KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The complaints and concerns about Kansas City Chiefs wide receiver Tyreek Hill suddenly have been replaced by chants and cheers. The same fans who once despised his mere presence are now fighting to be heard over those who swoon over every move he makes. Basically, Hill is yet one more example of how quickly life can change in the NFL if you produce. He's done his part to prove he can be a good citizen off the field and his team is now in first place because of what he's done on it.
The Chiefs' 21-13 win over the Oakland Raiders will be remembered as the game that put Kansas City in the driver's seat to win the AFC West. Both teams now hold 10-3 records but the Chiefs own all tiebreakers after having beaten the Raiders twice this season. What the contest also did was serve as a national coming-out party for one of the most dynamic rookies in the league. If Hill hadn't been playing, the Chiefs probably don't win this game.
Hill scored the game's first touchdown by catching a 36-yard pass from quarterback Alex Smith in the second quarter. He also gave the Chiefs a 21-3 lead a few minutes later with a 78-yard punt return for a touchdown. None of this, by the way, is anything new to people who've followed this team or even a surprise to Hill. As he said after Thursdays game, "I put the work in during the offseason. I guess it's all falling into place."
Most of the work Hill put in before this season involved rehabilitating his tainted image. He was easily the most controversial player drafted by the Chiefs during the tenure of coach Andy Reid and general manager John Dorsey, largely because of a domestic violence conviction that resulted in his dismissal from Oklahoma State. When Kansas City selected Hill in the fifth round of this year's draft (he finished his career at West Alabama), there were plenty of people who bashed the pick as insensitive for one main reason: This was the same franchise that watched former linebacker Jovan Belcher kill his girlfriend, Kasandra Perkins, and then himself during the 2012 season.
The criticism then was that Reid and Dorsey cared too much about physical ability instead of ethics. The reality is they felt comfortable enough with Hill to give him a second chance, and he's made good on their faith so far. The Chiefs knew Hill could impact their return game because he ran a 4.29-second 40-yard dash at his pro day. What's been more startling is how quickly he's changed the complexion of their offense.
This unit used to be known mainly as one built around conservatism: Reid called games with an eye toward controlling tempo while Smith managed the action with a reluctance to take chances. Now the 5-foot-10, 185-pound athlete is being asked to out-jump defensive backs for acrobatic catches. He's also becoming a fearless runner on reverses and a dangerous deep threat that puts even more pressure on opposing secondaries. Let's also not forget about his success as a return man, as Thursday's score marked the second time in the last three games that he produced a return for a touchdown (he had an 86-yard kick return against Denver in a win that also saw him add a receiving and rushing touchdown).
Hill now has nine touchdowns on the season, which is four more than any other player on the team. "He's very intelligent," said Reid when asked why Hill has developed so quickly. "I'm not sure people know that but his aptitude tests are way up there. He picks things up easily. We're moving him all over the place. And he wants to be good. There has to be a want-to involved with that. He wants to be the best one out there."
Hill has been so electric that he's made the Chiefs look even more like serious Super Bowl contenders with his growth. It's not a stretch to say Kansas City has been laboring on offense, as this unit ranks in the bottom third of the league in total yards (23rd). Now Hill gives this team the potential for a big play at any moment. He also fits nicely into a passing attack that has thrived off feeding Pro Bowl tight end Travis Kelce more frequently (he's had four straight games with at least 100 receiving yards) and the return of wide receiver Jeremy Maclin (who had been sidelined with a groin injury over the previous four weeks).
In fact, the most surprising development in Thursday night's game was how easily the Chiefs surged ahead of an Oakland offense that had been averaging 27.5 points per game. The Raiders closed the gap by forcing Smith into turnovers early in the second half -- an interception and a lost fumble -- but those miscues only led to three points. The most depressing sight of the night for Kansas City actually was the loss of star linebacker Derrick Johnson. He sustained the second ruptured Achilles injury of his career and it's hard to know what his future holds with this franchise.
The Chiefs were able to maintain their composure through that setback. Such resilience has become their trademark all season, as their three previous wins (over Carolina, Denver and Atlanta) all resulted from huge plays in the middle of fourth-quarter comebacks. That's also why Hill fits so easily with this bunch. He's learned a thing or two about comebacks in his own right.
Hill acknowledged that such success wasn't beyond his imagination. "After talking to (former Chiefs returner) Dante Hall and all those guys, they told me to dream big," Hill said. "So that's what I started to do. Every night and every morning, I'm day-dreaming about making those big plays."
The Chiefs should be dreaming about their own lofty goals after Hill led them to this victory. They control their own destiny in the race to win the AFC West. If the postseason started today, they'd have a first-round bye as the No. 2 seed in the conference. This also is a team that is continuing to get healthy after losing so many stars to injury earlier this year (even with the loss of Johnson, there have been reports that running back Jamaal Charles might be ready for the playoffs after missing most of this year with knee problems).
In other words, there is plenty to like about Kansas City, starting with the young star receiver who heard the crowd chanting his name before that punt return touchdown on Thursday night. Smith said he'd never seen a player receive that kind of reception before making such a huge play and that it gave the quarterback "chills" to watch it happen. The Chiefs probably should prepare for more moments like that in the near future. From the looks of things, Hill has plenty of magic still left to create in his first professional season.