Chiefs coach Andy Reid didn’t want to talk about it, although everyone else in Kansas City wants to.
Reid said he never considered benching Alex Smith for rookie Patrick Mahomes during Sunday’s 16-10 loss to the Buffalo Bills. He won’t consider starting Mahomes next week either.
“No,” Reid said. “That’s not where I’m at right now. There were a couple other things I’ve got to take care of.”
It’s not a huge surprise. It would be a bold move to change from a solid veteran quarterback to a raw rookie when the Chiefs are in first place of the AFC West. But it’s the right move.
We don’t know what Mahomes is yet, but he has undeniable talent. Smith is struggling. He started this season very well, but the offense has entirely bogged down. Kansas City Star columnist Sam Mellinger said Smith “is the Chiefs’ worst player” at the moment, which should give you an idea what that region is thinking about Smith. At the very least it feels like the Chiefs have a ceiling with Smith, and it’s not a trip to a Super Bowl. The way Smith is playing, the Chiefs probably won’t be able to get anywhere close to an AFC title.
There’s a historical precedent for this type of change at quarterback working out well, and it involves Smith. In 2012, Smith suffered a concussion in the San Francisco 49ers’ ninth game. Colin Kaepernick, who had a big arm and great athleticism but not much experience, came in. The 49ers’ season ended in the Super Bowl that year, a few yards from winning it. Kaepernick played very well when given the chance. Mahomes, the 10th pick of this year’s draft with a cannon arm and fantastic athletic ability, might not play like that right away (Kaepernick was in his second season, and most people believe Mahomes needs extra time to develop), but the Chiefs have lost five of six. They lead the Chargers and Raiders by just a game in the division. The idea they could go into New England or Pittsburgh and win a playoff game seems laughable, given how they’ve played lately. There’s not much to lose anymore.
The more accurate historical precedent might be the 2006 Denver Broncos (I wrote about that comparison extensively this summer). The Broncos were 7-4 after losing to the Chiefs on Thanksgiving. They were in the playoff mix, but felt they had reached their peak with Jake Plummer. They drafted exciting Jay Cutler early in the first round, and felt it was worth the gamble to go to him after Thanksgiving weekend. The Broncos lost three of their last five and missed the playoffs, but Cutler played fairly well and the foundation was set for him to be the starter of the future (this plan got sidetracked by Josh McDaniels, but that’s a story for another day).
Perhaps the Chiefs would get worse down the stretch with Mahomes. That’s the risk. But with how bad the Chiefs have looked — they scored 10 points Sunday against a Bills defense that had allowed 135 points in its past three games to the Jets, Saints and Chargers — what are you really giving up? Hanging on for a division title and being bounced out of the playoffs right away? The Chiefs team that started the season 5-0 with Smith looking like an MVP candidate is long gone.
At this point, it seems clear Mahomes will be the 2018 starter, barring a really remarkable turnaround this season by Smith. The Chiefs save $17 million in cap space by cutting Smith after this season. That’s significant. Based on how Smith has struggled lately, along with Mahomes’ draft pedigree and how good he looked in the preseason, it’s an easy decision to cut Smith in a few months. That would make a decision to go with Mahomes for the rest of this season easier to handle. If he’s going to be the starter in 2018 anyway, why not gamble that he can save this season too? At the very least he’d get experience for next season, like Cutler in 2006.
This isn’t a Nathan Peterman situation. The Bills were wrong to go with him when they were in a playoff race. Mahomes was the 10th pick of the draft, and Peterman was a fifth-round pick. The Chiefs are gambling, but they’re gambling on a supremely talented player and their expectations are higher than just getting to the playoffs. They’ve been to the postseason with Smith. They want to go to a Super Bowl. Smith isn’t getting them there. Mahomes might not either, but it’s time to start finding out. The Chiefs have a fairly easy schedule coming up. They could get Mahomes some confidence, and then they can see what happens after that.
Smith has been a good quarterback for the Chiefs. He helped Reid get things going in Kansas City after Romeo Crennel’s horrendous 2-14 season as head coach. Smith was important for the franchise. But Kansas City has also probably gone as far as they can with him. This season that looked so promising after a 5-0 start is fading fast. Nothing might save it, but it’s time for Reid to take a chance at salvaging it by making a big move at quarterback.
Here are the rest of the winners and losers from Week 12 in the NFL season:
Blaine Gabbert: Earlier this month, Arizona Cardinals coach Bruce Arians colorfully said that Gabbert’s struggles have come from being on bad teams. While that ignores that Gabbert was a big part of those teams being bad, Arians’ statement looked smart on Sunday.
Against the Jacksonville Jaguars’ defense, which is the best in the NFL, Gabbert played well. He threw for 241 yards and a couple touchdowns. In the final seconds he hit a couple big passes to set up a clutch 57-yard game-winning field goal with one second remaining by Phil Dawson. Yes, it really was Blaine Gabbert doing that to the Jaguars.
One solid afternoon doesn’t mean the Cardinals have found the guy to replace Carson Palmer. Gabbert, the former Jaguars first-round pick, has had brief flashes before and has fallen apart shortly after. Maybe Sunday will be Gabbert’s one shining moment with Arizona. But the Cardinals do need to figure out what happens if Palmer retires, Gabbert was a high draft pick once upon a time, and Arians seems to believe that on a better team Gabbert can fulfill some of that promise. That remains to be seen. But the win over the Jaguars at least provides a bit of hope that Gabbert can revive a career that once looked dead.
Jared Goff: If there was any concern about the Los Angeles Rams slipping a bit after losing last week to the Minnesota Vikings, they put that to rest on Sunday.
With Goff playing a fine game, the Rams kept their hopes for a top-two seed in the NFC alive. Los Angeles beat the New Orleans Saints 26-20 in a game that never seemed in doubt.
Rams coach Sean McVay put this game on Goff’s shoulders, which is something that would have sounded weird a few months ago. But Goff has improved more than any player in the NFL this season. Goff took advantage of a beat-up Saints secondary, completing 28-of-43 passes for 354 yards and two touchdowns. Whenever the Rams needed a big play, Goff seemed to come up with one. He is a completely different player than last season.
Had the Rams lost, they would have been two games behind the Vikings and Saints and three behind the Eagles in the NFL. Now they’re 8-3, tied with the Saints and a game behind the Vikings. Maybe they don’t get that first-round bye, but this has been a special season for the Rams and it’s not stopping anytime soon.
Rob Gronkowski: Every once in a while, Gronkowski reminds us why he’s the most dominant tight end that has ever played in the NFL.
Gronkowski is somewhat quietly headed toward another 1,000-yard season, and he was a handful for the Miami Dolphins on Sunday. Gronkowski had 82 yards and a pair of touchdowns. He now has seven touchdowns in 10 games and, again, nobody’s really talking about him.
Gronkowski is capable of games like Sunday whenever the Patriots decide to feature him. They don’t need to. Brandin Cooks is having a good first season with the Patriots. Chris Hogan is dangerous when healthy. It seems like there’s a different running back scoring every week. That’s the way the Patriots operate, but Gronkowski is usually the constant in the spread-it-around philosophy. When he’s healthy he’s unstoppable, and he is healthy now. Gronkowski did miss one game this season with a thigh injury, and that set off some alarms given his history, but he’s fine now. And as long as Gronkowski remains fine, the Patriots are as good as ever.
Tyrod Taylor and the Buffalo Bills: The most fortunate thing that happened to the Bills and coach Sean McDermott was that rookie Nathan Peterman was so bad in his ill-advised start that McDermott had no choice but to turn back to Taylor.
Taylor wasn’t great on Sunday, but he gives the team a better chance to win than a fifth-round rookie. Taylor had 183 yards and a touchdown and perhaps more importantly, no interceptions (Peterman threw five in a half last week), in a huge 16-10 win over the Kansas City Chiefs.
The Bills might not be the strongest team, but they’re 6-5 and the rest of the AFC wild-card contenders are flawed too. Winning a game at Kansas City will be a big deal as the Bills try to get their first playoff berth since 1999. They wouldn’t have stayed in the race with Peterman, but luckily for them McDermott couldn’t double down on his mistake after last week.
Julio Jones: It took a while, but Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian seems to have figured out that his best plan is to get Jones the ball.
Jones was having a quiet season before Sunday. He had 54 catches, 786 yards and one touchdown through 10 games. That’s not bad, though it was his lowest yards per game since 2012 and he has never been in a touchdown slump like that. Then against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Jones turned his season around.
Jones had 12 catches for 253 yards and two touchdowns. He even caught a 51-yard touchdown pass from fellow receiver Mohamed Sanu. No fantasy owners will be complaining about Jones after that day.
The Falcons won 34-20 thanks to Jones’ big day, and it seems they are turning a corner. The Falcons beat the Cowboys, won at Seattle and beat the Bucs, and looked good in all three games. The Falcons didn’t look great in the first half of the season but getting Jones more involved might be the key to taking off down the stretch, just like they did last season.
Jacksonville Jaguars and their hold on the AFC South: The Jaguars’ path to a division title was pretty clear. They’re the best team in the AFC South, had a one-game lead over the Tennessee Titans and they had an easy schedule the rest of the way.
A last-second loss to the Arizona Cardinals is not a death blow, but it starts to erase some of Jacksonville’s margin for error. The Titans keep barely beating bad teams, as they squeaked out a 20-16 win over the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday. The Jaguars and Titans are now tied for first place at 7-4. The Jaguars play at the Titans in Week 17, so unless Jacksonville collapses it seems that finale will decide the division. But the way in which Jacksonville lost Sunday is a concern.
This was a game in which the Jaguars couldn’t hide Blake Bortles. That’s the cloud over this great start. Bortles was 19 of 33 for 160 yards, no touchdowns and a damaging interception in the fourth quarter. When the Jaguars got the ball back deep in their territory with 1:14 left, they ran on first down, Bortles threw a short incompletion, and they ran again on third down. A team with confidence in its quarterback wouldn’t play it so safe on that possession. The Jaguars punted, and that led to the Cardinals’ game-winning field goal.
The quarterback problem isn’t going away. The defense is incredible, and scored another big touchdown Sunday. The offense can be good at times, but there are games in which they fall behind and need Bortles to do more, and that’s rarely a good formula for them. The Jaguars need to avoid those games as long as they can.
The Browns and a very questionable call against them: The Cleveland Browns are 0-11, and once again lost by double digits, but this time they should feel like the officials cost them a shot at the win.
In the fourth quarter of a 23-16 game, Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton threw deep on third down to Josh Malone. Malone had the ball but Browns safety Jabrill Peppers hit him hard and knocked it loose for an incompletion. It looked like a great play by Peppers, one that would set up a Bengals punt. Then came the flag for unnecessary roughness.
Malone didn’t seem like a defenseless receiver after taking a few steps. Cleveland.com reported that Browns coach Hue Jackson was told it was a helmet-to-helmet hit, and while Peppers’ helmet grazed Malone’s helmet, that’s questionable. It was a tough penalty to swallow for the Browns. The Bengals scored a few plays later to seal the game.
There’s nothing else Peppers could have done. He played it well. The NFL is trying to improve player safety, and that’s commendable, but the game is violent and players need to be allowed to play. It would be hard to find any football player who would agree with that call. The Browns have found many ways to lose during their horrible start, but this was a new one.
The Carolina Panthers’ passing game (other than Devin Funchess): The Panthers keep winning, and there’s no question they’ll be a tough out in the playoffs. But the flaw that keeps coming up is the lack of depth in the passing game.
On Sunday, Devin Funchess caught seven passes for 108 yards. Everyone else combined caught four passes for 60 yards. No other receiver caught a pass. Christian McCaffrey caught two, Ed Dickson caught one and Greg Olsen caught one. That was it.
Kelvin Benjamin was traded. Curtis Samuel is on IR. Olsen came back, only to drop out of Sunday’s game with soreness in his previously injured foot. There just isn’t much for Cam Newton to work with.
The Panthers keep winning, and they pulled off a 35-27 win over the Jets on Sunday. There’s more than one way to win in the NFL, and the Panthers are a good example of that. But it’s hard to believe a team in this era could be so thin in the passing game and make a long playoff run.
Anyone who thinks they’ll catch the Eagles in the NFC: The 10-1 Eagles are now two games clear of all but one team in the NFC, and a game ahead of current No. 2 seed Minnesota. The Saints’ loss at the Los Angeles Rams was probably a good thing for the Eagles. And it doesn’t look like anyone can stop Philadelphia.
The Eagles are rolling. Carson Wentz threw three touchdowns in an easy 31-3 win over the Chicago Bears and probably could have thrown more had the Eagles been in a closer game. Tight end Zach Ertz and receiver Alshon Jeffery had good days. The running game was effective again. And the defense didn’t allow a first down in the first half, the first time an Eagles defense has pulled that off in 25 years. There’s no weakness with the Eagles anymore.
The Vikings have the best chance of tracking down the Eagles in the NFC, but they have tough games at Atlanta and at Carolina the next two weeks. Eagles fans have waited a long time for their first Super Bowl title, and the road to the NFC title looks like it will go through Philadelphia.
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