ST. JOSEPH, Mo.—I’m trying to keep up, charting offensive formations and plays in my notebook in a fast Kansas City practice at Missouri Western State University. When it was over, and when Patrick Mahomes had piloted about 50 snaps of work with the first-team offense, I noticed one thing in the 27 plays I’d been able to sprint-chart: The post-Tyreek Hill offense was utterly unpredictable.
Most noticeable was the usage of JuJu Smith-Schuster. I’d expected him to mimic his Pittsburgh slot-receiver role. In Smith-Schuster’s last two seasons as a Steeler, he was used 78.8 percent of the time in the slot, per PFF. But on this day, nine of the 27 plays I was able to chart had Smith-Schuster in the slot. The rest of the time he was split wide, left, split wide right, or a motion man, or once in what appeared to be jet-motion.
I think this team is energized by the outside impression of, They’re screwed without Tyreek. This camp visit left me feeling very much like when I left Green Bay and just figured Aaron Rodgers will figure it out without Davante Adams. I’m slightly less certain about Kansas City, but my gut feeling is Andy Reid and Mahomes will figure it out without Hill.
Imagine lining up the speed of Mecole Hardman wide right and Marquez Valdez-Scantling wide left; tight end Travis Kelce everywhere; Smith-Schuster in the slot and outside; sure-handed fifth receiver Justin Watson mostly outside, and Reid’s new Swiss Army Knife, rookie Skyy Moore, everywhere including the backfield. (I saw that the other day — Moore explodes out of the backfield.)
Ever hear the expression, You couldn’t wipe the smile off his face? When I met with Smith-Schuster after practice, he was the kid who got a date with the Homecoming Queen, scored the winning touchdown against the archrival and found out he got straight A’s on his report card…all in the same day.
“It’s been fun, man, I’ll tell you that,” Smith-Schuster said. He loved life as a Steeler but thought he was in a Pittsburgh pigeonhole playing almost only in the slot. “This is what I’ve been waiting to do. Everyone has to know everybody’s position. You have to know the outside, inside. You could play anywhere. To be on so many personnel groups where we got so many great receivers who could play inside and outside, I love it. That’s what I’ve been wanting to do, to be used in so many different ways. It’s so great, the way Coach Reid gives Patrick Mahomes so many different options on every play.”
I was struck by how rejuvenated this offense seems. Reid likes Hill, is happy for him to be the highest-paid receiver in NFL history and knows Hill wanted to leave. So why keep Hill when his heart is elsewhere…and when giving him up and getting five draft picks in the process is the best thing for this team and for its ’23 and ’24 salary cap?
But was it the best thing for the team? We’ll see — and Reid acknowledged it, sort of, in his cinderblock dorm room on the campus of this small, classic middle-America university. Reid knows if Hill didn’t take the deal to max out his income and be closer to his family, the unhappiness about his personal life could have spilled over to his professional life. Now he’s got four new receivers giddy to be playing with Mahomes and coming to work every day saying, Whaddaya got for me today, coach?
“It’s good for him and it’ll be good for us,” Reid told me, sitting in the kind of dorm room he’s been living in for the last 10 summers here as coach of his second NFL team: small and rectangular, the kind of room I’d bet some freshman from Lee’s Summit will occupy in a month. “It’s a win-win. I think it’ll help him in his career with the Dolphins. Financially it’s phenomenal for him and his family.
“For us, it gives you a little juice that maybe you need when you’ve been someplace for 10 years.”
Reid seems rejuvenated. He also seems to like the chance to reinvent his receiver room. In Reid’s 10th season here, he gets to be a teacher again. He’s got to get four new guys in the offense — all of whom could play 40 snaps on a given Sunday in the most competitive division in the NFL in years — ready to hit the ground running in 27 days when KC opens at Arizona. From what I saw in 90 minutes of tempo offense last week, this offense has the juice Reid wants. Hardman, the speedster in the Hill mode, gets to be handed some of Tyreek’s old plays to see if he can be a big star. The four newbies—Valdez-Scantling, Smith-Schuster, Moore and the out-of-nowhere Watson—are all cramming to be targets for Mahomes. Kelce will play everywhere and be the NFL’s best security blanket east of Cooper Kupp.
I came here wondering if I should feel for the 2019 Super Bowl champs as they retooled after losing the electric Hill. I left thinking, Who wouldn’t miss Tyreek Hill? But there aren’t many teams with the versatility and the tools that this passing game has.
Mahomes has become a devotee (and spokesman for) WHOOP. You may have heard of it. WHOOP connects data from a device worn on the wrist that tracks your recovery, your sleep, and the daily strain on your body, and reports constant movement, heart rate and stress level by the second to an app on your phone. WHOOP is basically a health conscience. You drink a lot one night, it shows up. Get a bad night’s sleep, it shows up. Anyway, you can see the work Mahomes is putting in at training camp. He shared one of his daily summaries that showed only a 58 percent recovery … because he’d gotten only 5 hours, 41 minutes of sleep and clearly had a day full of strain, physical and mental, at training camp in practice and drills. That’s life this summer for Mahomes, because of all the work and teaching he takes on in training camp. He called that day, in a text shared with me, “a coach reid training day lol.”
“I can’t just focus on my job anymore,” Mahomes told me. “I’ve got to focus on every single person, every single detail.”
Sounded like it was contributing to his occasional exhaustion. But he said: “I think it’ll make me a better quarterback.”
Reid credited Mahomes for taking a major step forward in being open to the new receivers and understanding the whys of trading Hill.
“They showed me the plan,” Mahomes told me. “They showed me the reasons that this had to be done at this time. I obviously talked to Tyreek as well, tried to do whatever I could to bring him back. Once we kind of got past that bridge and he was going somewhere else, they had a great game plan of getting these receivers that we have out here now. Kind of keep this thing moving forward.”
Mahomes is a pragmatist. If he didn’t trust Reid and GM Brett Veach to know how to build a team for the next decade, he’d never have signed a 10-year deal two years ago. But there’s no question — he won’t say it — that Mahomes hears the outside world. He knows people think the other three teams in the mega-strong AFC West have gotten better while the world thinks Kansas City has regressed, and its six-season streak of AFC West titles is about to end.
“When you have a guy as special as Tyreek when you get any type of man coverage, you’re kind of saying forget the read, I’m going to get this guy a chance to go out there and make a play. Now, the thing is, you don’t know where that go-to guy’s going to be every single game. We’ll have a lot of different personnel [groups], a lot of different receivers, and tight ends and running backs on the field. It’s going to be hard for defenses to gameplan against.”
I’m just saying: I left that practice the other day, with the dizzying array of players playing everywhere, and I believe Mahomes is onto something. How do you gameplan against this offense, even minus Hill?
Last point out of Mayberry RFD, aka KC camp:
I’m only tangentially interested in the social-media noise on all things NFL, but one thing I’ve noticed is the drumbeat of Mahomes’ contract looks bad. Too many players are jumping over it. He should be unhappy.
“Do you hear that stuff?” I asked. “What do you think?”
“If you’re ticked off making all the money that I’m making, you’re probably a little bit messed up. I know I’m going to be taken care of for the rest of my life. Being in this organization and being on the platform that the NFL has given me, I’ve been able to make money off the field as well. If you watch some of the great quarterbacks, man, it’s not always about getting the most money. It’s about going out there and winning and having a legacy that you can kind of live with forever. For me, that’s what I want. Obviously, I want to make money and be able to buy everything I want and all that different type of stuff, but that’s not the reason I started playing football. The reason I started playing football was to win Super Bowls, to enjoy these relationships that I’m building on this field with all my friends who are my teammates. I think at the end of the day if I do that, I’ll be a happy guy in the end.”
That’s the guy you want leading your team.