The Chiefs are betting on rookies to get to the Super Bowl again

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — Andy Reid remembers talking to Kansas City executives sometime last year, when the veterans were getting to know the rookies and the season still seemed so far away, and he led the San Francisco 49ers under Bill Walsh.

It was 1981, and the 49ers had drafted a quartet of defensive backs they expected to contribute right away.

They did much more.

Ronnie Lott started all 16 games, beginning a Hall of Fame career and becoming one of the best defensemen 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, this group, handpicked by Walsh, helped the 49ers win their first conference championship before defeating the Bengals for their first Super Bowl title.

“It’s like I mentioned this to our guys a long time ago,” Reed said this week.

The reason for raising it? Chiefs general manager Brett Veach also drafted four quarterbacks last year. And like the 49ers, the Chiefs banked on their quartet of rookies to return to the Super Bowl after a one-year absence.

“I mean, we’re sitting here,” Reid said with a smile.

First-round pick Trent McDuffie, dealing with a hamstring injury sustained in their opener, emerged as the lockdown cornerback. Jalen Watson had a 99-yard pick-6 that helped the Chiefs beat the Chargers in the season opener and has since made two more playsoff misses.

Josh Williams also intercepted Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow in the AFC title game, catching the deep throw in the final minutes after rookie defensive end Brian Cook hit him in the air.

The pressure on the four last Sunday night increased on the fourth play of the game when one of the few veterans in the secondary – L’Jarius Sneed – was sidelined with a concussion. But they were undaunted.

“Obviously there was concern,” Reid said when asked about his rookies playing so much so soon, “but there was optimism that it could be done. Then the kids, just their work ethic — they showed us that in training camp. They showed it all season. If they beat them, they come back and fight.”

Indeed, they all took lumps from the regular season. But you won’t know until the playoffs.

Did they even exceed 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 the offseason, whether it’s a free agent signing or a draft pick, we have every confidence in our staff’s ability to bring in talented players and our coaches to get the most out of them. I think you saw early on — you guys were in OTA training camps — I think it was pretty clear early on that this was going to be a special group.

It wasn’t just the four defenders. It was an entire rookie class that exceeded expectations.

Quarterback George Karlaftis had six sacks in the regular season, then another against Burrow in the AFC title game. Skye Moore played a crucial role against the Bengals after three wide receivers were lost to injuries, and his punt return helped set up the game-winning field goal. Leo Chenal appeared in every game as a defender. And seventh-round pick Isiah Pacheco has not only taken over as the lead running back, he’s become a bona fide star.

The return on the Chiefs’ rookie investment is even more impressive considering the fact that Kansas City, like other teams that make deep playoff runs every year, usually chase just about everyone else.

“I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of a guy named Brett Veitch,” Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce said, “but he brought in incredible talent when he put this team together. We’re the best team in the AFC because of what he’s been able to do, in addition to what these coaches have been able to do in terms of teaching these guys how to play.”

It had been a long time since Reid had taught them a bit of history as well. But the parallels between this group 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 these young 49ers hoisted the Lombardi Trophy. The Chiefs have a chance to do the same.

“I was optimistic,” Reed said, “but you never know how this trip is going to go. But they sure did a good job.”


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