Here is the AFC Playoff picture after Week 17
The words you are about to read might upset you. They might make you uncomfortable. Just a fair warning, last chance to skip to the breakfast recommendation now, because here it comes:
As long as there is football and as long as there are cameras there will be videos of football players pushing and kicking women.
This does not absolve Kareem Hunt. Not even close. He made an awful decision, then compounded it by repeatedly lying to his employer, the Kansas City Chiefs, and even then continued a pattern of showing violent behavior off the football field.
He must own that, and the apology tour he began with an ESPN interview on Sunday was not an encouraging start. At the moment, he appears to be overwhelmed, shaken and not yet able to grasp what he did ... and what people want to see before he gets another chance.
But that’s a conversation we can have later.
The point I want to make here at the top is that there will always be a Kareem Hunt. There has already been Joe Mixon and Ray Rice, and those are just the guys who play the same position and have been caught on video doing reprehensible things in recent years. Reuben Foster plays a different position. So does Greg Hardy. There will be more.
Hunt was raised by his mother and grandmother. Dad was in and out of prison. Hunt was so poor he and his roommates had to find other places to watch the NFL Draft because their lights were out. He had enough issues in college that some teams took him off their draft boards.
Hunt is now 23 years old, a grown man and a paid professional. His actions are his to own, and he is the one who will justifiably have to own them.
But he is also part of a larger football ecosystem that makes cases like his not just possible but inevitable. He grew up without a lot, chasing football as a career from a young age. When it finally came, stardom found him immediately with three touchdowns on Sunday Night Football against the Patriots in his first game.
He wasn’t ready, and it did not help that he didn’t have an experienced agent or others around him. The combination of the help available from the Chiefs and what was required by Hunt simply didn’t match.
He was an exemplary employee in the building. Always on time, always respectful, always focused. Outside the building, he developed a pattern of bad decisions, particularly with alcohol.
There is no way to know this for sure. It’s a hypothetical. But there is every reason to believe that if Hunt did everything in that video but then was proactive and honest that he would still be the Chiefs’ star running back.
But he lied, the Chiefs believed him, and that meant Clark Hunt, Andy Reid, Eric Bienemy and others said things both publicly and privately that made them look like fools once the video dropped.
Those are the mechanics of why the Chiefs made the still shocking decision to release him, but there are broader mechanics of why there will always be another example like this.
Young men do dumb things. That’s always been a problem, and always will be a problem. That’s a problem amplified by rough backgrounds, quick fame, and infusions of money. Football players are a self-selected group comfortable with at least some level of violence. The better they are and the longer they do it the more it becomes part of their identity and, if we’re honest, part of what we should expect from them.
One more time: Hunt did a dumb thing, and compounded it with more dumb things, then wrapped it inside a pattern of dumb things. He has to face the consequences.
But it’s more than a little disingenuous for anyone to be shocked that it happened the last time, this time, or the next time.
The culture of football is basically set up for players to pretend they are emotional robots. Anything that happens away from the field is brushed off as a distraction, and there is no worse word in football than distraction, with the possible exception of injury, because then you can’t be part of the show.
The Chiefs have set themselves up a little differently. Andy Reid is a thoughtful man, and he cares deeply about the lives of the people he works with*.
* Many examples exist, but the best might be Vahe’s story here on the relationships he maintains with guys he worked with 30 years ago.
But when it comes to dealing with distractions he is as old-school as anyone, going to laughable lengths in his postgame press conference in Oakland — the first time he’d talked since releasing the league’s reigning leading rusher — by essentially refusing to talk about it beyond “we dealt with it.”
But these are human beings. Reid will sometimes say he is “in the people business,” and part of what he means is that getting humans as close to their optimal selves as possible is an important part of the job.
Center Mitchell Schwartz is among the most thoughtful men in the Chiefs’ locker room and interacted with Hunt often on the offense. I thought he might be one of the best people to speak on this, then.
At first, he compared the mechanics of the change to losing a teammate to a season-ending injury. He also referenced a stat I hadn’t heard before, and the best I can recreate it is that among all “active” running backs, Kareem Hunt is third with a 4.75-yards-per-carry career average (minimum 300 carries). Ware is sixth, at 4.63.
Schwartz talked about how they both run hard and attack defenses. He also pushed back a little against my assertion that the biggest football adjustment will be that Ware isn’t as good with screens.
But then I asked him about the emotional part of it, if they needed time as a group to digest it, and his answer is why I said that earlier about him being so thoughtful.
“Yeah, I think so, especially for the guys that know him on a more personal level,” he said. “You don’t expect your friend to do that, and you hate to see him in that light. So I’m sure there’s emotions to kind of process, and I wouldn’t say this is a good thing about football, but one of the things with football is that happens and you have practice the next day, and a game two days later. So you don’t really have time. Football becomes a release.”
That’s the best answer I’ve heard from anyone in the locker room or organization about any of this.
They’ll need some time, but the pace of football means that process won’t really hit until the offseason. In the meantime, they’ll continue moving forward with football because that’s what football people do.
All of which is a long way of answering your question, so here’s a shorter version:
Yes, it had to have an impact.
This was one of those games that Mahomes looked better after watching for the second time. He was far from perfect, and missed some throws he should have made, but watching live I didn’t have a full appreciation for how good some of these throws were.
For instance, here are three, and don’t be fooled by the fact that these plays happened because they are impossible:
You guys*. That is not fair.
The biggest difference between spectacular quarterbacks and those who are merely very good is that the spectacular quarterbacks can kill you even when your defense is strong. Sometimes, the best quarterbacks beat you even worse when you play good defense, because you’re not ready for it.
That pass to Harris, especially. Good grief. That’s one of those balls that nobody else on the planet can complete, with the probable exception of Aaron Rodgers.
“He just never gives up, man,” Harris said after the game. “That was a great ball. It was either nobody could get it, or me.”
Your question is a good one, but it’s a little incomplete. Because in the playoffs, you still have to have the On Time throws down. All the mechanical passes have to be there. The coach has to scheme guys open and have a good feel for when to use which plays.
If you don’t have that, nothing else is going to matter.
But if you have that AND you have the improvisation, well, that’s when we can start thinking about the Super Bowl.
We talk a lot here about how the rules of the NFL are different now. Offenses have to be better than good. They have to be great, and sometimes flawless, and there will be moments that require Mahomes to beat strong defense.
He is equipped to do that. It’s him, Rodgers, Drew Brees and Russell Wilson. That’s the whole list.
What I’m trying to say here is I don’t think you can get to the Super Bowl if all you have is improvisation. At some point, the risks are going to catch up with you.
But I also don’t think you can expect to get to the Super Bowl if all you have is the planned offense. Because at some point, the predictability is going to catch up with you.
Mahomes can do both, and the open secret about his rapid ascension is that his reliability and productivity in the pocket is what’s come faster than expected and allowed the creativity everyone knew he had to truly shine.
Well, I thought the same thing watching live. According to Pro Football Focus he completed three of eight deep passes for 91 yards.
We’re crossing streams a bit now, because we’re going to use the magic of NFL Gamepass to watch the throws. I can’t guarantee these are the throws PFF is referencing, but for our purposes it’s close enough:
OK, then, in order:
1. Well thrown ball to Chris Conley, pass interference call makes it a positive play.
2. This is a bad decision. Probably should’ve been picked off.
3. Bomb to Tyreek Hill. He’s well covered. That ball’s not getting completed.
4. Bomb to Gehrig Dieter. I guess this is a miss, because there’s a window there on the sideline. But they don’t have a lot of reps together and it would’ve required a pretty amazing throw.
5. Terrific throw. Finds Travis Kelce over the middle, between three defenders. Kelce takes a hard hit, does a great job of holding onto it.
6. Terrific throw. Steps up when the pocket starts to shrink, on the run, bullet to Demarcus Robinson to set up a late score in the first half.
7. Tyreek Hill needs to catch that.
8. Conley has a step, Mahomes has his feet set. The ball goes 55 yards in the air with a flick of the wrist, but this is the cleanest miss of the day on a deep ball.
9. Free play with a penalty, so Mahomes lets it rip. Looks like it’s under thrown. Deeper throw may have been a touchdown.
Out of nine throws, that’s four positives, one negative and three misses.
For what it’s worth, Mahomes is the fourth-most accurate deep passer in the league, with the fifth-highest passer rating according to PFF. His percentage of deep passes is third highest in the league.
That’s pretty damn good.
It’s an interesting question, and one I haven’t thought about until now.
Losing Hunt affects both extremes, obviously. There are plays that should be four-yard gains that he turns into 14, and plays that look like they’re going nowhere that end up as touchdowns with Hunt.
He is a remarkable combination of toughness, agility, creativity and supernatural balance. Spencer Ware is a good back, but he’s not Hunt, who provides a constant game-breaking threat in the backfield.
All that said, my inclination is that his absence drops the floor more than the ceiling.
Because no matter what, the Chiefs could always just hand it off to Hunt and know they were getting at least some production. He was a highlight machine, but he was also a safety net, and with an offense that still has Mahomes and Hill and Kelce, they have plenty of highlights left in them.
This is an interesting thing to talk about, though. Because as much as Hunt can grind out a drive with handoffs, Ware’s greatest strength might be his vision and toughness between the tackles.
So if you want to take the other side of this argument, I’m not going to put up much of a fight.
Guess we’ll see in these next three games, each against good defenses.
This is something we talked about on the Border Patrol. You and I are in complete agreement.
The Chiefs’ safeties are atrocious, and their middle linebackers haven’t been nearly good enough.
Chris Jones and Allen Bailey have each been strong up front, and Dee Ford and Justin Houston have been disruptive on the edges. The corners have been solid.
But those holes matter, too. Those are distinct and obvious weaknesses that mean the whole thing is sort of operating without a safety net*. If everyone tackles well, it’s enough to look like a representative defense. If tackles are missed, then whole thing caves in.
* No pun intended, promise.
I don’t have an explanation for why tackling isn’t more consistent. Maybe some of it is the random chance of sports. Players and coaches will almost always refer to “execution,” which is basically a vague term for “do what you’re supposed to do.”
We talked about this after the Cardinals game, I believe, that the Chiefs had generally been tackling so much better than the beginning of the season. Naively, I thought that was a trend that would hold. I thought Anthony Hitchens and Reggie Ragland were hurt and/or rusty at the beginning of the year, which accounted for much of the tackling problems, so it made sense to me that after working their way back to full strength they’d be more reliable in the middle.
That hasn’t happened, and the safeties have missed too many, and it’s opened problems across the field.
Many of you crushed me on Twitter the other day, and I deserved every bit of it for saying the defense was “way” better than the beginning of the year. That was a Twitter moment, I regretted it immediately, and I walked it back*.
* I didn’t delete it, though. Maybe I should have, but I’ve always thought that’s a bit chicken (cough). I said it, and it was dumb. Part of being on that dumb Twitter platform is you have to take your whipping when you deserve it.
Now, all that said ... I DO THINK THE DEFENSE IS BETTER!
Please allow me to explain.
This Chiefs team is weird. They are a combination of extremes — video game quarterback surrounded by a lot of talent and innovative coach with a really bad defense on the other side.
Judging this team requires context we don’t often see, which means using methods we don’t often use. We can do this any number of ways.
Their overall PFF defensive grade has been under 60 five times this season. Three of those came in the first three games. Five of their best six grades of the season have come in the last two weeks.
But, more than all of that, I think they’re improved because they’re more disruptive. This defense is not built or equipped to consistently stop offenses in the traditional sense. They will not and should not play for field position.
The two most important things this defense can do is bother the quarterback and force turnovers.
They managed just two sacks total in the first two weeks. In the last three weeks, they have 13. Four of their best five pass rush grades from PFF have come in the last five weeks.
They forced just three turnovers in the first four games. They have seven in their last three. Even on Sunday, when they played a mostly terrible game defensively, they came up with three turnovers that helped save a win.
That’s how I’m judging this defense. I still believe Bob Sutton should’ve been fired after last season, but I give him credit for seeming to adjust as the season progressed. They seem to have grabbed this identity of disruption. They will give up yards and they will give up points and that will always be fine if they also pressure the quarterback and get a few turnovers.
That’s what’s required. And that’s what they’ve been doing so much better recently and, yes, one more time, that’s a low bar to clear.
For the first time since his Achilles injury at the beginning of last season, there is a real chance he plays in the Chiefs’ next game.
The decision will be made later in the week, after seeing how he responds to more work during practice.
I don’t know the specifics of how he’s feeling, obviously, but it makes the most sense to me to hold him out against the Ravens and then play him against the Chargers.
I’d feel differently if the schedule was different, but the Chiefs have the luxury of being cautious here, and I’m not sure why I’d take the added stress of giving him a short turnaround after his first game with the next one on a Thursday night.
I suppose there’s always the option of playing him against the Ravens, then sitting him against the Chargers and letting him go again against the Seahawks.
There is every reason to be cautious and even skeptical about what Berry will be able to do at this point. But even if he’s merely a role player, brought in to cover tight ends in passing downs, that’s a significant and important upgrade.
I don’t think that’s fair, at least not in the tone I read your question.
I think this is fair: they care deeply about the perception of how much they care about violence against women.
The comparison to Hill is easy to make, but like I wrote in the column on Friday that’s misguided and empty.
I was highly critical of the decision to draft Hill, though my feelings on this have evolved. Beating up a woman is an awful thing, but if we don’t believe people can change we are agreeing to make the world a really dark place.
There is nothing in the Chiefs’ past here that goes outside the lines of what should be reasonably expected of an NFL team. They actually made a pretty strong statement, releasing a star player who had not even been charged of a crime.
This is an unpopular take, and it’s not something I’ll argue with much passion because I understand the reasons it will never happen, but I think leagues and teams would be justified letting the legal system handle all of this. If a person is free to find work, then let them find work.
The Chiefs are not an activist group. They are a business that profits largely on the ability to succeed in a violent sport. We should keep our expectations realistic.
Maybe this is semantics. Maybe you read all of this and understand every word and still take it to mean the Chiefs don’t care about violence against women.
But I’d just make two points. The Chiefs are not unique. Their morals on these things aren’t better or worse than anyone else’s*.
* Might make an exception here for Washington, actually.
The other point is that even if their concern about violence against women is motivated mostly by optics, that’s still a concern, and if we’re going to be fair we should remember that every part of the workforce includes men with ugly pasts.
They should be appropriately punished by the legal system, and if you want to have a conversation about whether those punishments should be increased I’m here for that.
The professions those men should be banned from include working at a day care, or a women’s shelter. Football player should not be included.
I cannot imagine this is the case.
Sean Snyder’s entire argument for the job centered on continuity. Nobody knew the program better, so nobody would be better positioned to keep it going on the same path.
Who wants the program going on the current path?
You do bring up an interesting point. This process is inherently delicate, and accepting Bill Snyder’s resignation is only the first part of it. Snyder will still be part of the selection process, and Gene Taylor and the rest of the administration have to walk a fine line between appropriately taking Snyder’s input and still making their own decision.
This can still get ugly, in other words.
The short answer is someone the fan base believes in. Someone who is seen as capable of building on all the remarkable success Snyder has managed while still leading the program forward through a changing future.
With any hire, there is a question about whether the person should be “part of the family.” My feeling is always that having history in the program should be a tiebreaker, but only a tiebreaker. Hire the best person you can find.
I’m just a dumb sports writer, so take this for what it’s worth, but if K-State can hire Seth Littrell that’s about as good as it gets.
That guy has the look of a rising star.
Then again, so did Scott Frost.
Thoughts and prayers, my man.
What a kick to crotch.
I don’t have anything to add here that will make you feel better. That was brutal. This team felt different. It was complete, and together, a wicked mix of attack and defense. The group was easy to like, and easy to believe it.
They were at home, where they never lose, and then Sebastian Blanco hit the kind of goal that would turn a soccer agnostic into a believer and the whole thing started to unravel.
That’s the best part of sports when it’s on your side, and the worst when it’s not.
This would be entirely unfair, except the structure of sports is that months of results can wash away in one night. Sporting goes from its best chance at the MLS Cup in five years to another piece of evidence that the program is good enough to lose in the postseason.
One hundred percent. Very, very on brand for this town, and fitting that Patrick Mahomes and some of his teammates were there to see it in person.
Welcome to Kansas City, fellas.
I have to tell you: there are times I hate doing it.
Journalism is never perfect, and that’s particularly true if you’ll allow me the stretch to call those Insta-reactions journalism. The locker room opens to reporters 10 minutes after the game, and it often takes about that long to get there from the press box. Type fast, then.
I am more than a little self-conscious about primacy bias sneaking into those pieces, because that would be the easy way out. These usually has to be largely written before the final gun, which means there is nothing else I do that includes more deletions — Command-A, Command-X.
There are some games where that doesn’t matter. I think I had the Bengals piece done sometime in the third quarter, for instance.
But at Denver?
At New England?
Even the Broncos at home looked different at the end than the first half.
So the process is a lot of outlining, and a lot of rewriting. Sometimes I throw up some bullet points — Dee Ford’s strip sack, for instance, or Steve Nelson gives up another completion despite good coverage — and fill those in later. Sometimes, like the last game, I have a pretty good feel for one main point I want to make that can carry the piece for a few hours until the game column is ready.
What makes it manageable is that I think (I hope?) we’ve done a good job of presenting it honestly. It’s not meant to have nuance, just to hit some main points and an observation or two to help the immediate digestion of a game that we all go through.
That’s the whole point, and always has been. When I started doing it, my main hesitation was that it would be taken more permanently, if that makes sense. It probably helps that we headline it the way we do — Insta isn’t a word — but I’ve been really happy that it’s received in the placeholder way it’s intended.
There are certainly times I think one thing at the end of a game in real time, and then change my mind completely by the time I’m back upstairs, either because of something I heard or just the process of thinking it through.
There are also times that doing the instant reaction actually helps me think through the game column. It forces me to write something, which means I’m forced to think a few things through in a way I might otherwise not.
Well, that’s what I do, anyway. I tend to be sentimental, and a bit of a slave to tradition, but one of my favorite things in the world is this New Years routine my wife and I developed at some point:
Build a fire, watch all the football, hang with the kids, and when one of us puts them to bed the other goes to pick up the takeout sushi. We split the last bottle of Saison Brett — I come out WAY ahead on this, if I’m honest, because she usually just wants like half a glass — and talk about the best and worst parts of the year.
It’s close to perfect, man. Sometimes we even stay up until midnight.
This week, I’m particularly grateful for the ability combine a work and family trip to Oakland. This may have been the last time the Chiefs play there, which means it may have been the last time I’m able to bring the family to see my sister’s family and spend part of a work trip watching my kids look up to their older cousins like rock stars.