When Chiefs backup quarterback Chase Daniel walked into the locker room after Sunday’s 27-24 overtime loss to the Chargers, he sought three players.
Left guard Rokevious Watkins. Center Eric Kush. Right guard Rishaw Johnson.
Together, those three had appeared in a grand total of seven NFL games with no starts.
But they were entrusted with blocking the heart of the San Diego defense after coach Andy Reid, with the Chiefs locked into the No. 5 playoff position, decided to rest most of his starters, including his entire offensive line, except for rookie right tackle Eric Fisher.
Daniel, who was making his first NFL start in place of Alex Smith, works with the backups on a daily basis on the Chiefs’ scout team. But he was amazed how players with such little experience — Watkins was on the practice squad for seven weeks earlier in the season — could give the Chiefs a chance to win a game under such circumstances.
“Those guys are some young pups,” Daniel said, “and to get thrown into the fire, on the road in a playoff environment the way they played, to give up only (two) sacks was unbelievable.
“Coach Reid called some downfield throws at the end of the game when we needed it. We needed them to step up, we needed them in the run game, and I think they did that.”
The young interior linemen weren’t the only ones who got their baptism by fire. Rookie running back Knile Davis, who rushed for 81 yards and two touchdowns; defensive end Jay Howard; defensive tackle Jerrell Powe; linebackers Nico Johnson and Josh Martin; and cornerback Ron Parker all made their first NFL starts.
The fact the Chiefs came within a missed field goal of beating a San Diego team that needed to win to clinch a playoff spot with such a makeshift lineup validated Reid’s decision to sit most of his starters.
“I look at the positives when I do that,” said Reid, who rested his starters in similar situations four times while coaching the Philadelphia Eagles. “I gave the guys a week to heal up and rest up. Still, at the same time, we got good practice in if we do meet again with San Diego (in what would be an AFC Championship Game). They got that practice time in with the game plan.
“The guys who came out and played, I think that’s where the positive really comes in. You see from a depth standpoint, down the stretch here that you’ve got some guys who can play and compete and give you an opportunity to win football games. That’s priceless. There were guys who never started in the National Football League who had a chance to do it (Sunday).”
Reid said he didn’t come to a complete decision on resting his starters until Saturday.
“I mulled it over every day of the week,” he said. “I wasn’t giving people much of a heads-up either way. I got them ready to play. When it came down to it, some of the starters played in the game. I made the final decision maybe Saturday. I was leaning in that direction. I’ve done this before, and I was leaning that way, but I wanted good work out of the players too.”
Watkins, who was appearing in his fifth NFL game, was not sure what his status would be on Sunday.
“I didn’t think I was going to get that much playing time at the beginning of the week,” Watkins said. “We backups all feel we can play and wanted to show what we can do.”
It was apparent from the beginning of Sunday’s game that the young Chiefs were not going to be overmatched. They led by as much as 10 points, 24-14, midway through the third quarter before the Chargers staged a comeback.
“A lot of these guys are very proud,” said veteran cornerback Dunta Robinson. “We have a lot of young guys who are opportunists. They were excited about playing in this game and played their hearts out. A lot of the young guys, once they figured out they could make plays, their confidence level started to rise, and they kept playing.”
Smith knew during the week that Daniel would get a majority of the snaps on Sunday, but it was still strange not being in uniform.
“Obviously, the team comes first,” Smith said. “You’re here and you try to support your guys. They stay prepared, they stay ready. You just don’t know how many opportunities you’re going to get, so for them to get this opportunity and go out and make the most of it, it’s your job as a teammate to be there and be supportive and do anything you can."
Reid said the payoff to playing his backups could be felt as soon as this week.
“That’s the great thing about this,” Reid said. “We can use these guys down the stretch. It allows you to throw fastballs at the next opponent, which is the Colts. You have an opportunity to boost some confidence in some guys to get in there and play.”