KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The Kansas City Chiefs came into Thursday knowing their first game represented a final chance to celebrate last season’s Super Bowl. They left with a better understanding of how bright the near future already looks for them. That isn’t because Patrick Mahomes supplied his usual dose of jaw-dropping magic. That heightened excitement can be traced directly to the newest weapon in their explosive offense.
It says a lot that the Chiefs were perfectly content to turn their season-opener into a showcase for rookie running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire. Their 34-20 win over Houston had a handful of compelling moments — from the Chiefs raising their Super Bowl LIV banner to both teams locking arms at midfield in a pre-game social justice demonstration to the Texans’ decision to stay in their locker room during the national anthem — but the first-year runner stole the show. You know something is a little off when Chiefs head coach Andy Reid is running the ball down after down. It’s as if the Chiefs decided to give Mahomes a little rest, just so he can be ready for tougher competition.
This contest included precious few deep balls. There certainly were no left-handed tosses or no-look passes. Instead, Edwards-Helaire set the tone from the moment the game kicked off, even though he battled through some initial anxiety. “When we first ran out, (my) nerves were at an all-time high,” said Edwards-Helaire, who ran for 138 yards and a touchdown on 25 attempts. “I had a lot of emotions on that first carry, but after I got tackled, it was football and it was time to roll.”
There was little to indicate Edwards-Helaire would be this dominant so quickly. Mahomes has been the biggest story in this town for the last two years, as he won the league’s Most Valuable Player award in his first season as a starter and a Super Bowl in his second. When the Chiefs selected Edwards-Helaire in the first round of this year’s draft, it felt like they merely craved another weapon for their star quarterback to deploy. Now it seems very likely that the Chiefs — who attempted 34 rushes and 32 passes — will use Edwards-Helaire to control outcomes whenever possible.
The scariest part of what we witnessed inside Arrowhead was how consistently Edwards-Helaire performed under the spotlight. Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bienemy had warned him about controlling those emotions Edwards-Helaire felt in his first pro game. The assistant coach especially harped on Edwards-Helaire about the importance of ball security. Young players wanting to prove themselves on big stages can easily open themselves up to critical mistakes simply by trying too hard.
Edwards-Helaire took it all in. Then he went out and gave the Chiefs their most inspiring debut by a rookie ball-carrier since Kareem Hunt amassed an NFL-record 246 total scrimmage yards in his first game of the 2017 season. Edwards-Helaire didn’t write his name into any history books on Thursday and, to be honest, he didn’t have to on this night. When Hunt exploded onto the scene, the Chiefs were searching for as many weapons as they could find to bolster a serviceable offense. Scoring points hasn’t been an issue for this team ever since Mahomes became its leader.
What we’re witnessing now is simply evolution. The Chiefs know they can blow past teams with their explosive passing attack. They proved on Thursday that they can do something with Edwards-Helaire that is more devastating. They can control games and dictate outcomes more efficiently this year, often by using the same strategy that opponents once relied upon to neutralize Mahomes a couple seasons ago.
“We felt like he had a good camp and he’s a heck of a player,” Reid said of Edwards-Helaire. “We wanted to give him the ball but we didn’t come in saying we’re going to give him ‘X’ number of carries. We liked the mix. We threw it well and we ran it well.”
The only downside of Edwards-Helaire’s performance was that it turned an intriguing matchup into an eerily boring one. The limited fans who were allowed into this game because of COVID-19 restrictions surely came to see some fireworks. They received plenty of those before the game — when team owner Clark Hunt unveiled that banner and showcased the Lombardi Trophy for the crowd — but the energy of that moment faded quickly after kickoff. The longer the first half went on, the more it felt as if both teams essentially were feeling each other out.
It’s fair to assume Edwards-Helaire had more opportunities to make a splash because the Texans were hell-bent on not allowing Pro Bowl wide receiver Tyreek Hill from killing them with big plays. Reid admitted the Texans played more zone coverage and that might mean Edwards-Helaire will face tougher tests in the coming weeks. What’s more likely is that the Chiefs have moved to a different level when it comes to offensive execution. As Texans head coach Bill O’Brien said, “We struggled to stop the run. We struggled to get off the field.”
We all knew Edwards-Helaire was a great fit for this offense. He was a star at LSU while playing in a similar system for the eventual national champion. He possesses big-play potential as both a runner and receiver and there’s an obvious reason why Reid compared him to former Eagles star Brian Westbrook. You put a talent like this in an offense as loaded at Kansas City’s and he can make any play call look like genius.
So the Chiefs now have their young running back off to an excellent start. They also just told the rest of the NFL that this team isn’t into style points or chasing records. If the Chiefs really are going to have a shot at repeating — and they haven’t been shy about saying they expect to do just that — then they’re clearly going to have to be flexible. Some days it will be pretty, but as they revealed on Thursday, they’ve got more than enough options to get the job done any way they like.
Follow Jeffri Chadiha on Twitter @jeffrichadiha.
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