“Just enjoy the moment,” he tells players. “Because this team will never be the same.”
The Chiefs’ quest for a Super Bowl title, which will resume Saturday at 4:30 p.m. in the divisional round against the Jacksonville Jaguars, has become an annual rite. Patrick Mahomes’s incandescence, Travis Kelce’s reliability and Reid’s guidance have planted the Chiefs atop the NFL. They have won at least 12 games in five straight seasons. They have played in the past four AFC championship games, advancing to the Super Bowl twice and winning once.
Their metronomic excellence belies the Chiefs’ shifting personnel. Change is inherent to NFL roster construction, and the Chiefs are not immune; only 14 players from Kansas City’s 2019 Super Bowl roster remain with the franchise. The Chiefs underwent their most significant revamp last offseason when they traded Tyreek Hill, Mahomes’s top wide receiver his first four seasons as a starter, to the Miami Dolphins.
The Chiefs, then, have already embarked on the second essential task for any franchise with dynastic aspirations. The acquisition of an elite quarterback is the cover charge for sustained NFL success, and they aced that part when they drafted and developed Mahomes. The next step, both challenge and opportunity, is evolving around that quarterback, constantly adapting to inevitable change while maintaining what makes Mahomes great.
A generational quarterback makes anything possible but guarantees nothing. For many franchises, it has meant a reign unfulfilled. The Green Bay Packers and New Orleans Saints never returned to the Super Bowl after Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees won titles. The Indianapolis Colts won only one Super Bowl with Peyton Manning. (Manning won a second in Denver in his twilight.) Right now, the Baltimore Ravens and Arizona Cardinals are in danger of never opening a window of contention with uniquely talented quarterbacks. Since 2000, only the New England Patriots and Pittsburgh Steelers have won multiple Super Bowls with the same quarterback.
“I always thought if you become a GM and win a Super Bowl, it’s like icing on the cake and a stress-free life,” Chiefs General Manager Brett Veach said in April. “It’s the complete opposite. Every year, you feel like it’s not good enough. Working in this profession and being in this league, everyone literally forgets what you did the year before. Every year, it’s got to be something brand new and something different.”
The Chiefs make Mahomes central to every facet of their organization. Veach seeks his input on personnel moves, and last offseason, the Chiefs kept Mahomes informed as they pursued a trade for New York Giants wideout Kadarius Toney. Those talks stalled, then restarted before the trade deadline, and Veach texted Mahomes after he made the deal and before the public knew. Mahomes distances himself from decision-making, but he provides his opinion when asked.
“It’s usually a thing where, ‘Hey, we’re talking to this guy, what do you think?’” Mahomes said. “I’ll look at the tape and give my insight on stuff like that.”
The Chiefs entered last offseason intent on discussing a long-term contract with Hill. As those negotiations played out, Veach began to realize Hill’s asking price may not have fit into a sustainable roster. “Then you’re limited in regard to your resources being able to be spent on defense — plus the future,” Veach said. “With that type of deal, [the future] would be impacted … a great deal.”
The aftermath of the Hill trade displayed the myriad team-building advantages Mahomes provides without even touching the field. At wideout, the Chiefs pivoted to cheaper free agents Juju Smith-Schuster (one year, $3.7 million) and Marquez Valdes-Scantling (three years, $30 million), drafted Skyy Moore in the second round and eventually traded for Toney, giving up two middling draft picks.
Veach can seek wideouts without restrictions on playing style or body type. Some quarterbacks require a specific brand of receiver. Mahomes is a skeleton key. The Chiefs can find the best player available, and Mahomes will shift his game to exploit that player’s best traits. “He’s got a keen eye on that stuff,” Reid said. “And he’s done it long enough now where he’s got a good feel for where a guy needs to be and how to get him there.”
“If you can get a quarterback that can adjust and adapt and have agility, literally and physically speaking, it allows for a GM when they’re acquiring talent, they don’t just have to focus on one or two styles,” said former Atlanta Falcons GM Thomas Dimitroff, a Patriots executive in the mid-2000s. “It gives them an opportunity to be very creative. It gives them an opportunity to pick from waves of players instead of the limits sometimes general managers and head coaches are dealing with, given the lack of versatility of their quarterback.”
Reid is similarly adaptable. He tinkers with his playbook to accentuate what new players do best. “We’re going to take your strengths,” Reid said, “and let’s go.” Smith-Schuster, a big-bodied possession receiver, thrives on short throws over the middle. Valdes-Scantling can stretch defenses running straight downfield. Toney is electric with the ball in his hands. Mahomes and the Chiefs have accommodated all those skills.
“Andy Reid’s never satisfied with what we have,” Chiefs backup quarterback Chad Henne said. “We’re always looking, even with guys we bring in. With Toney, it’s like, what skills is he really good at? And then we draw from what his background is and we incorporate that in our offense as well.”
Reid credited Mahomes for making newcomers feel comfortable. Last offseason, Mahomes invited Chiefs skill players to his Dallas-area home. They worked out in the mornings, ran routes, ate lunch together and hung out in town to “build some fellowship,” Valdes-Scantling said. Mahomes asked teammates which routes they liked the best and how they preferred to receive passes. At practices, Mahomes targets a different receiver each time the Chiefs repeat a play, even if it’s a pass he would not make during a game, just to make them all feel involved.
“He’s one of the best to ever do it,” Valdes-Scantling, who came from the Packers, said. “From Aaron Rodgers to Pat, there’s no drop-off. That was a huge factor in where I’d play my football for the next part of my career.”
Most within the Chiefs regard this as the finest season of Mahomes’s career. Leading the Chiefs to 14 victories, Mahomes broke the single-season record for passing yards and could be in line for his second MVP award. He believes losing Hill made him better.
“It helped me grow as a quarterback, just having to get through the offense — the entire offense,” Mahomes said. “Just knowing we’re going to move guys around. We’re going to have playmakers everywhere, and you got to just continue to get through your reads, get to the right guy. I had some things last year especially where it was, ‘Tyreek or Travis, Tyreek or Travis,’ looking back and forth through that.”
In the 2019 AFC championship game, the Patriots defeated the Chiefs before winning the sixth Super Bowl of Tom Brady’s tenure. The victory now stands as one of the final, triumphant gasps of the Patriots’ dynasty and a potential passing of the torch. The Patriots’ drift toward mediocrity has left the NFL without an ongoing dynasty. The Chiefs could fill the vacuum.
On the surface, these Chiefs and those Patriots have few parallels. Reid is gregarious; Bill Belichick is gloomy. Brady played from the pocket; Mahomes plays from everywhere. New England ground opponents into paste; Kansas City deploys pyrotechnics. But those familiar with both franchises see subtle cultural similarities.
Dimitroff described the dilemma of building around a great quarterback: Everybody knows he is the most important person in the organization, but if he behaves or is treated as such, it can undermine morale. From ownership to the coaching staff to the marketing department, he said, every part of an organization needs to be vigilant.
“You can look back on Tom Brady and how Tom and Bill Belichick approached it,” Dimitroff, who is now the CEO of football analytics company SumerSports, said. “They had such a strong understanding of limiting as much distraction in that space as possible. Sometimes people would throw darts or roll their eyes at that approach. To me, it was genius. The way that Andy Reid, Brett Veach and Patrick Mahomes approach this, to me, is very much in line with how Bill and Tom approached it.”
Brendan Daly coached defensive linemen during the latter days of the Patriots’ reign, and he now coaches linebackers for the Chiefs. The connection he sees in how each franchise built a persistent contender is less tangible than a specific philosophy or approach.
“Nobody talks about [building a dynasty], and nobody on a day-to-day basis thinks about that,” Daly said. “It’s there, and everyone knows it’s there. But it’s not something that you focus on. It’s not something that’s talked about. What you’re focusing on is today. That’s the common theme. There’s not a secret answer.”
The potential for a dynasty may not be a frequent conversation topic in Kansas City, but some players admitted to considering the possibility.
“You try not think about it, but reality is reality,” Chiefs defensive end Frank Clark said. “When you good, you good, you know?”
Clark, offensive lineman Orlando Brown and others credited Reid for creating a culture based on attention to detail and accountability. Reid assembles a group of leaders from both sides of the ball and tells them he should never have to blow his whistle to change the tenor of a poor practice. “He looks at us and says, ‘I’m kind of putting it on you guys to make our practice go in the direction you want it to go in,’” Clark said. “It’s always on us.”
In the middle of everything, always, is Mahomes. He signed a 10-year, $450 million contract before the 2020 season and has only grown more ensconced in Kansas City. He opened a Whataburger, a favorite from his native Texas, in the Kansas City area, with plans for more. He owns part of the Royals and soccer teams Sporting KC and the Current. His permanence provides comfort for Kansas Citians and dread for 31 franchises. Players will come and go. The Chiefs will still be there.