Vahe Gregorian

Fifty years later, Chiefs’ hopes for Super Bowl return have never seemed more real

With previously anointed former teammates Bobby Bell, Willie Lanier, Jan Stenerud and Emmitt Thomas gathered around on stage, Johnny Robinson was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame last week.

Len Dawson, yet another from that era immortalized in Canton, was at Arrowhead Stadium for a pre-game ceremony Saturday night before the Chiefs’ 38-17 victory over Cincinnati in their preseason opener.

And the ever-engaging Bell was out Saturday in a Kansas City Ambassadors shirt picking up his Hall of Fame gold jacket at a local dry cleaner, where he signed a Tony Gonzalez jersey, posed for a picture and waved to a series of drivers who honked as they passed by.

About anywhere you turn these days, you can find reminders of the endless summers that have passed since the last one that sprung a Super Bowl journey for the Chiefs.

Apollo 11 and Woodstock and Vietnam and so … much … more were the backdrop as the Chiefs embarked on their third AFL championship in eight years and second Super Bowl in the first four and their only triumph in the so-called ultimate game.

If it seems like it’s a long time ago … it is. Only three NFL teams and their fans have suffered longer without a Super Bowl than the Chiefs in the half-century since: The Jets haven’t returned since winning Super Bowl III, and the Lions and Browns never have reached one.

But hundreds of players and a tortured playoff history since, in the seventh season of the 12th coach since the golden era under Hank Stram, we’re looking at a new frontier of belief and a baseline unprecedented in the last five decades.

Start with the indomitable and seemingly infinite capabilities of quarterback Patrick Mahomes, the reigning NFL most valuable player after his first season as a starter. He picked up Saturday where he left off by completing four of four passes for 66 yards in his only series.

He’s already identifiable as a force like few in NFL history, a singular transformative presence unlike any in Chiefs annals and the prime reason for a sense of widespread anticipation that is more about belief than mere hope.

Considering the old Carly Simon song that was appropriated into a ketchup commercial, the very word “anticipation” evokes visions of Mahomes because of that favorite condiment he now sponsors.

Then, sprinkle in the fact that despite lugging a horrific defense along, the Chiefs essentially were a tormenting offside penalty and a capricious coin toss from the Super Bowl in February.

“I think it’s great for our football team to have that opportunity to see the intensity that it takes to play at that level,” coach Andy Reid said when the Chiefs opened camp last month. “We had some young guys, and you can sit there and tell them that every step you take in the playoffs is even more intense than the last step. But until you’ve lived it, it’s a hard thing to get yourself around. I think it was a great learning tool, but now you’re starting over.”

Just the same … blend the Mahomes Factor and the broader narrow shortfall together, and the Chiefs and their fans have a credible 2020 vision of finally working their way back to the pinnacle.

Maybe even a sense of Super Bowl or bust.

That’s why there have been absurd crowds in St. Joseph for training camp, and more Mahomes jerseys and T-shirts per capita inside and outside Arrowhead on Saturday than there were people eating barbecue.

Now, let’s break out the healthy skepticism about a defense that last season was a Kryptonite-infused albatross with a ruptured Achilles’ heel to this team. The Chiefs dismantled, blew up and otherwise purged most of that operation, replacing defensive coordinator Bob Sutton with Steve Spagnuolo and his scheme and largely revamped staff.

In a most superficial sense in a fundamentally meaningless game in which few starters even played the entire first series, at a glance the work of the new boss looked remarkably like that of the old boss:

In the first defensive sequence since the New England Patriots went 75 yards on 13 plays in overtime to beat the Chiefs 37-31 in the AFC Championship Game, the Chiefs defensive Saturday allowed … a 14-play, 75-yard touchdown drive.

The series also featured another chilling flashback: Preceding an apparent opponent turnover, a Chiefs defender (in this case, Tanoh Kpassagnon playing the role of Dee Ford) seemed to be lined up offsides.

This time, though, no penalty was called and the would-be fumble recovery was ruled an incomplete pass.

More to the point, we won’t get a real feel for this defense until it’s playing games that count as of the opener Sept. 8 at Jacksonville.

Seems like it couldn’t be worse than last year — though as I say that I hear my man Sam Mellinger quoting former Royals manager Buddy Bell amid a long losing streak saying, “I’ll never say it can’t get worse.”

Just a little better seems like a reasonable hope, though.

Because of Mahomes and the dazzling receivers at his disposal, it doesn’t have to approximate the one that went to the Super Bowl in the 1969 season.

Because of Mahomes, it doesn’t have to be like the one that produced six Hall of Famers on that side of the ball and held its three postseason opponents to 20 points … as many as the Chiefs surrendered to the Patriots after the third quarter in the AFC championship loss.

It just needs to be better enough to allow the magic of Mahomes to fulfill its promise.

And to finally stitch together the precious present with the bygone era, which deserves to be forever treasured but looms all the larger in the void since.

“For us this year,” Mahomes said during the game broadcast, “it’s all about just taking that next step. “

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Vahe Gregorian has been a sports columnist for The Kansas City Star since 2013 after 25 years at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He has covered a wide spectrum of sports, including 10 Olympics. Vahe was an English major at the University of Pennsylvania and earned his master’s degree at Mizzou.
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