Before the start of April’s NFL draft, Chiefs general manager Brett Veach texted Patrick Mahomes and asked who he wanted the team to select. Mahomes texted back six characters: “Clyde.”
You know it’s serious when there is a period for emphasis. Either Kansas City listened to Mahomes or Veach already had the same thought as his franchise quarterback, because the team drafted LSU’s Clyde Edwards-Helaire with the last pick of the first round. One game into his NFL career, it’s clear why Mahomes wanted the running back in Kansas City.
The Chiefs toyed with the Texans in Thursday’s season opener, earning a 34-20 win in a game that was 31-7 early in the fourth quarter. Kansas City’s offense did not seem to need much help after last season, when Mahomes led one of the best passing attacks in NFL history and the franchise won its first Super Bowl in 50 years. But the Chiefs looked dominant on Thursday night in an unfamiliar way: running the ball.
Kansas City ran 34 times for 166 yards (averaging 4.9 yards per carry), and Edwards-Helaire had 25 of those carries for 138 yards (5.5 yards per carry). He also scored a touchdown by juking out Texans rising star safety Justin Reid and running for pay dirt, though he easily could have added a second or third with a number of almost there goal-line carries that made fantasy managers jump out of their chairs.
This kind of rushing performance was out of character for the Chiefs. Kansas City ran the ball 16 times in the first half, which was more rushes than the team had in any first half in 2019, according to ESPN Stats & Info. And last season, the Chiefs became the first team to win the Super Bowl while averaging less than 25 rushes per game—the same figure CEH recorded on Thursday night.
Edwards-Helaire was the do-it-all running back at LSU on a record-breaking offense that scored more points than any other team in college football history. He was the first running back in SEC history to record 50 catches and 1,000 rushing yards in the same season. It’s a charmed football life to go from playing with LSU’s Joe Burrow to Mahomes, but Edwards-Helaire also has a game that reminded Chiefs head coach Andy Reid of his former back, Brian Westbrook. He’s not the fastest guy on the field, but he has elite balance, and ultimately football is a game of staying on your feet.
“The guy is a star,” Mahomes told NBC’s Michele Tafoya after the game. “He works hard, he works his tail off, his vision is incredible, and I thought the offensive line did a great job giving him those holes for him to run, too.”
Mahomes did a great job on Thursday night, too. He finished with 24 completions on 32 throws for 211 yards (6.6 yards per attempt). But like Edwards-Helaire, his night was more impressive than his stat line. Mahomes had a few passes that looked routine for him but would have been stunning from any other player. For instance: While falling backward in the first quarter, he flicked a pass so hard it hit his receiver in the face, or, rather, IN THE FACEEE.
Not only did the Chiefs run more often than usual, but each team seemed like they were dinking and dunking in the passing game at a much higher rate than you’d normally see in the regular season. Both offenses possess a lot of speed, with Kansas City’s Legion of Zoom receiving corps being the fastest in the league and Houston having Will Fuller V, Brandin Cooks, and Kenny Stills. But they largely seemed to avoid the downfield passing game. Deshaun Watson started the game 0-for-5 on passes of 15 yards or more downfield, according to ESPN Stats & Info, and the Chiefs focused on getting the ball out fast. Mahomes released his passes on average at 2.3 seconds in the first half, which would be the fastest of his career across a full game, according to ESPN Stats & Info. The Chiefs are known for throwing the ball downfield and scoring fast enough that you can’t go to the bathroom when they have the ball. In this game, you could have grown a quarantine mustache during their scoring drives.
That isn’t necessarily a style adjustment either team wants to adopt long term, but one they needed to make on Thursday. The COVID-19 pandemic forced the NFL to eliminate the preseason and has drastically limited practice time. As a result, basic football skills like timing on passing routes and tackling have been hard to nail down. The short routes Kansas City and Houston used were likely deployed in an effort to avoid costly mistakes like interceptions. Those routes also allowed them to test the other teams’ tackling, and the Texans failed the test more often than they passed.
But the Chiefs are just better at every aspect of the game. Reid is a far better play-caller than Houston’s Bill O’Brien, and the Chiefs’ players are far more elusive in the open field than the Texans’.
The game was a flat disappointment for the Texans. They seemed to sorely miss receiver DeAndre Hopkins, whom the team traded to Arizona for running back David Johnson and bare bones in March. Johnson finished with 11 carries for 77 yards and a 19-yard touchdown that was his longest touchdown run since 2016, but did not make an impact in the second half when Houston needed one.
The Chiefs, on the other hand, look like a juggernaut. The defending Super Bowl champions didn’t need to make their offense better. Yet they have. With Travis Kelce, Tyreek Hill, Sammy Watkins, Demarcus Robinson, Mecole Hardman, and now Edwards-Helaire, the Chiefs have six players who can break multiple tackles in open space. The outing wasn’t perfect. When the space truncated near the goal line, the Chiefs (including CEH) stalled on multiple drives. But it was a hell of a debut given the shortened offseason.
This isn’t the first time a Chiefs rookie running back has made a splashy debut. Kareem Hunt broke records with a nearly 250-total-yard debut just three years ago. But Edwards-Helaire’s abilities might take Kansas City to even higher heights given that he joined a team that has fully blossomed.
Somehow, this Chiefs team is still getting better. There will be a lot of reasons we use to explain why Kansas City looks like it’ll return to the Super Bowl this season, but to boil it down to one word: Clyde.