Forty thousand or so humans will forever have the memories of watching the Chiefs’ fourth preseason game in person, and bless their hearts. That so many people spent their evening at Arrowhead Stadium is one more piece of incontrovertible evidence of football’s vise grip on Kansas City and America.
This game was played as an NFL-mandated event to create revenue, snickered at by casual fans, watched from the sidelines by starters, and used as one more important opportunity to evaluate and be evaluated by coaches and backups.
For most of us, there is nothing immediate or lasting to take from this game, but as the merciful end of the preseason — the Chiefs won 17-7, if you happened to gamble on it — it does provide a convenient platform to discuss the team headed into its most promising season in years.
The Chiefs have long talked about improving upon last year’s 11-5 record and playoff win. This preseason has provided more reason to believe than doubt.
The most important part: They avoided major injuries, and wisely used the time to bring Tamba Hali back slowly.
The short version of the rest: they found Alex Smith injury insurance, saw progress from Chris Conley but not Dee Ford, added cornerback depth, and still can’t be sure where the pass rush will come from.
The problem with being sure about anything right now is that even in the context of sports, and particularly professional football (and double-particularly a pro team with a core that’s been together for a while) we don’t know as much about this team.
Justin Houston will miss at least the first five games with a knee injury that’s been hard to understand, but nobody knows when he’ll be back. Hali and Jamaal Charles have not played with their own knee problems, and Eric Berry will play in a regular season game less than two weeks after resuming practice after a contract dispute.
Each of these men have reputations beyond reproach, but Hali, Charles and Berry, they will spend at least some of the season opener against the Chargers getting back into what football people call “football shape” — the stuff that only comes from going full speed with full contact.
If the last preseason game proved anything, it’s that the Chiefs were smart to sign Nick Foles as the backup. Tyler Bray’s showing in the first half did more than reinforce Foles’ place as the No. 2 — it explained why the Chiefs made the move.
Bray had an uneven performance in going 10 for 17 for 104 yards, many of his throws off target, few of them with touch, and several leading his receivers into unnecessary danger. There’s enough talent that he could someday be a serviceable backup — his ability to throw deep will keep him employed in the NFL — but he still needs too much polish to trust in a season with Super Bowl hopes.
Smith has only missed one game for injury in three years with the Chiefs, but does have an extensive injury history in San Francisco. Foles has his flaws — the Rams cut him, and kept Case Keenum — but enough experience and tools that he could be the difference in playoff qualification and seeding if Smith is hurt for a few games.
And if the last preseason game provided a meaningful moment for the regular season, it may have been outside linebacker Dadi Nicolas blowing by Packers right tackle Kyle Murphy untouched for a sack. Murphy is a backup, but Nicolas showed the explosion, quickness, and body fake that Dee Ford has not consistently found going into his third NFL season.
If nothing else, it was a more impressive play than anything Ford did in the preseason. Nicolas — who also had an effort sack on a play with good coverage — has some issues in coverage, and after the game was said to have suffered a neck strain, but along with Dezman Moses gives the Chiefs alternatives if Ford continues to underwhelm.
Nicolas and Moses have each had nice moments in both practice and preseason games. There’s a significant gap between that and doing it in real games, of course, but this is better than nothing. This is better than what we knew about before training camp, at least.
The Chiefs are well positioned in so many ways. The defensive line is deep and talented. The offensive line is vastly improved. The receiver depth is better, the backfield is as deep as any in the league, and there are stars in all three levels of the defense.
The schedule, as much as anything can be determined about that in the preseason, appears favorable and the Broncos will not have a Hall of Fame quarterback.
More immediately, the Chiefs got better this preseason. They avoided injuries, solidified the quarterback position, and saw growth from Conley, Nicolas, Moses, Chris Jones and others. That doesn’t always happen, and the improvement figures to only increase once stars like Hali, Berry and Charles return.
The preseason began with more reasons to be confident in the Chiefs than any year in recent memory. The preseason ends with many of those reasons reinforced or better.