Chiefs banked on rookie returns to reach Super Bowl again
By DAVE SKRETTA
KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) Andy Reid remembers talking to the Kansas City Chiefs at some point last year, back when veterans were getting to know rookies and the season still seemed so far off, and he brought up the San Francisco 49ers under Bill Walsh.
It was 1981 and the 49ers had drafted a quartet of defensive backs that they expected to contribute right away.
They did so much more.
Ronnie Lott went on to start all 16 games, beginning a Hall of Fame career and becoming one of the finest safeties to play the game. Eric Wright and Carlton Williams, who both went on to play in Pro Bowls, started alongside Lott every week, and Lynn Thomas appeared in 15 games.
Together, that group carefully selected by Walsh helped the 49ers win their first conference championship before beating the Bengals for their first Super Bowl title.
"It seems like a long time ago that I mentioned that to our guys," Reid said this week.
The reason for bringing it up? Chiefs general manager Brett Veach also drafted four defensive backs last year. And much like the 49ers, the Chiefs banked on their rookie quartet to get back to the Super Bowl after a one-year absence.
"I mean, here we sit," Reid said with a smile.
First-round pick Trent McDuffie, who dealt with a hamstring injury sustained in their opener, emerged as a lockdown cornerback. Jaylen Watson had a 99-yard pick-6 that helped the Chiefs beat the Chargers early in the season, and has since picked off two more passes in the playoffs.
Josh Williams also intercepted Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow in the AFC title game, catching the deep throw in the closing minutes after rookie safety Bryan Cook had batted it into the air.
The pressure on the four last Sunday night went soaring on the game's fourth play, when one of the few veterans in the secondary - L'Jarius Sneed - was sidelined by a concussion. Yet they were undaunted.
"Obviously there was concern," Reid said, when asked about his rookies playing so much so soon, "but there was an optimism that it can be done. Then the kids, just their work ethic - they showed us this in training camp. They showed it all the way through the season. If they got beat, they came back and fought back."
Indeed, all of them took regular-season lumps. But you wouldn't know it by the playoffs.
Did they exceed even Veach's expectations?
"I think so," he replied. "Maybe it was a necessity because we had a lot of turnover. Again, every time we approach an offseason, whether it be a free-agent signing or draft pick, we have full confidence in our staff's ability to bring talented players in and our coaches to get the most out them. I think you saw early on - you guys were at the OTAs the training camps - I think it was pretty clear early on that this would be a special group."
It hasn't just been the four defensive backs, either. It's been an entire rookie class outperforming expectations.
Defensive end George Karlaftis had six regular-season sacks, then another of Burrow in the AFC title game. Skyy Moore played a crucial role against the Bengals after three wide receivers were lost to injuries, and his punt return helped set up the winning field goal. Leo Chenal has appeared in every game at linebacker. And seventh-round pick Isiah Pacheco not only assumed the role of lead running back but has become a bona fide star.
The returns on the Chiefs' rookie investments are even more impressive given the fact that Kansas City, like other teams that make deep playoff runs each year, are usually picking after just about everyone else.
"I don't know if you've ever heard of a guy named Brett Veach," Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce said, "but he has brought in some amazing talent when he put this team together. We're the best team in the AFC because of what he's been able to do, on top of what these coaches have been able to do in terms of teaching these guys how to make plays."
It's been a long time since Reid was teaching them a little bit of history, too. But the parallels between that bunch of 49ers in the early 1980s and this group of Chiefs in the early 2020s just might go all the way to a Super Bowl title.
Lott and those young 49ers hoisted the Lombardi Trophy. The Chiefs have a chance to do the same.
"I was optimistic," Reid said, "but you don't know how that journey's going to go. But they've sure done a nice job."
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Updated February 2, 2023