Phillip Gaines watched the pass fall in front of him early in the third quarter Thursday, and couldn’t help but signal with his arms exactly what he thought it was — an incompletion.
After a rough first half, he’d earned this moment — however brief — to celebrate, right?
The flag came flying a split-second later. Illegal contact, the referee said.
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Figures. On a night where the Chiefs’ entire defense struggled, the 6-foot-1, 185-pound Gaines — whose 4.38 speed and sticky coverage skills were touted by the Chiefs when they drafted him in the third-round in May — was the most visible culprit. He was beat for at least one touchdown and whistled for four penalties in the 34-14 loss.
However, to those who know the NFL best, Gaines’ performance against the Green Bay reserves was less an education — though it was certainly that — than it was an initiation, the kind you simply can’t avoid at this level.
“That’s what all my teammates are telling me,” Gaines said afterward. “It happens.”
The veterans who play his position were quick to reinforce that point to anyone who would listen, too.
“You just take it with a grain of salt,” cornerback Sean Smith said. “There’s going to be nights like this. We didn’t really dial up everything (in the playbook), and to play nickel in this defense, it’s tough.
“He was put in a position where I said ‘Look, just go out there and focus on technique.’ You’re not in the best position to make most plays out there, so just work on your technique and forget about it.”
Gaines, who has earned very little first-team work throughout the preseason, entered the game as a nickel corner — a new position for him — on the Packers’ second offensive series, while the Chiefs’ first-team group of corners (in this case, it was Marcus Cooper and Ron Parker, not Smith) remained in the game.
Gaines’ struggles began shortly thereafter, as he was promptly whistled for an illegal contact penalty, which tacked on 5 yards to a first-down scramble by Packers quarterback Matt Flynn.
And two plays later, Flynn found receiver Davante Adams — who slipped behind Gaines — wide open over the middle for a 22-yard touchdown.
Chiefs safety Daniel Sorensen was also in the vicinity (somewhat), so to be fair, it’s unclear who was at fault for that one.
However, there was no such ambiguity in the second quarter, when Gaines was whistled for a defensive holding penalty that prolonged a Green Bay drive and more significantly when Gaines got beat for a 33-yard touchdown by receiver Jeff Janis, a seventh-round pick.
“I’ve just got to figure out a way to get better,” Gaines said. “All that matters is the end result, making plays on the ball. When the ball’s in the air, you’ve got to do it. No excuses. You’ve got to make it.”
The second half brought no relief. After Gaines’ aforementioned illegal contact penalty to start the second half, he was also flagged for defensive pass interference on a deep pass down the right sideline intended for Janis.
The 39-yard penalty aided a Green Bay drive that ended with a touchdown that put the Chiefs in a 27-7 third-quarter hole.
“We played a lot of zone tonight, and mixed in a little man but a majority of zone, and that can be tough,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “That’s a new position for him that he’s learning. We understand that.
“He’ll be alright. He’s a smart kid, he’s a tough kid. Sometimes you get some bumps and bruises as you’re learning to play the NFL game. That’s what happened tonight.”
Gaines’ teammates agreed.
“With his natural ability and his instincts, he can play,” Chiefs safety Husain Abdullah said. “Sometimes you just get beat.”
“That’s why I say he doesn’t need everybody going (over there) patting him on the back, man,” Smith said. “He’ll be alright. We’ve all been there. He’ll laugh at it one day.”
Just not anytime soon.
The good news for the Chiefs is that Gaines, whose character was lauded by his coaches at Rice, understands fully that with his first bad game in the rearview mirror, the next step is the most important one if he hopes to fulfill the potential the Chiefs see in him.
“That’s always the biggest thing, how you respond to things,” Gaines said. “When you come out and just keep grinding, keep working, things will pick back up.”