You could call it the end of the innocence, an era that Patrick Mahomes on Sunday called “kind of rainbows and flowers and awesome” these last few years. Or whatever you might call that sickening feeling when you realize how much denial has obscured reality.
But say this for the Chiefs: At least their jarring 27-3 loss to Tennessee on Sunday at Nissan Stadium provided some clarity for anyone still holding tight to the precious recent past … and letting that sway you into thinking they’re just a few turnovers or tweaks or favorable bounces away from being the team to beat again.
Because after a day when they were outgained 277 yards to 67 in the first half, and handed over three more turnovers, and committed nine penalties for 77 yards, the Chiefs have revealed themselves to be a team with much to be humble about.
If a return to dominance was the idea, the bar is far more accurately set at simply regaining a measure of competence.
This team has no compass and no rudder right now. Look into its eyes and there’s a blank, glassy stare.
And we’re here to make the case that the defensive woes have become such a part of their DNA that it’s now infecting the offense and skewing the very way the Chiefs play — marking a complete reversal of the almost palpable panic you could see come over opponents when the Chiefs got going or were in rally mode.
“I’m seeing things that I hadn’t seen before,” coach Andy Reid said after his two-time defending AFC Championship team tumbled to 3-4.
Certainly, that’s true when it comes to a suddenly turnover-prone Mahomes, who sustained a second-half hit that sent him into the concussion protocol (he cleared it but did not return to the game).
But Reid, who only vaguely elaborated on the point, couldn’t possibly mean he’s seeing things he hasn’t seen before on defense.
At least from the outside looking in, any changes that are being made either are so subtle or ineffectual as to make you think they’re basically practicing and prescribing the same things over and over and gaining no ground at all.
So with only one exception, last week against Washington, the unit might as well be Kryptonite embedded in an Achilles’ heel of an albatross wrapped around this team.
Other than last week, their opponents have scored between 27 and 38 points in every game this season. And from the get-go on Sunday, when the Titans dissected the Chiefs on the opening drive, anyone could figure that they’d keep the Chiefs reeling all game.
All the more so after they went 97 yards on their next drive.
The offense was brutal, too, with Mahomes off-kilter and the Chiefs’ offensive line suffering perhaps its worst game of the season. And Mahomes knows he has to take responsibility for his turnover spree, which on this day including another interception and two more fumbles (one lost).
But imagine what it’s like trying to stay patient knowing that your defense is going to give up two touchdowns or more in the first half of virtually every game, including 22 points by Cleveland, 24 by Buffalo and 27 against Tennessee.
It’s fine and well that the defense generally tightens up in the second half, but the dynamics and tone are set in the first 30 minutes.
And with practically zero margin for error, it’s evident this has permeated Mahomes’ judgment and surely must dictate some of Reid’s strategy.
Mahomes won’t say it directly, of course, because he’s a great teammate and he knows he is culpable for his own miscues, too. But because of the clear pattern the Chiefs are up against, it was pretty natural for him to press early in the game, as he later acknowledged.
Football is a complementary game, to be sure, and that’s something Reid emphasized again on Sunday. But the give and take of that applies in reverse, too, and that makes the status quo even more alarming.
And, in fact, unacceptable.
Bad enough when the defense is exasperating week after week after week after week, but now its play has to be seeping into the offensive mindset.
When I asked Reid about that, he began by saying he didn’t think that was the case. But he did allow that when a team struggles, some “try to go above and beyond what you’re doing. Sometimes it throws things out of whack.”
He made it a point to say that was on both sides of the ball. But despite the Washington reprieve, it’s clear that something fundamental is broken on the defensive side (if not more broadly) even if the offense also was in a funk on Sunday.
Baffling as it might be with a core group that was in the top 10 in scoring defense the last two years, we’re left to question everything from personnel to motivation to strategy to chemistry … and leadership on the field and through the coaching staff.
So much so that it seems clear there needs to be a reckoning and some drastic change, even if Reid for some reason felt compelled to suggest the Chiefs are mere fingertips away from fixing things.
The disconnect is painfully obvious, even if discerning where in the pipeline it breaks down is more complicated.
Is defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo not reaching the players? Spags and his staff? Player to player? All of the above?
It’s sure hard to pinpoint if you’re not in the room, a place where no one can go these days but the Chiefs. We only know that what they’re doing has left them miles from nowhere and looking more lost by the week.
Look, even if it’s hard to see how right now, they could still reverse this mess. Or at least salvage a playoff berth and hope to conjure some postseason magic.
Bear in mind this game was reminiscent of the last such hapless and hopeless drubbing they absorbed, that 43-14 loss at Pittsburgh in 2016 when they trailed 29-0 at halftime and fell to 2-2.
That team ended up winning its next five games and went 12-4, though it decidedly was unable to summon any postseason juice and lost 18-16 to the Steelers in a divisional round playoff game.
More recently and proximately and perhaps relevant to the point, of course, the Chiefs’ 35-32 loss here in 2019 to fall to 6-4 proved to be a springboard instead of a sinkhole.
You know how it went from there: In its first year under Spagnuolo, the defense galvanized and gelled and the Chiefs won their final nine games — including the three spellbinding double-digit postseason rallies that infused every Chiefs fan with an abiding faith that they would never be out of a game with Mahomes at the helm.
That sense of belief was validated with a second straight Super Bowl berth … but also demystified some with the 31-9 dismantling they absorbed against Tampa Bay.
Still, you could find ample reason to believe entering this season. Most all the key players were back except for on an offensive line that had been ravaged.
And while an entirely new line figured to take a while to coalesce, and perhaps would even make the Chiefs vulnerable early in the season, there was nothing tangible to hint that a would-be empire would plummet back to the pack any time soon.
The first five games of the season, though, demonstrated that the mystique of invincibility had dissolved, with that 38-20 loss to Buffalo at home two weeks ago serving as an exclamation point.
That was embarrassing, Reid and Tyrann Mathieu acknowledged after that game.
Still, those of us clinging to the notion that Mahomes and harmonious continuity throughout the organization assured at least a baseline of competitiveness could see the remnants of the good.
Still can, actually, blurred as the lens might be. So shrugging off a rotten first half a week ago to beat Washington 31-13 seemed like it could be a reset … even if you also had to wonder if it was fool’s gold.
Now we know. This team isn’t having an identity crisis. It’s simply in crisis, at least in the relative context of football being a game.
Only a few weeks ago, we pointed to the 2019 example as a reminder of what Spagnuolo has achieved in the past and supposed it had relevance now, too.
And maybe somehow the coincidence of the loss of a fourth game of the season at Tennessee will have a similar impact for a team that perceives itself to be at its best with its back to the wall.
But the very idea now seems a vapor, with no tangible form or substance behind it. And the comparisons between the 2019 and 2021 defenses now should sound alarms, not provide reassurance.
Because in 2019, let’s remember, there was a reason for it to take some time to come together. It was the first year under Spagnuolo, with his new schemes and a personnel makeover. And even in that flux, we sometimes forget, the defense held four of the Chiefs’ first 10 opponents to 23 points or fewer.
This one is worse, with fewer apparent reasons to be so. Unlike that one, which became a part of the solution, this one looms as more of a problem than just what it does on its own side of the ball.
And the longer it goes on like this, the less you can believe the solutions are in that room … and how that’s all conspiring to fritter away a season of the best thing the Chiefs have ever had: Patrick Mahomes.