Through four games, the Kansas City Chiefs narrative in 2023 is a flipped script. Instead of an NFL-torturing offense complemented by a moderately successful defense—a unit that has, in past years, provided "enough" in Super Bowl runs or conference championships—this year the Chiefs are suffocating opposing quarterbacks on defense and doing just enough to grab some wins on offense.
It all feels odd, right?
Consider this: the Chiefs are in the pole position for the top seed in the AFC after the first month of the season with a sea of cupcakes ahead on the schedule. They're young at nearly every position and will get more reinforcements on defense in Nick Bolton and Charles Omenihu in the next few weeks. They can also shore up any position they'd like via the trade deadline at month's end. Not to mention, every contender looks seriously flawed this year.
With all of that in the "common knowledge" section of the Chiefs library, the fan base is still largely concerned about the state of things. (Note: not panicked but concerned, lest the Kingdom get defensive here.)
Why would Chiefs Kingdom feel like things are off when they are 3-1? Why would a fan base be apprehensive about the way a season is playing out when they already have a solid grip on first place and look safely headed for an eighth consecutive division title? The answer lies in the fact that the game's best player and reigning MVP, Patrick Mahomes, has looked a bit more human than ever in the season's early going—most of that being due to costly penalties and frustrating mistakes by his surrounding cast members.
In other words, this year's iteration of the Chiefs at 3-1 doesn't feel like this team normally does at 3-1. Is this something we should get used to? Are these Chiefs the "new" Chiefs and we don't yet know it?
Chiefs make significant defensive investments
For the last few years, the Kansas City Chiefs have tried to overcome some significant woes and reinforce positions of strength on the defensive side in order to balance out the squad. Instead of forcing Mahomes to hoist the team on his shoulders and win a game in a shootout, the Chiefs have provided their defense with more playmakers—guys who can come up with the big stop or the game-altering play themselves without forcing PM15 to do it each and every game.
For the defense, this has been a very, very good thing. It's been very exciting to watch the unit at work this season—to see George Karlaftis creating as many pressures as the league's elite pass rushers working next to Chris Jones, who looks just as inspired and effective as ever. Even without Jones, the Chiefs roared into this season looking better up front than anyone could have believed, and we've not even seen this year's first-round pick, Felix Anudike-Uzomah, get going in his NFL career. (Also Omenihu hasn't even taken the field as this year's free agent prize.)
The linebackers are a true gift from god if you believe in such things. Not only do the Chiefs have the World's Greatest Tackler (TM) in Nick Bolton, but they've also been quite fine without him for two games because of the talent and depth acquired. That's not any knock on Bolton, who will be welcomed back soon, but rather a statement about the ceiling of the room. From Willie Gay to Drue Tranquill to Leo Chenal to Bolton, this unit will be feared all season.
And this says nothing of a secondary where L'Jarius Sneed, who is still on his rookie contract, is the elder statesmen of the NFL's best group of young cornerbacks. Trent McDuffie is the pillar here, but Jaylen Watson and Joshua Williams are both capable starters and even Nic Jones looks promising. Then the safeties are just as deep with Mike Edwards and Chamarri Conner backing Justin Reid and Bryan Cook.
Asking Mahomes to do less with more
Think of all of those investments above. There were multiple years with a Day 2 pick on linebackers in a row. The Chiefs had 2 first-round picks in 2022 and invested both on the defensive side and did it again this year. Then there are the signings of Omenihu and Reid and Tranquill. The Chiefs are reaping the dividends on their investments, but that means the opposite is also true.
When was the last time you saw a significant draft investment on the offensive side of the ball for the Chiefs? There has been a single first-round pick made on offense since Patrick Mahomes was drafted back in 2017: the selection of Clyde Edwards-Helaire in 2020. That's it. In fact, the first pick in every draft is almost always a defender. FAU this year. The double-dip on first-round defenders before that. Bolton in '21. Even Veach's entire first draft was five of six defenders (and they were almost all ineffective).
Is it possible that the sputtering offense is a product of a lack of investment? The primary discussion about the Chiefs wide receivers is their limitations. There's not a single well-rounded pass catcher on the entire team except for Travis Kelce. Instead, we have guys who do 1-2 things well on paper, yet on the field some of them are having trouble even making those good things happen (e.g. Skyy Moore).
Kadarius Toney could be good but he can't stay healthy. Rashee Rice can be good, but he's inexperienced. Justyn Ross could be good, but he's not ready. Everyone comes with a caveat; it's an offense loaded with fine print and warning labels. For the Chiefs, it works when you have the reigning MVP under center working with a Hall of Fame head coach and a living legend at tight end. They can still be 3-1 even with these options on offense. But for those looking for the fireworks of the past, alas those days are over.
When the Chiefs traded away Tyreek Hill, it was the beginning of the end of the Chiefs' ability to establish whatever tone they wanted offensively against other teams. Since then, the loss of each trusted target has demanded the Chiefs do more with less. It's akin to a corporation thinning out the ranks with layoffs and then asking them to meet the same quota. It can work for a spell, but at some point, the effectiveness crashes to the floor.
There was a stretch of time when the Chiefs offense single-handedly brought about seismic defensive changes across the entire NFL landscape. Literally the way an entire league defended the pass changed in the course of a year or two after watching Patrick Mahomes carve up defenses on a predictable basis. Now that era is over.
That's not to say Mahomes is less effective than he was. That's not a knock on Reid or Kelce. It's also possible that further investments could bring such an era back around again. But in the meantime, what the Chiefs have done is leveled out the roster, siphoning resources away from the offense in order to create a dominant defense. That's what we're seeing through the first month of 2023 and it's still hard to get used to–even as the record remains largely the same.