Tom Brady in another Super Bowl, the first without the flying Elvis on the helmet, will be the story of the week. Rightfully so. But I think the key to the game will be Tampa’s defense. Brady, I believe, will score enough for Tampa Bay to win, even going against his old conqueror from 2007, Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, the former Giants coach who frustrated Brady in his first Super Bowl loss 13 years ago. But the question is, will Bowles, edge rushers Shaq Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul, and a young secondary have the answers for Andy Reid, Bieniemy, Mahomes and that all-time explosive offense?
One compelling thing about this game is that Brady, at 43, won’t be the only poised quarterback in it. Mahomes, 25, showed last year he’s in Brady’s Joe Cool League. I can never hear the story of 2-3 Jet Chip Wasp enough. That’s the play, with 7:13 left in the fourth quarter and the Chiefs down 10, that’s been told—in my column a year ago, and by NFL Films, colorfully and with soundbites—and made into T-shirts and will live forever in the minds of fans. The play started Kansas City on the greatest comeback in franchise history.
I asked Bieniemy: “I still find it fascinating that a 24-year-old kid walks to the sidelines before the play, all calm, Super Bowl on the line, and asks you, ‘Do we have time to run Wasp?’ “
“Me and Coach Reid, we’re talking on the headsets,” Bieniemy said. “We’re talking about different plays. Coach is giving me a play, a suggestion. I’m talking to Pat, and Pat says, ‘Hey, you know what? Do we have time to run Wasp?’ I said on the headset, ‘Coach, he likes Wasp.’ And coach is like, ‘Well hell, if he likes Wasp, let’s run it.’
“I say to Pat, ‘Look, you got it. We have time. You just make it happen.’ That’s the great thing about Pat. When Pat wants to run something, we don’t restrict him from anything, but when you instill that confidence in your players, and you give him that ability to suggest a play like that, you know that he’s gonna find a way to make it happen. So that’s what we do here. We instill confidence in our players to be at their best when their best is needed. And we’re confident he’s gonna find a way to make it work.”
Gain of 44, to Tyreek Hill. Three touchdowns in the next six minutes. And the first NFL title for the franchise in 50 years. There’s no secret to anyone that the recipe is the same for Mahomes and the Chiefs this year. Mahomes will have the same pressure on his plate Sunday night. If anything, the game will be tougher, in part because Brady’s on the other side. But there’s an X-and-O element to this game that wasn’t there last year: Because of injuries to Eric Fisher and Mitchell Schwartz, Mahomes will have to rely on two backup tackles—including Mike Remmers, the former Panther famously turnstiled by Von Miller in Super Bowl 50—to keep JPP and Barrett off his back. And they’re hot. They sacked Aaron Rodgers a combined five times in the NFC Championship Game.
I won’t be surprised if Pierre-Paul or Barrett is the Super Bowl MVP if the Bucs win. That’s how big a role they could play in this game. They each had sacks in the first meeting this year. But they’ll need to be more oppressive in this meeting.
I think Mahomes will need to be at his improvisational best Sunday. He’s not going to have the time he normally does, and I’m sure he knows that, and I’m sure his mind is working overtime to figure out which play could be this year’s Wasp. When I watched the first meeting from November, Mahomes was simply too comfortable, especially early.
On the first snap of the game, Hill came into Jet motion from the right, caught a swing pass on nickel back Sean Murphy-Bunting, who passed him on to a safety who simply wasn’t there. The play happened so fast; Hill, as he often does, did so much damage in a split-second. Gain of 34. Consistently during the game, Mahomes controlled defenders with his eyes, twice on touchdowns. On the 75-yard TD to Hill midway through the first quarter, Mahomes kept safety Antoine Winfield Jr., frozen by staring deep and to the left, while Hill was torching cornerback Carlton Davis to the right. By the time Winfield recovered and ran over, Hill was in the end zone. Same thing in the third quarter on Hill’s last TD. Hill ran a simple streak down the right side; Davis was right with him, no help, but Mahomes wizzed a line-drive strike 12 inches over Davis’ shoulder and into Hill’s hands.
I haven’t even mentioned Travis Kelce, Sammy Watkins, Mecole Hardman, Clyde Edwards-Helaire. They’re pretty good too. Kelce could own this game. Hardman dropped a potential 89-yard catch-and-run TD pass last time that would have given Mahomes 551 passing yards for the game. That would have been the second-best passing day in the 101-year history of the NFL.
“They’re in attack mode all the time,” Bowles said. “Andy’s the nicest guy in the world—there’s a reason everybody likes him so much. He’s also one of the smartest coaches in this league. He’ll get a read on you, and he’ll expose you to the bitter end. He’ll stab you about 50 times.”
Bowles started laughing. “Andy’s like Roberta Flack. Killing me softly.”
Tyreek Hill on Carlton Davis, in the first game. This time, who knows? The weaponry is real, and it’s spectacular. Who will Reid and Bieniemy pick on this time? We’ll have to watch the game to see.
This far into the column, and the skin color of my two subjects, Bowles and Bieniemy, has not come up. They are Black. Three of the four coordinators in this game are Black (including Bucs OC Byron Leftwich). Collectively, Bowles and Bieniemy had seven interviews for head-coaching jobs in January. When I asked them about it, neither seemed particularly surprised they’d gone 0-for-7.
Bucs defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, left, and Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy. (Getty Images/2)
“For me and Eric, it’s two good coaches,” Bowles said. “Whenever people on the outside—ownership, media, anyone else—when they start saying ‘coaches’ instead of ‘Black coaches,’ then things will start to get better. The fact that we have to be ‘Black coaches’—we wake up Black, we know that, we look in the mirror every day—we’re coaches in our profession. In other professions, you don’t say, ‘Black flight attendant,’ you say, ‘flight attendant.’ The fact that we keep referring to Black coaches to begin with means there’s a big problem with everything.
“We’re two good coaches. We have a couple more in this game as well. We’re trying to do our jobs very well. The fact that it’s such a big deal about the head-coaching thing, it puts a big emphasis on it from the outside. Eric’s trying to win, I’m trying to win. The big deal is made from the outside. The change has also got to be made from the outside, because we can only do so much.”
Said Bieniemy: “I always tell everybody, I’m just a ball coach. I didn’t ask to be chosen to be the face of whatever representation. I just want to make sure that I’m admired and recognized for the things that I have accomplished and worked towards in this profession. That’s all you can ask for. I think all of us take pride in teaching young men and helping them become better people.”
As that face of the passed-over Black coach, Bieniemy gets asked all the time if he’s frustrated by it. How could he not be?
“I am never going to allow any process outside of my control to frustrate me,” he said. “It’s all part of my journey. Eric Bieniemy will continue to be himself, every day. And Eric Bieniemy will continue chopping wood. That’s all I know to do.”