More than any single player or aspect, the Kansas City Chiefs biggest advantage coming into 2020 is the fear they strike in opponents.
The Kansas City Chiefs can officially be dubbed an NFL juggernaut. Through 17 weeks of the 2019 regular season, they were one of the best teams in the league even with a number of injuries at pivotal positions for weeks and weeks at a time.
Through four weeks of the NFL playoffs, mostly in the second half of these games, they ran roughshod over multiple good teams and scored an incredible 39 points per game and allowed only 25. They return almost all of their starters in 2020 and add a talented pool of wide-eyed draftees sure to make an impact.
Some may ask the question, so what? They won a single Super Bowl, so how does this make them an NFL juggernaut? As this offseason has played on, people seem to be forgetting that the Kansas City Chiefs franchise was a hair’s breadth away from being the two-time defending Super Bowl champions this offseason. A play here, an offsides there, and things could look a lot different.
I may be biased, but the Kansas City Chiefs should be entering this season as the only team to repeat since the New England Patriots did it in 2004 and 2005. They should have a chance to enter the hallowed halls indwelled by only a few teams throughout the history of major professional sports. They should be pushing for the elusive three-peat.
I digress, because the fact is that isn’t the case. Truth be told, I’m exceedingly thankful for the one Super Bowl the Kansas City Chiefs have won in my lifetime. All that said, the thought of them continuing to dominate is tantalizing and they’re in perfect position to do so.
The reigning world champions have the world’s best quarterback, one of the world’s greatest coaches, and a roster that’s arguably as talented as any other in the league. Ironically, all those wonderful intrinsic factors overshadow something that I think will have an equal or even greater impact on their opponents. The Kansas City Chiefs, owing to their impressive two-year stretch and historic comebacks in the 2019 NFL playoffs, now strike true fear into the hearts of their opponents.
Some of you will read that as an obvious statement. Of course, one of the best teams in the entire league would make opponents prep are even more extensively than they would otherwise out of the “fear” they could get beat if they didn’t. That is an understandable response, but that’s not actually what I’m talking about.
At the professional level in sports, one of the highest profile and pressure-filled careers an individual can have, everyone prepares extensively. There are those with talent who don’t, and they are usually pushed out of the league within a few short seasons as the exception rather than the rule. The vast majority of people who make it to the highest level and carve out successful careers have exceptional work ethics and preparation habits. There’s very little, if any advantage here.
The real advantage of fear comes on game day. There’s a dramatic difference between preparing for what you think an opponent will do and adapting to what an opponent actually does. It’s an art almost as much as it is a science, maybe moreso. Coaches and players, through insight and instinct, perform mental and physical feats with barely a margin for error. This is where fear can play a massive role in who wins and loses.
Take Kyle Shanahan as an example. He has a dreamlike football pedigree, has leveraged that into becoming a brilliant coach, and is known to work extremely hard preparing for his opponents. There’s no doubt that he was prepared when his San Francisco 49ers faced the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LIV. It didn’t matter.
At the end of the first half, with a chance to take the lead, he left time and potentially points on the board by playing extremely conservative. He later explained this away by attributing his decision making to Patrick Mahomes and his seeming ability to score at will, regardless of time. The last thing he wanted was to give Mahomes the ball back.
In the second half, after gashing the Chiefs defense fairly consistently by running and having built a three-point lead, he became oddly aggressive. You could make the argument he even became reckless. He put the ball in the hands of Jimmy Garoppolo, a good player but one who’d struggled in late-game situations, and expected him to deliver. Shanahan knew Mahomes would get the ball back, and he was desperately trying to land a back-breaking blow.
It was his fear of Patrick Mahomes, something cultivated over the last two seasons of watching him make brilliant play after brilliant play, that caused Shanahan to make serious errors in judgement. He was playing with house money in the first half, yet didn’t take a timeout and didn’t throw the ball till it was too late. He had all the leverage in the world in the second half, yet felt he didn’t and went away from his team’s strength.
There are a number of examples of players and teams with this type of mental grip on their opponents. Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Tiger Woods, Roger Federer, the Patriots and Tom Brady—all terrified their opponents in a way they’d likely be embarrassed to admit, but we as viewers can see it and even relate to it in a way.
These players dominated their sports not just because of their talent, their coaches or their teammates, but because they were unpredictable. Their opponents had to be perfect to beat them, and that’s nearly impossible to do. The Kansas City Chiefs 2020 opponents know they need to be perfect, and I’d bet it scares them knowing they’ll likely fall short.