Here’s why the best days could still be ahead for Kansas City Chiefs coach Andy Reid

Jill Toyoshiba/jtoyoshiba@kcstar.com
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Only a year after Englishman Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile in May 1954, crashing through an invisible, tantalizing and once-immovable barrier, three men did the same in a single race. Some 1,500 would eventually follow.

Sports history, and history in general, offers plenty of examples of these dynamics in the wake of such breakthroughs. And, sure, you could debate the causality because of other factors at play.

Just the same, this one came to offer a certain distinct context.

“For years milers had been striving against the clock, but the elusive four minutes had always beaten them,” British journalist and runner John Bryant wrote in his book, “3:59.4: The Quest to Break the 4 Minute Mile,” according to research by the Harvard Business Journal. “It had become as much a psychological barrier as a physical one. And like an unconquerable mountain, the closer it was approached, the more daunting it seemed.”

And once that psychological barrier is conquered?

Simmered down to a more individualized level, an imperfect but nonetheless still striking parallel, we’ve seen that phenomenon play out many ways, many times.

Consider Tom Osborne winning his first national title at Nebraska in his 22nd season to trigger three in his final four seasons. What he once called “my albatross” seemingly vanished after the first. And that John Wooden was in his 18th season as a head coach when he took UCLA to its first national title in 1964 for the first of 10 in 12 years.

Or that it took Roy Williams 17 years to win his first en route to finishing his career with three.

We could go on, but that brings us to Andy Reid, who for years was perceived to be stranded at a plateau when it came to winning the Super Bowl.

To the point where he perhaps appeared destined never to scale the summit and thus stood to be left with a paradoxical legacy of being one of the best coaches never to win it all.

Like longtime Minnesota coach Bud Grant, who guided the Vikings to four Super Bowls without winning one. Or, say, former Chiefs and Bills coach Marv Levy, who took Buffalo to four straight Super Bowls only to never emerge with a victory.

But Reid’s Chiefs did win it all two seasons ago.

Then they became just the 14th team in NFL history to return to the next Super Bowl … albeit in a miserable 31-9 loss to Tampa Bay.

Now they are consumed with going to three in a row as they prepare for the considerable challenge of the Bills on Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium with a berth in the AFC Championship Game at stake.

Through this surge, Reid has ascended through the record books to three playoff wins away from having the second-most in NFL history. His eight postseason wins in Kansas City are half the total in franchise history.

And he has transformed the house of horrors that was postseason football at Arrowhead (six straight postseason losses between 1994 and 2019) into a funhouse: Punctuated by a 42-21 dissection of Pittsburgh last Sunday, the Chiefs’ five straight playoff wins at home is the longest active postseason winning streak in the NFL.

Most of all, though, what somehow got us thinking about Bannister and the horizon he opened is that the last few years has established that anything is possible for the 63-year-old coach who didn’t win his first title until his 21st season but could win any number now — particularly given the telepathy he apparently enjoys with the amazing quarterback he was born to coach, Patrick Mahomes, the ESP he seems to share with general manager Brett Veach and a nucleus of star power all over the lineup.

Asked before the Pittsburgh game about the key to sustaining playoff runs, Reid pointed to harmony with the front office and coaching staff, “and then having good players.”

“You can’t really do one without the other,” he said. “It doesn’t work that way. So, having everybody kind of come together I think is one of the neat things about this business that’s important for success. We’ve been fortunate to have a little bit of that chemistry, which is a real plus. It’s a tribute to Clark (Hunt) and what he’s done here.”

Left unsaid is that Reid is the active ingredient in that chemistry. Or at least the one most engaged in all elements of the mix on his way to becoming the fifth-winningest coach in NFL history (with 251, including playoffs) and in contention for more postseason glory befitting an already sure-fire Pro Football Hall of Fame career.

Not to put the cart before the horse, Kansas basketball coach Bill Self said in a phone interview with The Star, but one of these days “people could be talking about him like they talk about Chuck Noll,” who won four Super Bowls with the Steelers, and others of that ilk.

“He could be in that conversation,” added Self, whose Jayhawks won the 2008 national title. “He’s right there to do that.”

While Self is still seeking a sequel, he also still feels what came with the first.

“There was a sense of calm, maybe would be the right way to put it, that maybe didn’t exist before you actually won it,” said Self, who said before then he at times felt everything from deficient to “I can’t catch a break at the right time.”

Unencumbered by any of that now, if indeed Reid ever felt all that himself, he has all the more daylight in front of him.

Now, obviously it remains to be seen whether Reid will be able to harness what he has done into more ahead. For any story about how a breakthrough led to more, there are any number of tales about what might be called one-time wonders in the NFL or at any level of coaching or competition.

But conquering that imposing mountain surely demystified what had been insurmountable for Reid. And it certainly must have reinforced his conviction about his broader approach ... not to mention added even more credibility to how his players must see him.

Simply put, his mentality “has to be different,” said Dan Wann, a professor of psychology at Murray State and ardent Chiefs fan who went to Shawnee Mission North.

Not that Reid necessarily has a conscious sense that winning one has changed his mindset or how he prepares.

“But maybe it has, and I don’t realize it …” he said Monday. “I know it doesn’t feel that way as we’re prepping for Buffalo.”

Meanwhile, though, in a way only Reid would put it, he at least acknowledged how winning one opened up a hunger for more.

“Yeah, well, if you like chocolate cake, and you eat a piece, and then you have one dangling in front of your face, you’re probably going to want to eat that, too: Not much is going to stop you,” he said, laughing and adding, “So that’s how you feel about the Super Bowl. That is the chocolate cake with the ultimate frosting; you’re going to try to go get it if you can, the best you can.”

Playfully as he puts it, though, even if he never quite was Captain Ahab futilely pursuing Moby Dick or Wile E. Coyote chasing in vain after the Road Runner, some doubts had to be churning in Reid after four straight NFC title game appearances in Philly led to just one Super Bowl appearance, a loss to New England.

Moreover, counting his final years in Philly and first years in Kansas City, Reid’s teams had lost seven of eight playoff games (four of five here) before Mahomes became QB1 in the 2018 season.

The arrival of Mahomes came to change everything … even if that season initially stood as more of the same: A 37-31 overtime loss to the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game left Reid 1-5 in conference-title matchups.

“Every time you get closer and don’t make it, the monkey gets bigger and bigger and bigger on your back,” Wann said. “But the opposite is true, too.”

Meaning with that invisible, tantalizing and once-immovable barrier no longer a factor for Reid, now it’s all about the next piece of cake dangling before him.

Because even if it still won’t be, well, a piece of cake to achieve, Reid and his Chiefs can believe they have what it takes in ways they never could have before making what once was so elusive a reality.

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