Henne the Hero: Why the Chiefs trusted their backup QB with the season on the line

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Everything about the end of this game was a novella, including Cleveland getting off the mat and nearly coming all the way back from a 19-3 deficit. But let’s not bury the lede: With 7:11 left in the third quarter and Mahomes fighting to convert on a third-and-one run, he was tackled—clean but hard—by Browns linebacker Mack Wilson. Immediately woozy, Mahomes struggled to get up and was helped to the sideline. He ran into the locker room a few minutes later but was ruled out for the game and put into the league’s concussion protocol. After the game, coach Andy Reid said Mahomes passed the neurologist-administered tests to discern the impact on his cognitive functions, and said Mahomes “is doing great right now.” Too early to tell his status for his third straight AFC Championship Game Sunday against Buffalo at Arrowhead Stadium, but there seemed to be some cautious optimism around Mahomes after the game.

Henne’s played in some big games, mostly in college at Michigan as a four-year starter. But not many lately. He hadn’t been an NFL starter since 2013, in Jacksonville, and at this stage, the 35-year-old Henne is an insurance policy, strictly. But he was needed when Mahomes went down with 22 minutes left and the team’s Super Bowl defense season beginning to teeter on the end of a Missouri cliff. After the Browns cut the lead to 22-17 with 11 minutes to go, Henne threw a misguided bomb to no one in the Cleveland zone—no one but Browns safety Karl Joseph. “Miscue on my part,” said Henne. “Should have checked it down.” Luckily the KC D held, and Henne got the ball back with four minutes to kill, and Cleveland with only one timeout left.

Bleed the clock, bleed the clock. But Henne unwisely took a sack as the clock wound down to the two-minute warning, and coming out of that timeout, KC had third-and-14 at its 35. Even with a run here, then a punt, Kansas City would be giving the Browns the ball 75 or 80 yards from the goal line with maybe 40 seconds left. But Henne sounded confident about converting and never giving Cleveland the ball back. “Coming out of the two-minute warning, there were two plays we all liked,’’ Henne said. “The one we chose, I went back to throw, and they did a great job doubling Travis Kelce, and then I looked for Tyreek [Hill] and he was covered. I felt the pocket collapse and just took off.”

Henne said he saw the sticks and knew where he had to get to, and when he was close, he dove like he was a swimmer in the starting blocks for a 50-yard freestyle. “I was sure I made it,” Henne told me. “I felt like I was clearly over.”

But…

“When I came into the locker room later,” Henne said, “Patrick told me, no, my elbow was down. So I guess I was short.”

Fourth and a foot now, at the KC 48. Surely with 75 seconds left, Reid would call for a punt. A turnover on downs here would give the Browns maybe 65 seconds left and 48 yard to go for the winning touchdown. But Henne told me in the Saturday night meeting, part of the time was spent on fourth-and-one, fourth-and-five and fourth-and-10 or more plays they liked. Reid, Mahomes, Henne, offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, all decided what they liked. In particular, there was one play all liked on fourth-and-short: Tyreek Hill lining up as the first of three receivers split right, closest to the right tackle, taking one jab step upfield, and then a cat-quick veer right. Hill’s one of the quickest players in football. “I just loved the play,” Henne said. “Very confident it’d work.”

Before the play was called, Reid asked Bieniemy, “You ready to roll?” What Reid meant: This is Henne, not Patrick. We sure we want to call a pass? If it’s incomplete, our season’s 48 yards from being over.

Bieniemy understood the ramifications.

“Absolutely,” he said.

Reid: “There was no flinch on the play. It was, ‘Here we go, Chad.’ “

I told Henne what great TV the play had made, with Tony Romo of CBS absolutely convinced that Henne, lined up with maybe 32 second left on the play clock, would not run a play. Listen to Romo’s words, as the play clock winds down and Henne and the offense are set, stock still:

:30 “Right here, really smart. Send everybody out here.”
:27 “You’re trying to draw ‘em offside. Take a timeout. Take it down. Try to draw ‘em offsides.”
:19 “Walk up, pretend like you’re gonna go up and quarterback-sneak it. Try to draw ‘em offsides …”
:15 “ … then take a timeout. Walk up there and say, ‘No play everybody. DON’T JUMP.”.
:09 “There’s no play. Just look at the body language.”
:06 In shotgun, Henne calls out: “Blue 80SET!”
:05 Shotgun snap to Henne.

“There is a play!” Jim Nantz said.

Hill, split narrowly on the line, right, one step forward, spring right. Henne faded right five steps, and threw to an open Hill right at the line-to-gain. Hill ran upfield five yards and sat down. Game over.

Romo: “ONLY ANDY REID GETS IN SHOTGUN ON FOURTH AND AN INCH!!! AND THROWS THE BALL WITH THE BACKUP QUARTERBACK!!! THERE’S NO WAY!!! HE SHOCKED EVERYBODY!!! I MEAN, THAT IS IMPOSSIBLE!!! I’VE NEVER SEEN IT!!!

“We just thought it was the smart play, the best play,” Henne said.

Imagine the implications of Henne throwing a ground ball there, or air-mailing the ball over Hill. Would Cleveland have another miracle victory this morning? Nope. Reid trusted Henne to do what Mahomes would do right there, and he did. Now, if Henne has to play Sunday against Buffalo, that 13-yard scramble and the fourth-down conversion pass tell Henne and his mates, Hey, we can win with this guy.

“When I saw Patrick,” Henne said, “he seemed fine. Great spirits. We’ll see tomorrow, I guess.”

In the meantime, Kansas City can breathe this morning—both about being in the final four and about the city’s favorite son.

Read more from Peter King’s Football Morning in America column here.