KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — On a sweltering late-summer afternoon, more than 6,000 fans trekked north on Interstate 29 to see the Kansas City Chiefs participate in a training-camp practice at Missouri Western State University.
More specifically, to see Patrick Mahomes II participate in practice.
The Chiefs’ first-round pick in last year’s draft, Mahomes is poised to begin his NFL quarterback career in earnest after the offseason trade of Alex Smith to Washington. He’s the best hope of Chiefs fans for a homegrown star at the game’s most important position since Todd Blackledge failed to live up to similarly massive expectations in the early 1980s.
Mahomes carries the weight of an organization that hasn’t made the Super Bowl since 1970 on his strong right arm.
It’s an enormous amount of pressure on a quarterback with one career start.
“I mean, I definitely have a bigger voice just being in the starting quarterback role,” Mahomes said, “but there are so many leaders on this team. There are so many leaders and so many guys that have stepped up. When you have a team of leaders, those are the teams that have success.”
The Chiefs had plenty of success under Smith, at least in the regular season, including back-to-back AFC West titles for the first time in franchise history. But playoff success was maddeningly elusive, and it will be that barometer against which Mahomes is measured.
Make the playoffs? That’s the bare-bones expectations this season.
“There are high expectations,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said, “but the important thing is that there are high expectations within the building and within the team.
“They demand that of themselves,” Reid continued, “and you felt that in OTAs and I expect that to continue. I expect guys to challenge each other. That’s the way you get better, and we have great competition that we’re going to play this year, starting with the Chargers. You get yourself ready to go and take that upon yourself as an individual. Let’s start there.”
As the Chiefs begin turning their attention toward their opener Sept. 9 in San Diego, here are some of the keys to keeping that division title streak intact:
GETTING DEFENSIVE: The Chiefs were 28th in total defense last season, and must replace playmaking cornerback Marcus Peters and erstwhile stars Derrick Johnson and Tamba Hali. New cornerback Kendall Fuller was impressive in camp, but free-agent signings David Amerson and Orlando Scandrick need to provide some depth at the Chiefs’ most suspect position.
WHAT A RUSH: The defense would be buoyed by an improved pass rush; the Chiefs managed just 31 sacks last season. Justin Houston has struggled to validate his $101 million, six-year deal, and former first-round pick Dee Ford has been hampered by injuries. Both need to live up to expectations.
“Would you love to have a million sacks? Yeah, I would love that,” defensive coordinator Bob Sutton said, “but the biggest thing to use is always affecting the quarterback. That is the key deal.”
HAPPY HUNT-ING: Kareem Hunt was one of the NFL’s breakout stars last season, when the third-round pick out of Toledo had a league-leading 1,327 yards rushing. Hunt comes into the season firmly entrenched as the team’s No. 1 running back, and his ability to run behind a veteran offensive line will be crucial to taking some of the pressure off Mahomes and the passing game.
“To me, it’s the same thing. I’m going to come out there and play football. Just do my job,” Hunt said.
ANOTHER NEW OC: The Chiefs are on their third offensive coordinator in five years after losing Doug Pederson to the Eagles, where he won the Super Bowl, and Matt Nagy to the Bears. The new man on the job is Eric Bieniemy, who was promoted from running backs coach and should provide some continuity.
SCHEDULE SITUATION: The first six weeks of the season should tell whether the Chiefs are legitimate contenders. Four games are on the road, including trips to the Chargers and Steelers the first two weeks, and trips to Denver and New England. Home games in that stretch are against San Francisco and Jacksonville.
“I find it interesting that everyone always talks about, ‘Oh, we have a really hard beginning.’ These are all tough games,” general manager Brett Veach said. “It doesn’t matter who you open up with, who you end with. You never know who is going to get hurt and how this is going to play out. I know in this league, and coach mentions it every week, you win a game in this league, it doesn’t matter who you are playing or when you are playing, it is tough. I think the schedule all looks tough.”