If this underachieving and stubbornly self-destructive football team deserves to be remembered at all, let it be for its exhaustive creativity in finding new ways to fail.
If you want to encapsulate all the familiar signs of another lost and disappointing season of Chiefs football with one moment, let it be first and 10 in Vikings territory when a sliver — a tiny sliver, and probably a delusional sliver, but, you know, still ... a sliver — of hope found the Chiefs in the fourth quarter.
On a scale of Dwayne Bowe fumbling inches from a wide receiver touchdown to Jamaal Charles’ fumble-six against Denver, this is like Ken Harvey punching Jason Grimsley on a throw home — a tormenting conspiracy of bad luck, bad play and dark comedy.
It was a fumble caused by a teammate, and it was the defining moment of the Chiefs’ agonizing 16-10 loss to the decidedly mediocre Vikings here on Sunday. You could do worse than to use it as the three-second explanation for how a group of talented players and proven coaches are now 1-5.
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“I’ve seen a lot,” said Len Dawson, the Hall of Fame quarterback with more than 50 years around the NFL. “I don’t think I’ve seen that.”
It was a run between the tackles in a spread formation, the Chiefs trying to clear space and simplify the blocking scheme. You probably don’t want to hear this, but the play should’ve hit. Charcandrick West had a hole on the left side, and downfield blockers on the second level. Should’ve been able to get through, too, but left tackle Donald Stephenson was beat immediately and completely by Vikings defensive tackle Linval Joseph.
Joseph took one step upfield, and Stephenson leaned in, but he’s too slow because Joseph pulled back and took three steps to his left to fill the hole. Stephenson — and, really, offensive linemen should only see plays like this before waking up in a cold sweat — chased Joseph toward the play but instead ran into West.
Stephenson’s left hand knocked the ball from West’s left arm and onto the turf. Vikings lineman Brian Robison smothered the ball. His teammates cheered. Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce took his helmet off and slammed it into the ground. So many levels of failure here.
The Chiefs, if we’re being honest, probably would not have won with or without that fumble. Alex Smith has not led a game-winning touchdown drive in the last 5 minutes of a game since arriving in Kansas City, and there’s no particular reason to think he would’ve started now. But there is a special pain and shame when your hopes end when your left tackle essentially strips your running back.
“So our guy knocked the ball out?” linebacker Tamba Hali said. “That’s tough.”
“I’m sure somewhere I have (seen that before),” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said. “I wish I wouldn’t have seen it today.”
To his credit, West accepted blame for the fumble. Whether it’s a teammate or an opponent, the ball can’t come out. No excuses there.
But give the Chiefs credit for this — their failures this season have been spectacular. At times, past Chiefs seasons have faded quietly. This one, barring what would be a stunning turnaround, is more like the guy who tried to put out a garbage fire with a van full of live ammunition:
The five turnovers and blown lead at home against Denver. The prison beating at Green Bay. The clock management fiasco at Cincinnati. The Charles injury and blown lead at home against the Bears. And, now, this.
The Chiefs are more than one-third of the way through the season, and already they’re putting together a convincing case as lost, mentally weak, and not up to the weekly challenge of professional football’s highest level.
It’s a strange thing to try to diagnose. Derrick Johnson calls this the best roster he’s played on in 11 years — joke if you want, but that includes three playoff teams — and yet they have blown big leads and now lost two in a row to teams that aren’t exactly setting the curve.
Reid has coached just three losing teams in 16 previous seasons, yet he is in charge of a group that has alternatively lacked energy, answers and discipline. He is an old offensive-line coach, and the Chiefs have used considerable resources there, but it is one of the worst units in the league.
This is Reid’s third season in charge, which around the NFL is often seen as the one that tells you if things are working, and the Chiefs are regressing for the second consecutive year. Jim Harbaugh got the best out of Smith in San Francisco; why can’t Reid do that here?
They have a quarterback who can’t play from behind, and an offense that can’t get ahead. The defense has played relatively well the last two weeks, but before that, the team had given up more points in three consecutive weeks than in any game last year. Heck, even Dustin Colquitt shanked a punt against the Vikings. Maybe his leg is tired from overuse.
In the minutes immediately after this latest failure, the Chiefs tried to talk optimistically. Kelce claimed a strong belief, Hali talked of the team being not far off, Smith said there is no time to sulk, and the whole thing felt more than a little bit sad.
A few weeks ago, Reid appeared angry in answering virtually every question with some form of “that’s my responsibility” or “we’re on to Cincinnati.” Three more losses later, and he was trying to spin the second half here into a positive. It was better than the first half, to be sure, but even so the Chiefs scored just 10 points. This was not the Alamo.
The Chiefs have more talent, experience and expectations than any 1-5 team should ever be able to declare. But they also have a longer and more diverse list of failures than virtually anyone.
No team has a worse record. Not the Jaguars, not the Texans, not the 49ers. The Dolphins fired their head coach and just won their second game of the season.
The Chiefs are trying to believe. They are trying to convince you and, probably, even themselves that they believe. But one thing this organization knows well is the stink of letdown, and they would need haz-mat gear not to notice the smell.
West’s fumble is a rather poetic symbol of how this season has gone wrong, and losing like this to an average team is as clear a sign as you could have that the Chiefs are going nowhere.
That means 10 games of top-to-bottom self-evaluation. Ten games to figure out who should be here next year, and who shouldn’t. Smith has a contract the Chiefs can’t realistically get out of until after next season, but this is trending bad enough that they could be selecting toward the top of the draft. A decision will have to be made about when to invest in the next quarterback.
Reid and general manager John Dorsey have strong track records, but right now the Chiefs are a poorly disciplined and erratic team held back by a limited quarterback and an inability to build a decent offensive line.
The Chiefs can keep projecting internal confidence, but they have given no reason for anyone outside the locker room to join them. The list of problems is long. The list of solutions, well, that will take some time. Better start soon.