Once again, the Kansas City Chiefs season ended with an early playoff exit. For the second consecutive year, the playoff loss occurred at Arrowhead Stadium, an incredibly loud venue that is always filled to the brim with red, one of–if not the–loudest stadiums in the National Football League.
You would think this would give the home team an advantage. You would be wrong.
The Chiefs are now 1-11 in their last twelve playoff games, including losing six consecutive playoff match-ups at home. The last time the Chiefs won a home playoff game, Joe Montana was behind the center. Montana, remember, was inducted into Canton in 2000.
The question now is, where do the Chiefs go from here? How do the Chiefs not only make the playoffs, but this time, make some noise once there?
Here are five things the Kansas City Chiefs need to do in order to become, once again, a successful franchise.
1. Make the Switch at Quarterback
Since arriving in Kansas City from San Francisco, Alex Smith has led the Chiefs to a terrific regular season record. The year before he arrived, the Chiefs went 2-14. But since then, in games that Smith started, the Chiefs have gone 50-26. This past season, for the first time, Smith eclipsed the 4,000-yard passing mark while setting a career high in touchdown passes with 26. The Chiefs started out 5-0 and finished 10-6, winning the AFC West for the second consecutive year, the first time that’s happened in franchise history.
And then they lost to the Titans 22-21 in a game in which they led at halftime 21-3. The loss drops Smith’s playoff record with the Chiefs to 1-4.
Next season, the biggest question is what to do at quarterback, mainly because of Smith’s woeful playoff record, and because, in last year’s draft, the Chiefs traded a haul to move up and take Texas Tech quarterback Patrick Mahomes II 10th overall.
Mahomes played in only one game this season, a Week 17 win over the Broncos. Yet, Chiefs Kingdom is pining for him to take over the reigns from Smith. Installing Mahomes over Smith would also enable the Chiefs to trade Smith to a QB-needy team, thus shedding the team of his $17 million salary that can be allocated elsewhere and obtaining draft picks (or players) to round out the club.
It may not be pretty next year, but the Chiefs should pull the plug on Smith’s tenure in Kansas City and insert Mahomes.
2. Fire Bob Sutton
Bob Sutton, the defensive coordinator, needs to go. This was a defense that previously lived by the cliche “bend-but-doesn’t-break.” Well, against the Titans, Derrick Henry broke the defense, and by doing so, destroyed yet another Chiefs season.
In the regular season, the Chiefs had one of the worst ranked defenses, coming in at 28th, (though they ranked 15th in points allowed) after finishing 24th in 2016 and 7th in 2015. Yes, injuries played a role–Dee Ford and Tamba Hali both had trouble getting on the field; Eric Berry was lost for the season in the team’s Week One victory against the Patriots–but injuries will always happen, on both sides of the ball.
Ultimately, the Chiefs played poorly on the defensive side of the ball this year. Sutton, who has been the defensive coordinator in Kansas City since 2013, needs to go. Head Coach Andy Reid, though, does not often fire his coordinators. This needs to be one of the times he makes an exception to that rule.
3. Add Another Receiving Threat
Wide Receiver Tyreek Hill had an incredible season, with well over 1,000 yards receiving, and becoming one of the league’s premiere deep threats. Tight End Travis Kelce continued his excellent play with another great season, clearly becoming one of the league’s best tight ends.
But that’s where it ends as far as receiving threats go. Albert Wilson is merely decent; Chris Conley’s season ended prematurely with an injury; and Demarcus Robinson could not make the most of his newfound opportunities.
Either in the draft or in free agency, it will be paramount for the Chiefs to find another receiving threat for whoever starts at quarterback. Depth is clearly a concern as the offense sputtered for a while after Conley’s injury.
It is great that both Hill and Kelce had over 1,000 yards receiving, but that also shows that Smith didn’t have many other options. And when either Hill or Kelce has a bad game, or gets knocked out of a game, both of which happened in the playoff loss, then the Chiefs passing offense all but stalls.
This offseason will be the perfect time for General Manager Brett Veach to invest some capital into adding another receiving threat.
4. Shore Up the Defense
Long-time Chiefs Derrick Johnson and Hali may be done. Ford has proven inconsistent, Justin Houston is not the same player he was before his ACL surgery, and outside of Marcus Peters, the secondary is suspect. (Revis Island seems to have sunk.) Berry’s return should help, but it may be some time before he’s back to 100% after his Achilles injury.
If the Chiefs suddenly acquire, say, $17 million to spend on the team, the defense is the place to look. It desperately needs upgrading. Reggie Ragland can step in for Johnson, but the pass-rush and secondary need some severe re-tooling. The draft, of course, is another way to acquire defensive talent, but without a couple of picks used to acquire Mahomes and rotating offensive lineman Cameron Erving, those picks are as precious as ever.
Whatever the way, Veach has his work cut out for him with shoring up the defense.
5. Don’t Panic
This offseason looks to be one of drastic changes for the Chiefs, especially if the team gets rid of Smith in favor of Mahomes. The team has a new offensive coordinator in Eric Bieniemy, could have a new defensive coordinator, and will undoubtedly have several new faces on the defensive side of things. It will be difficult for this team to make noise in the playoffs next year, let alone win a third consecutive AFC West title.
But it will be worth it.
Consider this: would a team rather go 11-5 with yet another first-round playoff exit? Or a team that goes 6-10 with a young quarterback and defense, allowing the team to grow together into what could be a yearly Super Bowl contend? Right now, the Texans and 49ers, despite double-digit loss seasons, arguably have brighter futures than the Chiefs, and that’s mainly because they have young, franchise quarterbacks.
What the Chiefs have now is this: a solid team that will never contend for the Super Bowl. That’s not enough. The Chiefs haven’t won a Super Bowl since Super Bowl IV. And plugging in Alex Smith year after year won’t change that. They need to determine if Mahomes is The Guy.
The stakes should be high for Mahomes next year, if he indeed is given the nod. He should not be satisfied with anything less than matching Smith’s 2017 season: 4,000 yards passing, 25+ touchdown passes, few interceptions, winning the West, and making the playoffs. But if he doesn’t accomplish all of that, and if the team takes a step backward, the franchise should not panic. Most young QBs–and, as a result, their teams–have a rough year or so to start. Don’t shoot for that, but if it happens, don’t panic. Stay the course.