Fifty years ago this summer, the Chiefs entered training camp with what my friend Michael MacCambridge in his book “America’s Game” called “a sense of purpose verging on a crusade” after a 41-6 playoff loss to the Oakland Raiders.
With a coach (Hank Stram) and eight players who would later be installed in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, (including six defenders with the upcoming induction of safety Johnny Robinson), they went on to win Super Bowl IV over the Minnesota Vikings.
It remains to be seen what the collective frame of mind will be when the Chiefs report to this training camp in St. Joseph in late July in the wake of their first whiff of a Super Bowl since, an overtime loss to New England in the AFC Championship game.
Plus, hunger and desire and all that notwithstanding, their chances of finally breaking through again to the so-called ultimate game will be greatly influenced by what comes of the thorough overhaul of a porous defense.
But if the changes aren’t likely to produce six future Hall of Famers, it might be enough if new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo can coax competence out of the group.
Because quarterback Patrick Mahomes stands over all this like a colossus, already their best quarterback since Hall of Famer Len Dawson led teams of that Super Bowl era.
The reigning NFL Most Valuable Player in his one full season as a starter has established himself as a revolutionary force who challenges all conventional beliefs … both in terms of how the position can be played and how profoundly it can impact every game.
As the Chiefs on Thursday were shutting down until the start of camp, offensive tackle Mitchell Schwartz subtly said it all.
“With Pat back there,” he said, “everything is looking pretty good these days.”
A year after Mahomes erupted into stardom by throwing for 50 touchdowns and more than 5,000 yards, chances are that he might not be able to duplicate those gaudy numbers … particularly if the indefinitely suspended Tyreek Hill is no longer part of the team.
But the more pertinent chances are that he’ll be an improved quarterback regardless of what the numbers say and as pivotal or more to the Chiefs’ Super Bowl hopes.
Because of another year of experience (with a lot more in his “memory bank,” as Schwartz said), his continuing emergence as a leader, an obvious ongoing zeal to improve and ever-increasing chemistry with coach Andy Reid.
Reid is known as an innovator, of course, and they realized a certain something between them from the get-go.
But imagine what you can’t even imagine could be in play here as the freakishly-armed guy who makes the no-look pass routine gets more and more and more in a groove with the guy who concocted Hungry Pig Right.
“He has ideas, and they’re good ideas,” Reid said. “So I’ll listen to that and then I try to bring him a nice basket of plays and let him try to digest those.”
When he’s not apparently going on picnics with Reid …
Also reassuring, for all the pandemonium around and about him, Mahomes continues to demonstrate perspective and poise in how he goes about everything.
He retains his tellingly agreeable habit of prefacing the answer to most questions with the word “yeah …”
He believes in himself but doesn’t need to say it and remains self-deprecating and humble of demeanor.
When he was honored on Thursday night by the Kansas City Sports Commission as its Sportsman of the Year, he was tuned in the whole time and graciously cited specific points he’d heard mentioned about other winners.
Meanwhile, he’s also grown in the last year in many ways, including finding his way as a leader. And not just in spending time with teammates on and off the field to develop relationships with everyone from linemen to receivers.
“I think just knowing when (to) talk and when I need to be vocal to kind of help get the guys going,” he said. “Whenever I may see practice starting off and maybe not the right way. It’s stuff like those little things where you kind of know when to talk, whenever you can change a practice instead of sitting back and letting it happen.”
Which has a bit of a parallel to something he worked on during the Chiefs organized team activities — navigating when to let things happen and when to make them happen.
Even megastars, it turns out, have to keep working on fundamentals.
“I feel like it gets repetitive with me saying it, but (he’s stressing) my footwork,” he said. “I make a lot of off-scheduled plays, scrambling around and throwing the ball. There are so many little plays that I will miss because my feet aren’t in the right position and I rely too much on my arm. That’s one thing that I have to repeatedly work on.”
He added, “Decide when and when not to take chances. That’s another one. I’ve had a lot of big plays happen, and I’ve had plays where I’ve thrown an interception when I’m trying to force it a little too much.”
Now it’s about this force like virtually no other getting ready for a camp that will be among the most anticipated in nearly 50 years, a quest ready to unfold.
Because with Pat back there, everything is looking pretty good these days.