KC didn’t give up on rookies, kicker

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The Kansas City Chiefs have some of the biggest names in the NFL, from Patrick Mahomes and Travis Kelce to Chris Jones and JuJu Smith-Schuster, but they’re largely playing in their third Super Bowl in four years because they refused to give up players that only their most ardent fans know about.

There’s the quartet of rookie defensemen who were selected all season but mostly knocked out Ja’Marr Chase and the Bengals’ other talented wide receivers while twice beating Joe Burrow in the AFC Championship Game.

There’s Skyy Moore, her fumble-prone rookie punt returner whose fumble cost her a win in Week 3 at Indianapolis but whose big return in the dwindling seconds Sunday night helped fuel the winning field goal in the 23-20 win to set up.

And there’s their kicker, Harrison Butker, whose sprained ankle in Arizona’s regular season opener led to the most inaccurate season of his career, but who drilled the 45-yarder with three seconds left that eventually sent the Chiefs back to the desert.

“Really, those are the redemption stories that you get into,” said chiefs coach Andy Reid. “It was quite a lot to see.”

In fact, Reid has been around long enough to understand the unforgiving nature of the NFL, where players’ careers are often measured in weeks rather than years. He’s seen hundreds of promising players whose chances of making it big have been thwarted by fumble issues, failed block assignments, missed tackles, or other seemingly minor mistakes.

He likes to say that the line between success and failure is so thin it’s almost imperceptible.

His players understand that too.

“With such difficult circumstances,” admitted Chiefs offensive tackle Orlando Brown Jr., “the margin for error is so small.”

So no one would have turned a blind eye if the Chiefs had relegated Moore to the mothballs earlier in the season when the wide receiver couldn’t even make a fair catch in the freshman year. To be fair, Moore had never really been placed in that position, but that didn’t stop fans from groaning every time he fumbled a punt.

The Chiefs eventually pulled him out of recall duties, at least during games. But Moore kept working at the practice, and it eventually paid off. Their new returnee, Kadarius Toney, injured his ankle against the Bengals and his substitute Justin Watson was already inactive with illness. So the Chiefs sent Moore back for the biggest punt of the season.

Not only did he shoot clean, but he raced up the touchline to give Kansas City a shot at winning the AFC title on rule.

“I just needed to remember who I was and why I was here,” Moore said. “I was doing something new, and I wanted to take my bumps and bruises away. I just kept working at it. I didn’t think I’d ever get a punt return again this season. But I didn’t stop catching I was prepared for this moment and it paid off.”

So did the Chiefs’ decision to continue fielding rookie cornerbacks Trent McDuffie, Jaylen Watson and Josh Williams together, often with rookie safety Bryan Cook, even as cunning wide receivers kept hitting them and flags waving for pass interference. Much like Moore, they took their clumps early in the season so they would be ready later.

In the AFC title game, Watson and Williams both played passes, one of them after Cook punched the ball in the air.

“They told us that we would be a big part of that defense. They threw us into the fire,” Williams said. “They definitely gave us all the information and every detail to prepare us to play well in tight situations. They didn’t just tell us to go out and play. They gave us a game plan and showed us how we should to execute it. We did that and we bought in.”

Butker was a slightly different case. His ankle injury in Arizona’s opening game not only left him out for three weeks, but also forced him to change his approach to kickoffs and field goals. The result was a shaky season in which the veteran, big-leg kicker missed a career-worst six field goal attempts and lost three extra points.

But when Moore’s punt return gave Patrick Mahomes and co. the ball and the All-Pro quarterback crawled into field goal range with his own sprained ankle, the Chiefs had enough faith in Butker to put him on the field.

It was freezing. The wind swirled. The ball probably felt like a rock. And yet Butker managed to give the 45-yarder just enough momentum to squeak over the bar and give the Chiefs their third AFC title in four years.

“You dream of the big kicks. People remember that,” said Butker afterwards in the jubilant Kansas City locker room. “You don’t remember your field goal percentage during the year.”

People also don’t remember the adversity that players like Moore, Butker and the Chiefs defensive backfield faced when they suddenly played in the Super Bowl.

“Everybody pushed through and made it work,” said Reid, “so I’m very proud of our boys.”

Super Bowl LVII


WHEN 5:30 p.m. Central on Feb. 12

WO State Farm Stadium, Glendale, Ariz.

LINE Eagles until November 2nd

TV fox

photo Kansas City Chiefs cornerback Joshua Williams (23) intercepts the ball against the Cincinnati Bengals during the second half of the NFL AFC Championship Playoff football game on Sunday, January 29, 2023 in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)
photo Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow (9) tackles Kansas City Chiefs Bryan Cook (6) in the second half of the NFL AFC Championship playoff football game Sunday, January 29, 2023 in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/ Brynn Anderson)
photo Kansas City Chiefs place kicker Harrison Butker (7) is lifted in the air after scoring his game-winning field goal against the Cincinnati Bengals in the second half of the NFL AFC Championship playoff football game Sunday, January 29, 2023 in Kansas City, Mo .The Bosses won 23-20. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

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