When the Chiefs fended off the Steelers 42-37 last Sunday in Pittsburgh, anybody who watched, from any vantage or allegiance, was mesmerized by what quarterback Patrick Mahomes had unleashed.
His six touchdown passes, each with its own distinct touch, matched a franchise single-game record and left him with 10 in the first two games of the season — unprecedented in NFL history. For the moment, anyway, it stood as affirmation of a case that he could be The Next Big Thing in the NFL — especially with exceptional skill position players around him and coach Andy Reid’s scheming.
Amid the Mahomes-mania, it’s easy to overlook an enduring and fundamental truth: None of it would look quite the same without the service and protection of a seasoned and cohesive offensive line.
This delirium over Mahomes is possible in part because four of them (left tackle Eric Fisher, center Mitch Morse, right guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif and right tackle Mitchell Schwartz) suddenly have combined for 190 starts with the Chiefs.
Schwartz, in his third season here, hasn’t missed a snap in an NFL career that began in Cleveland and has made 98 straight starts — tied with center Ben Jones for the longest current starting streak among NFL linemen. (Asked if he knew the updated snap streak — 6,465 — Schwartz wasn’t sure but forgave the question: “I’m not superstitious, so don’t worry.”)
Moreover, Fisher would be next in the league behind Schwartz and Jones with 72 straight starts if not for being rested among many other starters in the season-ending game at Denver last season. Homegrown into the Reid system like Fisher, Morse and LDT each have 40 starts behind them.
All of which makes for a nice melding of relatively youthful experience on the starting line, with Schwartz the elder statesman at 29 and everyone else (including fifth starter Cam Erving) 26 or 27.
And it shows.
Despite Mahomes’ uncanny release, vision, savvy and poise, the Chiefs are 2-0 entering their game against San Francisco on Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium as much for the gritty stuff as the glittery.
The line largely has kept the precious jewel clean (two sacks this season, one of which Mahomes said happened because he stepped up onto Morse’s ankle) and against Pittsburgh put the game away late by paving room for Kareem Hunt’s two runs for a first down.
Give up the ball and perhaps lose the game, and the thrilling tone of the moment is far different.
While everyone was talking Mahomes in the aftermath, tight end Travis Kelce offered perspective with his first words in the postgame locker room: “At the end of the game there, we came together. The offensive line manned up, man. I love them for it … Shoutout to them for bringing it all four quarters. This one definitely goes to them.”
None of which is to say there isn’t ample stuff to scrub up or even that this won’t fluctuate.
The Chiefs’ offensive funk in the middle of last season was attributable to the line, Schwartz said, and injuries, such as the one that kept Morse out most of the season, always lurk.
Meanwhile, a year after rushing for 148 yards on 17 carries in the opener at New England, Hunt has just 124 yards on 34 carries (3.6 yards a run).
You could quibble with the play call, but allowing a safety in the fourth quarter enabled the Steelers to get back in the game.
And false starts by Duvernay-Tardif and Fisher on third-and-longs on back-to-back series took some steam out of the momentum the Chiefs had after scoring on their first three drives.
Just the same, at this time a year ago, the Chiefs had given up seven sacks. And it’s fair to say they hadn’t used anywhere near the number of empty backfield sets with Alex Smith as they did with Mahomes at Pittsburgh, a statement in itself.
Part of that is faith in how Mahomes can get the ball away under pressure even with a mere flick of the wrist. But part of that is exactly what it appears to be.
“You have to have trust in all the guys to be able to do that; there’s really no secret once you open that thing up like that,” Reid said earlier this week. “It comes down to your offensive line to block.
“(Pittsburgh’s) Keith Butler is a good defensive coordinator, so he threw the kitchen sink at them with different looks. The offensive line handled it for the most part. There were only a few where someone was coming free, and that was by sheer number. Other than that, the offensive line made some nice adjustments and picked people up.”
Part of the ability to adjust reflects having played together for a while now, what LDT called chemistry and Fisher called camaraderie.
“We know a lot about each other; we’re pretty close,” Fisher said. “Being on the field together is pretty natural to us.”
So much so that they speak a language all their own that goes well beyond the playbook. When you’ve played together this long, “Eh, watch it” — Canadian LDT’s words — can convey a few sentences about an elaborate read of the defense.
So can the code Morse mentioned: “Hey, hey, hey.”
The connectivity reflects more than just a way they can relate in the heat of the moment. It also speaks to a breadth of experience that can only come from … experience.
“For the most part in your first and second year, ‘On this play I block this guy’ — that’s really as far as you get,” Schwartz said. “It’s not, ‘Oh, I block this guy, Fish is doing that, the center is doing that, also it’s this formation and this personnel group.’ ”
With the experience that reveals the bigger scheme are the unspoken, nuanced advantages over time together. After a few years together, Schwartz said, “you definitely get into a rhythm where you understand the guy next to you and kind of where everyone’s going to be.”
Laughing, he added, “And people stop tripping over each other.”
Which is exactly what we are seeing now. The grind of the season and the signature of the work lies ahead, of course, and the truth is the less you notice the line’s work, the better it probably is.
But any meaningful success the Chiefs have this season will hinge on sustaining this X-factor. And afterthought that it might be, so far it’s been good enough to enable the giddiness over Mahomes.