Vahe Gregorian

How Matt Moore has buoyed Chiefs while Mahomes’ status remains unclear this week

If you wanted clarity on the lingering question, alas, this is where we are:

Chances are that Patrick Mahomes may return Sunday at Tennessee, Chiefs’ coach Andy Reid allowed.

Oh, and chances are that he won’t.

“There’s no answer right now for it,” Reid said Wednesday. “That’s what’s real.”

Because secrecy is the watchword in the NFL, some might consider Reid’s stance to be a point of gamesmanship. Or wonder if it’s more to the Chiefs’ benefit to have the Titans believe he will play and then doesn’t or better to have them thinking he won’t and does.

Here’s betting, though, that it’s simply a true unknown, more a coin to be tossed than a hand held close to the vest.

For sure, Mahomes will get more work this week than he’s had since suffering a dislocated kneecap on Oct. 17 at Denver — where Reid said Mahomes wanted back on the field 20 minutes later.

In fact, he was listed as a full participant at practice Wednesday.

But what will his recovery be like day to day as the workload increases? How will doctors evaluate the stability of his knee and vulnerability to further injury? Mahomes might be a unicorn or a cyborg, but everyone heals differently.

“We’re not going to put him out there unless he’s safe to do it,” Reid said.

Believe that the Chiefs know nothing matters more than the long-term, even in the context of this season alone, when it comes to a transformational presence like Mahomes. They’re going to err on the side of caution.

But at least one thing has become clear in Mahomes’ absence. And it’s been underappreciated.

The Chiefs didn’t beat Minnesota on Sunday and have a chance to beat Green Bay and finish off Denver simply despite 35-year-old Matt Moore stepping in for Mahomes.

Instead, Moore has been an active ingredient in their ability to move forward, completing 59 of 91 passes for 659 yards with four touchdown passes and zero interceptions. Most pivotally, he made several clutch plays down the stretch as the Chiefs rallied to beat the Vikings 26-23 on Harrison Butker’s 44-yard-field goal as time ran out.

The win was punctuated by what might be considered a microcosm of the situation widely perceived as dire when Mahomes went down:

After Moore was swamped for a sack on first and 10 at the Minnesota 45-yard-line (and bailed out by Damien Williams recovering his fumble), it was hard to have faith that the Chiefs would pull this out in regulation, if at all.

But on the next play, Moore hit Travis Kelce for 17 yards, giving the Chiefs third and 4 at the Minnesota 39 with 24 seconds left. Stall there, and the Chiefs would have been asking Butker to kick a career-long 56-yarder.

Instead, in the face of a blitz, Moore connected with Tyreek Hill as if they’d been playing together for months instead of weeks. Believing Hill was alert to the rush, Moore anticipated Hill would speed up the route from its original programming … and he did. The 13-yard gain teed up Butker’s 44-yard attempt to win the game.

It wasn’t the first time Moore has stood poised and tall with oncoming defenders in his grill, earlier in the game throwing right through an opponent’s arms as he was about to get splatted.

“Tougher than shoe leather,” Reid called him Wednesday, adding, “My hat goes off to him. Just like you guys feel (appreciating what he’s done), I feel the same way.”

Not bad for a guy who was out of the NFL last year and wasn’t even actively looking to return when he was coaching his high school team in California and backup Chad Henne was injured.

“There was no plan” with his agent, he said. “We weren’t doing anything to find a job, if you will. It just kind of happened.”

In a sense, it started with a phone call from general manager Brett Veach and then a talk with Reid. Then again, it really started in March 2018, when the Chiefs signed Henne over Moore but remained impressed.

So much so that all this time later their first impulse evidently was to call him, rusty or not.

What’s happened the last few weeks is testament to their evaluation, affirmation of quarterback-whisperer Reid’s long track record of success working with backup quarterbacks, a team answering the call on both sides of the ball, some encouragement from Mahomes and the character, smarts, presence and skills of Moore.

Somehow, he’s right in the flow with everyone from Reid (“There’s no questions” when it comes to game plans, Moore said. “You go in feeling really good”) to his receivers to his offensive line.

“It didn’t take him long to be basically speaking the same language (as us),” center Austin Reiter said. “And sometimes that language is more of how it’s said than what is said. Kind of like a sixth football sense with the O-line.”

Moore would be — has been, in fact — the first to tell you he’s not to be confused with Mahomes. For that matter, Chiefs fans can only hope he’ll have a legacy at all like Mike Livingston did (6-0 filling in for Len Dawson) to help pave the way to their Super Bowl IV triumph.

Nor has it been seamless, with Moore himself saying it was on him that the offense was “a little scatterbrained” at times down the stretch the other day.

Still, when Reid on Sunday referred to Moore “calming the storm” during the game, he could just as easily have applied it to what he’s done since the panic and despair so many felt when Mahomes went down.

In that moment, the reigning MVP’s season appeared in jeopardy. So did the Chiefs’ playoff hopes.

Turns out all wasn’t lost. And while there’s much at play in that, including the fact that Mahomes figures to be back soon, Moore absolutely has been part of the solution instead of any problem at all.

In that 30-6 win at Denver, the Chiefs outscored the Broncos 20-0 with Moore in the game. And he’s helped stabilize them ever since, part of building a bridge to Mahomes’ return … which may or may not be at hand.

In the meantime, the question of “when” seems less a matter of emergency than urgency, a nice difference in what can be counted on now that might not have been counted on by many.

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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.