On Oct. 8, the Kansas City Chiefs had it all. They owned the NFL's only undefeated record and, it appeared, the MVP frontrunner in quarterback Alex Smith and the likely Offensive Rookie of the Year in Kareem Hunt. Tyreek Hill had transformed from a transcendent return man into a do-it-all offensive weapon and deep threat. Behind it all stood Andy Reid, the venerated head coach guiding a talented roster to win after win. No team could stop their offensive firepower, not even Bill Belichick and the defending-champion Patriots.
But the Chiefs' success soon waned. They lost six of their next seven games, casting their seemingly inevitable postseason berth in doubt. While they recovered enough to win the AFC West, the losses forced them to play an extra playoff game, a wild-card tilt with the Titans on Saturday. Still, given the Titans' myriad issues, a home game against Tennessee seemed like a minor hurdle on the way to the next round.
Instead, the game went off script. After the Chiefs established a 21-3 lead, Titans quarterback Marcus Mariota completed a touchdown pass to himself, a feat never before accomplished in NFL playoff history. The blows cascaded down from there, with typically reliable kick Harrison Butker missing a go-ahead field goal, linebacker Derrick Johnson's scoop-and-score reversed on replay review and the Kansas City defense giving up touchdowns to Derrick Henry and Eric Decker.
The 22-21 loss extended Kansas City's 24-year drought without a home playoff win. It also cemented the 2017 Chiefs as little more than a tease, a team incapable of fulfilling the considerable excitement it generated early in the season. With the Super Bowl once again out of reach, the franchise enters an uncertain offseason, one that could save or hasten the end of the Reid era.
Smith's regression following the Chiefs' 5-0 start might have raised questions about his future in Kansas City in any context. The presence of Patrick Mahomes II, the rookie quarterback they traded up to No. 10 in the draft to acquire back in April, amplifies those concerns. Mahomes debuted as a starter in a meaningless season finale against the Broncos, a game in which the Chiefs left Travis Kelce and Hill inactive. Mahomes led four scoring drives, including a de facto two-minute drill to win the game.
While Mahomes remains raw and inexperienced, Kansas City has every reason to believe it can continue to develop him into a franchise quarterback. Reid originally made his name with the Packers developing a similarly rocket-armed, unpredictable passer, Hall of Famer Brett Favre. While no one should hold Mahomes to that standard, he could eventually thrive as he irons out his most erratic tendencies under Reid's tutelage. Smith hasn't always lit up the scoreboard (his 5.1 touchdown percentage in 2017 stands over a full point above his career mark of 4.0), and Mahomes offers hope for a more productive future, albeit one that could take some time to materialize.
Before Saturday's playoff game, reports surfaced that the Chiefs would consider trade offers for Smith. Given the dearth of quality quarterbacks, they appear likely to find a taker for the veteran passer. Furthermore, the team did not invest multiple draft picks in Mahomes to let him hold a clipboard forever, and his time in the spotlight could arrive as early as the first week of the 2018 season.
While the Chiefs' future under center will garner most of the attention, the coaching staff will also undergo an overhaul. Reid's top defensive assistant, coordinator Bob Sutton, could lose his job after season-long struggles. Injuries decimated the Kansas City defense, headlined by Eric Berry's Achilles tear in Week 1, but Sutton did little to mitigate those issues, and the Chiefs finished with one of the worst defenses in the league.
Meanwhile, offensive coordinator Matt Nagy has already departed, albeit for different reasons. The Bears hired him as their new head coach on Monday, a huge leap for the previously anonymous offensive assistant. Reid praised Nagy's input in recent years and credited him for Smith's hot start. After a three-game stretch in November that saw the Chiefs fail to cross the 20-point threshold, Reid handed off play-calling responsibilities to Nagy. The change resulted in the team averaging 28.6 points the rest of the way. As a result, Nagy became a popular head-coaching candidate around the league.
With Nagy leaving, Reid must determine whether to retake play-calling duties or hand them off again to another offensive assistant. That call could affect the Chiefs' success as much as any coaching decision Reid makes this offseason.
Regardless of who the Chiefs have at offensive and defensive coordinator next season, changes must be made to the roster. Berry's injury could diminish his ability to tilt the field, and only outside linebacker Justin Houston and defensive end Chris Jones generate pressure consistently. To help the defense take the leap required for Super Bowl contention, the team needs to find some field-tilters on that side of the ball in the coming months.
As it stands, Kansas City has little cap space at its disposal, with Over the Cap currently projecting the team needs to clear nearly $5 million to get under next season's estimated salary cap. Even with some money likely to come off the books in the form of a Smith trade and the possible release of pass rusher Tamba Hali, the Chiefs will need to carefully budget their spending this offseason. That likely means they can't afford any big names on the free-agent market.
The draft could provide cheap, impactful talent. Since Reid's arrival, few teams have drafted better than the Chiefs, who selected Pro Bowl talents like Travis Kelce, Marcus Peters, Hunt, Hill, and others. Still, former general manager John Dorsey guided the war room during those drafts, and he now works for the Browns. The Chiefs' new front office led by Brett Veach has to prove it can maintain Dorsey's sterling track record.
While the Chiefs must answer many questions this offseason, several factors do work in their favor. The AFC West, once one of the most competitive divisions in the NFL, has no obvious juggernaut to knock Kansas City from its perch. The Broncos remain mired in their post-Peyton Manning malaise and will consider drafting yet another quarterback in the first round. The Chargers made a brief playoff push near the end of 2017, but they have a flawed roster and lack any semblance of a home-field advantage. And, of course, the Raiders just fired another head coach and agreed to pay $100 million to replace him with Jon Gruden. Kansas City doesn't need to solve all of its problems to win the division next season.
If the Chiefs don't find ways to meaningfully improve their roster and adjust to the changes in the coaching staff, they could find themselves outside the playoffs next year. Should that happen, they will endure an even more tumultuous offseason in 2019.