Chiefs’ tight end Travis Kelce is a prodigious talent who is bound for the Pro Bowl on Jan. 31 — if, that is, the Chiefs aren’t headed to the Super Bowl a week later.
“Hopefully, I don’t have to go,” he said upon hearing the Pro Bowl news as the Chiefs prepared to play Cleveland on Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium. “Our eyes are on the prize.”
That’s an encouraging term for his critics to hear from Kelce, who also has been somewhat of an enigma:
His exhilarating game at times is compromised by exasperating mental lapses and, specifically, fumbles (four last season, two in 2015) that might suggest his eyes have gone googly and his mind is elsewhere.
And, alas, you might see some such transgression again before long from the animated Kelce, who has 65 catches for 822 yards this season.
But there are a few things that bear remembering when you consider that disheveled part of the package.
Understand that his tendency toward showboating says more about sheer enthusiasm and seeking to get others stoked than it is mere absentminded shenanigans.
Know that his mistakes stem from his admirable boldness, a mind-set a little like President Teddy Roosevelt’s “man in the arena:”
“… Who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly ….”
If you think of it that way, it’s hard not to embrace that mentality and try to accept what comes with it … even when it includes some seemingly inexplicable objectionable moments such as the dropped pass and penalty two weeks ago against San Diego.
Certainly, the Chiefs are of this mind to some degree, as offensive coordinator Doug Pederson explained after the Oakland game that presented a sample of Kelce extremes:
Trying to extend a play when he should have gone out of bounds, Kelce burped up a crucial fumble late in the first half that left him saying, “That’s on me” when the Raiders scored.
He later atoned with a pivotal catch-and-run on a third down to help put away the game.
“I feel like it’s part of my job to go to him and say, ‘Listen, we’re going to keep coming to you. It’s not like we’re not going to come to you: you’re one of our leaders,’ ” Pederson said, later adding, “So one play doesn’t define you either way, and with him he’s going to give you a handful of those and you know.
“But yet, it’s not going to discourage you from continuing to throw him the football.”
All that said, there’s no reason these trapdoors have to continue to be part of the Kelce experience.
No one knows this better than him.
That’s why every day now, Kelce lugs around a 5-pound, sand-weighted football to reinforce both the muscle memory of clamping it high and tight and appreciation of the preciousness of the commodity.
Whether he’s at home or at the Chiefs training center or wherever.
“You name it,” he said, smiling.
That may also be why he’s noticeably toned down or redirected some of his theatrics recently.
For instance, after one of his catches at Baltimore that was good for a first down, Kelce stood and stirred and … just pointed back to quarterback Alex Smith.
Meanwhile, there are important constants worth grasping about Kelce, things that might be obscured by the flamboyance he often displays.
Kelce is a man from the heart, one who is accountable and means it when he says he wouldn’t be in position to have been voted to the Pro Bowl if not for teammates and coaches.
“It’s every bit as much of an honor for them for getting me to where I am,” he said.
He’s a fiendish worker who studies hard and wants desperately to maximize his talents and, let’s remember, has played in just 31 NFL games and is in his first full year as a starter.
“Enough hard work will make all these things kind of come together for me,” he said. “I’m not going to lie: I feel very confident and very good about everything going on. It’s a learning process.”
So the trick here is how to refine Kelce’s game without neutering him, how to make him understand discretion is the better part of valor but that it’s still desirable he play with what coaches like to call controlled reckless abandon.
In this sense, anyway, Kelce is a test of coach Andy Reid’s oft-stated adage of “let their personalities show.”
As Reid explains it to a media audience, the idea goes like this:
“I want the whole player,” he said. “If your editor is telling you you have to keep within these confines here, it’s probably not so good.
“If he cuts you loose a little bit, you might have a pretty good article that comes out pretty creative.”
With a laugh, Reid added, “I think. I question some of you.”
When the question was framed another way, about how to manage “big-personality guys,” Reid said:
“Well, listen, you have to let your personality show to play this game. You have to be able to do that, but within the framework of the scheme. Everybody does that different, so you never want to take that part away from them.
“There are just certain things, like red lights. I don’t like red lights, but I stop at them. You have to do that. That’s two minutes of my life that’s taken away, but if I don’t do that, I might kill myself and everybody that’s involved, so you have to do certain things, right?
“It’s important that players understand that, and everybody that’s playing the game kind of understands that. There are certain things you have to do, but at the same time you put your own flavor on it.”
And even if the flavor of Kelce’s game sometimes has a bittersweet accent, the true depth and substance of it makes it irresistible.
After all, Pederson said, “you’re going to take the good with the bad” with any player, and there’s infinitely more good here than downside.
“If there’s a hiccup here or there, it’s normal because he’s going 110 miles an hour,” Reid said.
With his eyes on the prize.