The Kansas City Chiefs make no secret about their desire to build a dynasty, but they're about to face the harsh reality that comes with trying to repeat as Super Bowl champions: History is not on their side.
By Jeffri Chadiha | Sept. 7, 2020
KANSAS CITY -- They spent most of the last few weeks doing what every other team in the NFL has been doing -- toiling amid the most unconventional training camp ever. The only thing different about the Kansas City Chiefs' experience was the crane that hoisted a slender man outside their indoor practice facility as they labored through drills on the practice fields below. Every day, that man carefully applied the colorful lettering to the Super Bowl LIV championship logo on the outer wall facing the fields. His work didn't go unnoticed by some of the players doggedly honing their techniques.
It had taken five decades for the Chiefs to create an opportunity for that gentleman to paint that logo. They'd spent most of this offseason missing out on the chance to fully celebrate it, as the COVID-19 pandemic created so much chaos that the team didn't receive its Super Bowl rings until three days after training camp ended on Aug. 29. That logo was the first tangible reminder of their accomplishment since their victory parade in February.
"It took 50 years to get it, 50 years," said defensive tackle Chris Jones. "When you look at it, it makes you want to reach that goal again."
Of course, the Chiefs aren't the first defending Super Bowl champions to feel that urge as they prepare for their season opener against Houston on Thursday. They're only the most recent, and they're about to discover that there's a huge difference between winning a title and defending one. Only one team this century has been able to repeat as Super Bowl champions: The 2004 New England Patriots. Everyone else has learned how difficult it really is to be the hunted.
Plenty of great teams have tried. The Patriots, obviously, won six championships over the last two decades, and they couldn't repeat more than once. The 2011 Green Bay Packers went 15-1 -- and enjoyed a 19-game winning streak, which is the second-longest run in NFL history -- but they didn't even reach the NFC Championship Game one year after beating the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XLV. The 2014 Seattle Seahawks did make it all the way back to the Super Bowl after trouncing Denver in Super Bowl XLVIII, only to see their back-to-back hopes dashed when Patriots cornerback Malcolm Butler intercepted Russell Wilson's potential game-winning pass.
This is what happens when champions try to build dynasties. No matter how badly they want to stay on top -- and the Chiefs have labeled this season as their "Run It Back Tour" -- they soon learn it's not as easy as it sounds.
"It's rare that you see a team come out and say they're going to repeat after winning a championship," said NFL Network analyst Terrell Davis, the Hall of Fame running back with the Denver Broncos when they won Super Bowls during the 1997 and 1998 seasons. "This isn't basketball. It takes a lot of different pieces to win a title. And once you get in that position to repeat, it's not like it's best-out-of-five out there in the playoffs. You have one off day -- hell, one off quarter -- and it's over. I know the Chiefs had a lot of comeback wins (in the postseason), but you can't count on that every year."
How teams fared in season after winning Super Bowl, last 20 years
|Super Bowl result||Next season|
|XXXIV: St. Louis 23, Tennessee 16||Rams (10-6) lost to the Saints in the Wild Card Round.|
|XXXV: Baltimore 34, N.Y. Giants 7||Ravens (10-6) lost to the Steelers in the Divisional playoffs.|
|XXXVI: New England 20, St. Louis 17||Patriots (9-7) failed to make the playoffs.|
|XXXVII: Tampa Bay 48, Oakland 21||Buccaneers (7-9) failed to make the playoffs.|
|XXXVIII: New England 32, Carolina 29||Patriots (12-4) beat the Eagles in Super Bowl XXXIX.|
|XXXIX: New England 24, Philadelphia 21||Patriots (10-6) lost to the Broncos in Divisional playoffs.|
|XL: Pittsburgh 21, Seattle 10||Steelers (8-8) failed to make the playoffs.|
|XLI: Indianapolis 29, Chicago 17||Colts (13-3) lost to the Chargers in Divisional playoffs.|
|XLII: N.Y. Giants 17, New England 14||Giants (12-4) lost to the Eagles in Divisional playoffs.|
|XLIII: Pittsburgh 27, Arizona 23||Steelers (9-7) failed to make the playoffs.|
|XLIV: New Orleans 31, Indianapolis 17||Saints (11-5) lost to Seahawks in Wild Card Round.|
|XLV: Green Bay 31, Pittsburgh 25||Packers (15-1) lost to the Giants in Divisional playoffs.|
|XLVI: N.Y. Giants 21, New England 17||Giants (9–7) failed to make the playoffs.|
|XLVII: Baltimore 34, San Francisco 31||Ravens (8-8) failed to make the playoffs.|
|XLVIII: Seattle 43, Denver 8||Seahawks (12-4) lost to the Patriots in Super Bowl XLIX.|
|XLIX: New England 28, Seattle 24||Patriots (12-4) lost to the Broncos in AFC Championship.|
|50: Denver 24, Carolina 10||Broncos (9-7) failed to make the playoffs.|
|LI: New England 34, Atlanta 28||Patriots (13-3) lost to the Eagles in Super Bowl LII.|
|LII: Philadelphia 41, New England 33||Eagles (9-7) lost to the Saints in Divisional playoffs.|
|LIII: New England 13, L.A. Rams 3||Patriots (12-4) lost to the Titans in Wild Card Round.|
The Chiefs are counting on more than just a resilient spirit. They return 18 of 22 starters from their 2019 squad, with the most critical piece being Pro Bowl quarterback and Super Bowl LIV Most Valuable Player Patrick Mahomes. He'll be surrounded by an offense that includes a variety of dynamic receivers and a new weapon in rookie running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire, the team's first-round pick in April. The team also has been busy investing in key components of its foundation for the future, with long-term deals going to Mahomes, Jones, tight end Travis Kelce, head coach Andy Reid and general manager Brett Veach.
The Chiefs have been so confident, players like Jones and wide receiver Tyreek Hill have predicted they will win as many as five to seven championships in the coming years. Other teammates have been far less brash, largely because they understand the degree to which arrogance can underm`ine future achievements.
"I feel like that's the biggest thing that happens when guys have success and get to win a Super Bowl," said defensive end Frank Clark. "You have prima donnas, a guy wanting to go off and do this, guys coming into work with different mindsets that aren't focused on the one goal, which is to win a championship. I feel like that's where our strength is, and we haven't wavered from that. We have that short-term memory. Yeah, we won the Super Bowl last year, but that was last year."
That is a critical perspective for any team to have after winning a Super Bowl. When the San Francisco 49ers won their first Super Bowl, during the 1981 season, they were riding the same type of emotional high the Chiefs enjoyed at the end of last year.
"We got into this 'Who's next?' mode of thinking," said former 49ers center Randy Cross. "It came up during our first Super Bowl run, and by the time we left Detroit (after beating Cincinnati in Super Bowl XVI), we were still thinking it. We wanted to keep playing. But by that point, there was no one else to beat ... Of course, we also missed the playoffs the next year because we spent the whole offseason partying like crazy."
Former Packers head coach Mike Holmgren said his team blew an opportunity to repeat -- losing to Denver, a sizable underdog, in Super Bowl XXXII -- because they became too full of themselves.
"I just couldn't get the players to believe Denver was really good," Holmgren said. "I tried being nice. I tried yelling and screaming. I kicked their butts in practice. But they never bought in. I still see [players on that Packers team] today who tell me they thought they should've handled those guys."
Davis said the Broncos were better prepared to defend their title because, unlike those 49ers and this year's Chiefs, they had a team filled with older veterans, including quarterback John Elway, defensive end Neil Smith and safety Steve Atwater. Those players were well into their 30s when Denver beat Holmgren's Packers in Super Bowl XXXII. They knew how fortunate they were to win one championship. They also understood they wouldn't be able to win a second one a year later without a certain level of humility.
That approach, according to Davis, had plenty do with a home playoff loss to Jacksonville in 1996. The Jaguars were in their second year as an expansion franchise, and the Broncos were a 13-3 team that held the top playoff seed in the AFC. When that Divisional Round game ended with a 30-27 loss, Davis and tight end Shannon Sharpe sat on the bench, watching distraught Denver fans trudge out of that stadium. When those players finally stood up and walked into the locker room, they made a vow to each other that they were never going to feel like that again.
"It turned out to be a good thing that we lost that Jacksonville game," Davis said. "It put a lot of paranoia in us. We knew nothing was guaranteed. And when we got back to the Super Bowl the next year (in the 1998 season), there was nobody saying, 'We got this.' We knew the Falcons had just beaten the Vikings (Minnesota had gone 15-1 in the regular season that year). If we didn't play our best against them, we would've wound up losing."
The Chiefs have one obvious parallel to that Broncos team: They know what it's like to lose a heartbreaking playoff game during a magical season. The New England Patriots came to Arrowhead Stadium for the 2018 AFC Championship Game and completely ruined a storybook year for Kansas City. Mahomes had emerged as a superstar in his first season as a starter, throwing for 5,097 yards and 50 touchdowns on his way to claiming league MVP honors, and the offense led the league in scoring. When that game concluded, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady actually walked into the Chiefs' locker room and talked briefly with the crestfallen Mahomes, encouraging the young quarterback to believe in the process that awaited him.
It was excruciating for Reid to watch his team go through an experience like that. Reid knew first-hand what it was like to lose on such a lofty stage -- he lost three straight NFC Championship Games while coaching in Philadelphia -- and he also was an assistant coach on that Green Bay Packers team that missed its own opportunity to repeat after Davis and the Broncos upset them.
When asked about the challenge of defending a title, Reid said, "You have to have the right mindset, and you literally have to take today and work on it to try to get myself better, and do it each play, and then do it tomorrow ... When you get into games, whether you win or lose, you have to make sure that you learn and continue to grow from those games. On top of that, every once in a while, you need to catch a break here or there. The ball's not round. It bounces funny, and you hope it bounces your way, and you get a couple breaks in there."
The main reason the Chiefs feel so good about repeating this season has nothing to do with talent. It's their chemistry that sets them apart. This is a group that endured many obstacles in 2019, including injuries to key starters like Mahomes, Hill and left tackle Eric Fisher. Those losses emboldened the Chiefs even more as they set their sights on a championship.