more impressive in the two practices I saw.
Now, it’s easy to come to the conclusion that Reid’s going to use Edwards-Helaire as a rookie the same way Reid used Hunt as a rookie in 2017. Hunt touched it 325 times (remember his 246-yards-from-scrimmage demolition of the Patriots on opening night in Foxboro?) in that rookie season, winning the rushing title and becoming an instant threat in the passing game too. But this is practice, scripted from start to finish; maybe this is two days of getting timing down with Edwards-Helaire. But I doubt it’s just that. I say he’ll be a stud, a prime candidate for Offensive Rookie of the Year. He appears a confident and sure runner who can make people miss, a better runner between the tackles than a 5-foot-8, 209-pound guy should be, and a smooth and assured receiver. Veach told me: “He’s on pace to have a big year, to be our primary ballcarrier.”
Watching practice reinforced what I thought of Reid’s playbook with all these toys. One play can have so many tributaries, as I saw on two straight snaps Wednesday. First: Tight end Travis Kelce tight to the formation right, with Mecole Hardman, Hill and Demarcus Robinson all spread right, and Edwards-Helaire in motion almost to the right sideline . . . five receivers to Mahomes’ right. Mahomes overthrew a deep ball. Second: Hardman-Hill-Robinson in a tight bunch to the right, Hill at the tip of the triangle; Hardman and Robinson shimmied at the line, there was some defensive confusion, and Hill blew past Breeland. This time, Mahomes’ deep ball was perfect. Touchdown.
Mindful of so much from the playoffs last winter. On KC’s final 26 non-kneeldown possessions of the 2019 postseason, Mahomes drove to score 16 touchdowns and two field goals . . . 117 points in 11 quarters.
That’s a lot. That’s 39.0 points per game.
So much of that comes from matchup problems created by blinding speed and a great tight end, and running backs with multiplicity. Aaron Rodgers has to watch this team and dream. Or mourn.