Moral victories are for arguments with your spouse, not NFL games, so the company line is tight and consistent here.
“We’re by no means in the business of moral victories,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid says.
“He’s right,” quarterback Alex Smith says.
“No moral victories,” receiver Dwayne Bowe says.
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You get the idea. The Chiefs lost 24-17 to the Broncos here on Sunday, and if a final pass from the 2-yard line to Bowe had been completed, this would be a very different locker room and a very different column.
But the point for now is that, even from a loss, this is a very different team than we all saw stink up Arrowhead Stadium a week ago.
Some of that is in the literal sense, because after losing Derrick Johnson and Mike DeVito to ruptured Achilles’ tendons in the first game, the Chiefs played most of this loss without Jamaal Charles and Eric Berry. If those injuries are serious — and the Chiefs weren’t saying much immediately after the game — then this is starting to feel an awful lot like 2011.
That’s not awesome, but it sure beats a week ago — when this felt an awful lot like 2012.
“There’s a lot of guys in this room (who remember) going 2-14 a couple years ago,” tight end Travis Kelce says. “We know we don’t want to go back down that road.”
The Chiefs are playing for 2015. We all understand that, right? Since the NFL adopted the current divisional format in 2002, just nine of the 100 teams to start 0-2 have made the playoffs. Without going case by case, we can safely assume the odds are even worse for teams to start 0-2 with as many injured stars as healthy ones.
So this is now officially about improving for the long-term, particularly with extra picks in next year’s draft and high picks from 2014 like Dee Ford and Phillip Gaines not playing much.
The pattern has always been for teams to fall back the year after a big jump into the playoffs, but now there has to be a renewed confidence that this won’t be a wasted season.
The Chiefs’ season-opening loss was so thorough that Reid apologized. The offense lacked any creativity, basically ignoring Charles for long stretches, and the defenders were pushed around like they were playing up a league.
What we saw here in Denver was more palpable. Acceptable. Encouraging, even, at least in parts.
Kelce, especially, was given a much larger role than a week ago and helped change the Chiefs’ offense. He caught four passes on six targets for 81 yards, often lining up in the slot and even running by safety T.J. Ward on one route.
Knile Davis was also very good after Charles left, in particular in the second quarter when he ran to the left side and showed the patience coaches have been asking for in waiting for Mike McGlynn and Rodney Hudson to clear space down the sideline.
James-Michael Johnson helped the run defense after an awful performance against the Titans.
The Chiefs, in other words, did a lot of the things we all justifiably expected from them a week ago.
The Chiefs have a top 10 (or so) coach and a top 12 (or so) quarterback in a league that favors coaches and quarterbacks. That’s a good foundation to build around, and the rest of this season has to be about a long-term goal of closing the gap between them and the Broncos.
Taking the defending conference champs to the wire is a strong sign, but the Chiefs know this is about more than just a play or two. And after Sunday, they have to feel better about their ability to build back up.
After the game, the first thing Reid mentioned — even before the caveat about moral victories — was effort. That was repeated in the locker room, over and over again, guys saying the most important change between a tail-kicking at home against the Titans and a near-miss on the road against the Broncos was effort.
The truest answer is more complicated than that, of course, and to lack effort in a season opener at home is inexcusable. But the past is the past, and everything we know about Reid means the Chiefs deserve the benefit of the doubt that they are more the team that nearly beat the Broncos than the one blown out by the Titans.
Especially with the injuries, that almost certainly won’t be good enough to make the playoffs again.
But it should be enough to get some growth out of this season, which is more than what it felt like a week ago.