It doesn’t take long to become old news in the NFL. Just last season, Patrick Mahomes burned the league down with one of the most exhilarating campaigns in history. But this fall, Mahomes Mania gave way to a fixation with Lamar Jackson and the record-setting Ravens. The Chiefs didn’t disappear. Far from it, actually. They scored an average of 28.2 points per game (fifth in the NFL) and ended up second in Football Outsiders’ passing DVOA. Despite missing two games, Mahomes finished second only to Jackson in expected points added. Kansas City’s offense is still a spectacle, but as football consumers, we tend to gravitate toward what’s new—even if it’s just for newness’s sake. And this year, that short memory has also extended to Travis Kelce.
Among tight ends, this season has belonged to George Kittle. As the resurgent Niners emerged as the best team in the NFC, Kittle used San Francisco’s prime-time wins as his own personal showcase. Kittle is a fully formed NFL superstar—a long-haired, crowd-stoking, wrestling-obsessed guy who is finely attuned to the ways athletes become attractions. Watching him crunch tacklers and carry defenders all over the field has become one of the best shows in town.
Kelce’s early ascension was much like Kittle’s. During his breakout season in 2014, he and I had breakfast at a First Watch in Kansas City. The Chiefs had started that season 7-3, and Kelce was their fresh-faced star. He’d scored four touchdowns over the team’s first eight games—and followed each one with a new celebration tailor-made for internet fame. “I enjoy being the one on TV,” Kelce told me. “I enjoy being the show. I enjoy making people laugh. If I can put a smile on someone’s face if I do a dance in the end zone, why not?” Kelce was 25 then—a young, fun presence in a league that sometimes lacks them. Five years later, he’s no longer a novelty, but even as the spotlight has shifted toward Kittle and others, Kelce has quietly put together the most prolific run in the history of the position.
The Chiefs’ All-Pro tight end finished with 97 catches for 1,229 yards and five touchdowns this season. There have been only four such seasons by a tight end in NFL history. Kelce has two of them (2018 and 2019); Tony Gonzalez (2004) and Jimmy Graham (2011) have the others. Only four tight ends have ever amassed four seasons of 1,000-plus yards: Kelce, Gonzalez, Rob Gronkowski, and Jason Witten. Kelce is the only one to do it four years in a row, with a chance for a fifth next season. Mahomes may be the driver of Kansas City’s high-speed offense, but Kelce is its engine—one that’s helped propel the Chiefs to back-to-back AFC championship games.
When Kansas City’s offense is rolling, it can feel unsolvable. Part of that comes from Mahomes, who makes impossible throws into impossible windows—the sort of daggers that deflate an entire defense. But Kelce also plays a role in many of those devastating moments. He gives the Chiefs a solution to virtually any challenge a defense can present.
Plenty of defensive coordinators have tried—and failed—to find a blueprint for how to slow down these Chiefs. Over the past two years, Kansas City has scored less than 23 points in a game once. Defenses have occasionally had success this season when using a lot of man coverage against Andy Reid’s offense, but when Houston deployed a man-heavy approach in the divisional round, Mahomes and Co. shredded it. Zone defenses haven’t fared much better during Mahomes’s tenure. No matter what teams throw at them, Kansas City has an answer, and that’s partially because Kelce is the ultimate weapon.
Against zone coverage, Kelce and Mahomes are an ideal match because of the way they understand space. Kelce is a football savant who’s able to sense defensive leverages and adjust to them in real time. He has an incredible feel for how to bend, alter, and stop his routes at precisely the right moment to give Mahomes the largest window possible. Both he and Mahomes can envision openings that haven’t even formed. If teams decide to sit back in soft zones against the Chiefs, it’s only a matter of time before these two find a sliver of daylight.
Kelce is a master at finding the open field—and a terror after he does. Much like Kittle, Kelce is a nightmare after the catch, but the two wreak havoc in very different ways. Where Kittle is a ferocious, violent runner, Kelce is so smooth with the ball that it can look like he’s gliding. The Chiefs routinely design plays that give Kelce a head of steam and utilize him as a runner. He’s an extension of their ground game, and Kansas City feasts on the cheap yards those short tosses generate.
He may technically be a tight end, but this season, Kelce spent less than half his snaps as an inline player. That’s not uncommon in an era when plenty of tight ends play like supersized slot receivers. But according to Pro Football Focus, Kelce has actually spent more plays out wide this season (280) than in the slot (266). In a lot of ways, Kelce operates just like a wide receiver within the Chiefs offense.
Take this play from the third quarter of last week’s win over the Texans. Like he often is within Kansas City’s scheme, Kelce is lined up as the single receiver in a 3x1 set, working against Lonnie Johnson Jr.—a long, explosive cornerback that Houston took with the 54th pick in the 2019 draft. At the snap, Kelce hits an inside release that would make most receivers swoon. Even with Johnson holding inside leverage, the 260-pound tight end is able to shake him off the line to create immediate separation. With the corner already playing catch-up, Kelce finishes off the play by sticking the top of his route, losing Johnson over the middle of the field, and rumbling for 23 yards.
These are the problems that emerge when teams try to play man coverage against Kansas City. When burners like Tyreek Hill and Demarcus Robinson tear downfield, it creates endless space for Kelce to work underneath. It’s a perfect combination of skill set and opportunity, and another reminder of how well the pieces of this system fit together.
Kelce does a majority of his damage carving up the middle of the field, but every so often, he morphs into a dangerous vertical threat outside the numbers. Late in the third quarter of a Week 15 win over the Broncos, Kansas City lined up in another 3x1 set with Kelce as the single receiver to the left side. With no safety help over the top, cornerback Isaac Yiadom was situated with exaggerated outside leverage to the sideline. And it didn’t matter. Kelce instantly ripped off a nasty outside release, ran a fade down the left side, and hauled in a 21-yard toss from Mahomes. Kelce is such a threat over the middle that even though Yiadom’s alignment was specifically designed to prevent him from getting downfield, he was still able to beat the corner outside.
That’s the maddening part about playing against Kelce, Mahomes, and this Chiefs offense. Even when defenses do everything right with their call and execution, Kansas City finds a way to break them anyway. Late in the third quarter last week against Houston, Kelce lined up as an inline tight end on second-and-6. After the snap, Hill clears up the right side, Kelce runs a corner route against safety Mike Adams, and the Texans defend it perfectly. Adams sticks with Kelce all the way down the field, and it seems like Mahomes has nowhere to go with the ball. But as Mahomes hangs in the pocket, Kelce is able to work back inside and come loose for a 28-yard gain.
On the sideline following the drive, cameras caught Kelce telling his quarterback, “I don’t understand how you know when I’m doing that. I don’t know. There was nothing telling you I was gonna do that.” Therein lies the beauty of the Mahomes-Kelce connection. These two were meant for each other—a marriage made in football heaven. More than 30 games into their relationship, it’s easy to take for granted. But even as other stars at the position have emerged, Kelce is still destroying defenses in a way few tight ends in history ever have.