Sam Mellinger

The Travis Kelce Experience: You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll cheer

Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce didn’t let Raiders linebacker Ray-Ray Armstrong keep him from scoring on a 20-yard pass play in the third quarter Sunday.
Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce didn’t let Raiders linebacker Ray-Ray Armstrong keep him from scoring on a 20-yard pass play in the third quarter Sunday. The Kansas City Star

The Full Travis Kelce Experience is a slant route where he finds space between the cornerback and linebacker and goes all mini-Gronk on the Raiders’ defense.

D.J. Hayden and Brandian Ross hit him, simultaneously, on Kelce’s third stride after catching the ball. They bounce off him and to the grass, like crash-test dummies thrown against a wall. Oakland linebacker Miles Burris is next. He rushes into Kelce, hits as hard as he can and falls a few yards from his teammates. This is what it looks like when professional football players are turned into henchmen.

Kelce sees nobody between him and the goal line. It’s been five weeks since he’s scored, and as much as the reasonable angel on one shoulder tells him to protect the ball, it’s the swagtastic devil on the other shoulder who usually wins these arguments. So Kelce starts high-stepping around the 2-yard line, sticking out the ball with his right hand, unaware that another linebacker is coming from behind, about to jump around his neck.

Kelce falls into the end zone, with the ball and the touchdown that more than any other removed doubt from what was eventually a much-needed 31-13 win over the Raiders at Arrowhead Stadium on Sunday.

“It felt kind of like revenge, man,” he says. “It’s been a while since I’ve been in (the end zone). So it’s kind of a lot of passion, a lot of excitement held back.”

This is pure Kelce, good and bad, a wild abandon that means he can break four tackles on one play and an occasional recklessness that means he might fumble on the next one.

After the game, Kelce admitted he didn’t see the second linebacker closing in. He’d started his celebration of a touchdown he felt was too long coming, and he did it too early.

“I was celebrating,” he admitted. “I thought I broke every tackle there was on the field.”

The Chiefs are now 8-6, needing to win at Pittsburgh next week and against the Chargers at home in the season finale to secure a playoff spot. Justin Houston leads the NFL with 17 sacks, three shy of the franchise record. Alex Smith shows enough good and bad to fuel extreme opinions about him on both sides, and Jamaal Charles is both one of the league’s best running backs and very clearly banged up going into two crucial games.

That’s a lot to talk about, but Kelce is where the eye often wanders. Especially for a tight end, there isn’t a player on the roster who is more capable of turning a game on its head — one way or the other — than Kelce.

Against the Raiders, Kelce caught five of the six balls thrown his way for 59 yards and that touchdown. He is playing what is essentially his rookie season and leads the Chiefs with 56 catches and 747 yards. His five touchdown catches are tied with Charles for the team lead. Two games left, and already the only Chiefs tight end to have more catches in a season is Tony Gonzalez.

Kelce has been, in so many ways, a revelation. For a team that needs more playmakers, especially in the passing game, he’s an essential piece for a hopeful playoff contender.

He has also been, in so many ways, a consistent headache. Two weeks ago, he got caught on TV making a harmless but stupid gesture that drew an $11,025 fine from the NFL. Andy Reid talked to him about it, and Kelce distilled his coach’s message into two words: “Grow up.”

Last week, Kelce made seven catches for a season-high 110 yards. He also dropped a pass that basically hit him in the belly button, was called for two false-start penalties, and fumbled away a key drive late in the game (albeit on a controversial call).

Against the Raiders came another false-start penalty that helped stall a drive, and another lost fumble that gave Oakland the ball 15 yards from the goal line.

“Not putting the ball away like I should,” Kelce says. “All I know is he hit me and the ball came out. It’s always on me if I fumble.”

Kelce is in that tantalizing, frustrating, exciting and aggravating place between potential and stardom.

Everything he does in a Chiefs uniform seems to come with so much gusto, so much testosterone and so much aggression that it stands out, both good and bad. Reid coached Kelce’s brother, Jason, an offensive lineman, in Philadelphia. So he knew the DNA.

None of this — the talent, the highs, the lows — is a surprise. But it is a process.

Kelce seems to approach every snap as if it’s his last, which is a great thing when he breaks tackles but can be counterproductive when he prioritizes flash over safety. Watching him play is a bit like watching your friend date a gorgeous, funny and occasionally angry woman.

The Travis Kelce Experience leaves no room in the middle.

What Kelce is going through is not unlike — though it may be a slightly amplified version — what a lot of talented and dynamic skill-position guys go through when they’re young.

“I’m still growing as a player,” he says. “I’m pretty sure I’ll never stop.”

One of the first things Reid said when taking the Chiefs job was that he wanted his players to “show their personality” on the field. He says that so much that it’s become something like a company line in the locker room, verbal shorthand for Charles mocking opponents’ celebration dances, or Sean Smith’s exaggerated incompletion signal, or Kelce shooting the bow and arrow after first-down catches.

The idea is that if you’re having fun, you’ll play better, and the Chiefs are a drastically different team now than when Reid took over. They are looser, faster, more confident and much better. Reid has deservedly received a lot of credit for that, and much of this comes from trusting his players to know the difference between good energy and counterproductive energy.

Kelce was always going to be a challenge in that way, and the last three weeks have been a full display.

Kelce, to his credit, owns his mistakes, both to his coaches and fans through the media. He knows he has the skills to be a star, just as soon as he smoothes out a few rough edges.

He’ll get there. He’s too talented and motivated. He cares, loves football and by all accounts is responsive to coaching.

Guys like that are good bets, but it takes time. He is far from a finished product. He’s too talented for the Chiefs to go away from, and too wild not to expect some mistakes along the way.

The Travis Kelce Experience is the full ride, and for now the Chiefs know they’ll have to take the tears in exchange for the cheers in a push toward the playoffs.

To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365 or send email to smellinger@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter: @mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

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