The world is changing and the Chiefs are at home, watching. This is how it has been for a long time now, and, you know, this could have been their moment. This would have been their moment.
Andrew Luck will lead the Colts in the AFC Championship Game against Tom Brady and the Patriots, and the talk all week has been about the arrival of the future. Luck is on the fast track to greatness, with 11 wins and playoff appearances in each of his first three seasons, and in Kansas City it’s hard not to think about how this could’ve been the Chiefs.
How this would have been the Chiefs.
The Chiefs had their Scott Pioli nightmare season one year too late, so instead of Andrew Luck in 2012 they got the first pick in a draft where the best quarterback was either E.J. Manuel or Geno Smith.
You know how this went. The Chiefs drafted a tackle who is improving but still finding his way, traded picks for a quarterback who isn’t as good as Luck, and blew a historic lead in a playoff game to the Colts last year.
Now, they sit at home, wondering how the world changed before they could catch up.
Two years into Andy Reid and John Dorsey trying to restore pride in the Chiefs, is it already too late?
The Chiefs’ allergy to drafting and winning with their own quarterback is sort of like boilerplate criticism of a franchise now 21 years removed from its last playoff win, and 45 years from its last Super Bowl.
But when it’s said that Todd Blackledge is the last quarterback to be drafted by and win a game for the Chiefs, one thing that’s easy to miss is how many different ways the Chiefs have essentially no-showed so many different eras.
They’ve been more like interested bystanders than involved participants as the AFC’s power has shifted from Jim Kelly’s Bills to John Elway’s Broncos to Tom Brady’s Patriots, with various seasons of Peyton Manning thrown in.
In the years since the Chiefs last won a playoff game, 12 quarterbacks have led nine AFC franchises to the Super Bowl. Seven other quarterbacks and two other franchises — the Jets and Jaguars! — have played in the conference final. That’s 19 quarterbacks, and 11 franchises. More than 70 percent of the rest of the conference.
Luck will be the 20th different quarterback to play for the AFC championship since the Chiefs’ last appearance. Kansas City has drafted seven quarterbacks in that span, and no offense to Pat Barnes, but you probably don’t want to see the whole list.
This is a combination of circumstance and philosophy, of course, a conspiracy of leadership generally preferring experience and the timing in which the Chiefs’ quarterback needs lined up with Alex Smith being on the trade market instead of Luck being available to them in the draft.
The problem is that their lack of a true franchise quarterback has made the Chiefs spectators in the competition for the AFC trophy that bears their founder’s name.
Manning’s move to Denver put the problem right in the Chiefs’ face, and to be fair, the Chiefs are in good company among teams looking up at the Broncos, Patriots and Steelers.
But with Manning’s effectiveness apparently — finally — declining, it’s even more stark that the Chiefs have generally done a lousy job of preparing themselves to upset the established AFC power structure.
If Manning isn’t at the end, he can certainly feel the end from here. This is good news for the Chiefs, of course. They have one of the youngest rosters in the NFL — even before load of picks they’ll make in the upcoming draft — and no matter what happens with Tamba Hali, the bulk of their core is locked up for years.
If the Colts have taken the Broncos’ place among the AFC’s best teams, the Chiefs will have to adjust their target.
The problem is that the difference at quarterback — Luck is in the top 10 and rising; Smith is in the middle third and holding steady — only amplifies where the Chiefs need to improve.
The best Chiefs team in a decade lost to the Colts twice in a span of 14 days. This was 2013, last season. The first time, the Chiefs couldn’t move the ball. The second time, they couldn’t protect a 28-point lead.
In 2014, the Chiefs treaded water while the Colts took a step forward. The gap isn’t insurmountable. Justin Houston is the best non-quarterback on either team. Jamaal Charles might be next. Even if injuries leave them at 90 percent of their former selves, Derrick Johnson and Mike DeVito returning from injuries next year should improve the Chiefs’ greatest weakness in stopping the run.
But the Colts have some advantages, too. Vontae Davis emerged this season as an elite cornerback. T.Y. Hilton is a star receiver in the making. The offensive line has holes, but nothing as flawed as the Chiefs’ left guard spot. The Colts lack the Chiefs’ pass rush, but are generally better at covering receivers.
In a vacuum, the rosters are close enough that the Chiefs should believe they can close the gap. The injuries to Johnson and DeVito put them in a particularly rough spot defensively this season. Eric Fisher is improving at left tackle. Center Rodney Hudson is one of the game’s better centers. They have important players on the rising side of the career arc, like tight end Travis Kelce, nose tackle Dontari Poe and running back De’Anthony Thomas.
Their weaknesses at guard, receiver and inside linebacker are so glaring that — especially with a load of draft picks and the ability to create salary-cap space — it’s hard to imagine the Chiefs not addressing those needs.
These things are hard quantify, of course, and in the NFL everything is fluid from year to year. But advanced metrics — Pro Football Focus generally prefers the Colts, while Football Outsiders leans toward the Chiefs — indicate the teams aren’t that different from one another. Conversations with people around the league confirm this.
The traditional trend of teams making a large jump like the Chiefs did from 2012 to 2013 is usually followed by a step back the next year, like the Chiefs experienced in 2014. It follows, then, that we can see what the Chiefs truly are next season.
Humoring a hypothetical, one personnel evaluator for a playoff team said he preferred the Chiefs’ roster to the Colts — if you took away the quarterbacks.
As it is, he said the difference wasn’t enormous and that the Chiefs could close the gap between the Colts and the AFC’s other powers with the right offseason moves. The third year of a new leadership group is always critical.
This will be the 21st consecutive year that Chiefs players are free to be on vacation during the AFC Championship Game. Their oldest player, Dustin Colquitt, was in sixth grade the last time the Chiefs played this deep into a season.
There is nothing the Chiefs can do about this Sunday’s game. But as Luck’s Colts emerge as the AFC’s biggest threat to Brady’s Patriots, the Chiefs have their best chance in years to make it to a spotlight they’ve only watched on TV for more than two decades.