KANSAS CITY, Mo. — It would be odd to think of the Kansas City Chiefs as underdogs to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Super Bowl LV. The Chiefs have a lot going for them, most notably the fact they have won 25 of their past 27 games, including last year’s Super Bowl. Oddsmakers have the Chiefs favored to win by at least a field goal Sunday, despite the game being played at the Bucs’ home, Raymond James Stadium.
History, though, suggests the Chiefs will lose. The barrier of becoming a repeat champion has been difficult for previous winners to break for myriad reasons — lack of focus and taking every team’s best shot among them — as coaches such as Pete Carroll and players such as Shannon Sharpe will attest. But if the Chiefs under quarterback Patrick Mahomes truly want to establish a dynasty, back-to-back titles is a good place to start.
The NFL has seen eight instances of repeat Super Bowl champions but none in the past 16 years. It has happened three times since unrestricted free agency and the salary cap were instituted almost 30 years ago and ushered in the era of annual roster upheaval.
“What makes it such a challenge is it’s hard to win one Super Bowl,” said Bucs quarterback Tom Brady with a chuckle despite owning six rings himself. Brady’s New England Patriots were the last team to win back-to back titles in 2003 and 2004.
But even making a repeat appearance in a Super Bowl is unusual. The Chiefs are the fourth team in the past 20 years to participate in at least two straight championship games.
That’s some history the Chiefs are fighting.
“It’s just historically an enormous challenge for teams to come back, and there’s a lot of obvious reasons why,” said Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, who should know based on his team’s own history. The Seahawks won Super Bowl XLVIII over the Denver Broncos and were deprived of a second straight title when the Patriots intercepted a pass at the goal line in the final seconds following the 2014 season.
“You think, ‘[We] won one year; why wouldn’t you win the next year, too?’ It’s almost easier to get there and win it than it is to come back and do it the second time around. It’s because of the shift that takes place once you win, and all that goes on through those months of the offseason and the buildup and then the anticipation going through the start of the year, all of the stories and the storylines and the scenarios and all of that, and the mentality of the players and what they’ve just accomplished.
“There’s so much that goes into handling that that I think the fact that KC is doing what they’re doing is an amazing statement for their team, for their coaching staff. … I know that winning a Super Bowl is a big deal and all that, but winning two is really cool.”
Everyone wants a piece of the champs. Beating the Chiefs in Week 5 meant so much to coach Jon Gruden and the Las Vegas Raiders that their team buses circled Arrowhead Stadium for a victory lap on their way to the airport.
“When you beat the world champions, you have a tendency to get excited,” Gruden said in explanation.
It’s a phenomenon every defending champion has to deal with, and it’s one reason repeating has been so difficult.
“You get everybody’s best shot,” said former Broncos tight end Shannon Sharpe, who played Denver’s back-to-back title teams in the late 1990s. “Maybe they aren’t going to the playoffs, but if they beat you, they feel good, real good. Some teams are just going to measure their season by if they beat the defending Super Bowl champions.
“People don’t look past you. They look to you, they look for you.”
Returning to the Super Bowl wasn’t easy for the Chiefs. They did win a league-high 14 games during the regular season and two more to reach the Super Bowl, but at one point, they had eight straight victories by six points or fewer.
No other NFL team had won so many consecutive games by such a small margin. They seemed to be wearing down from taking every opponent’s best shot.
Opponents tried all manner of gadgets at unconventional times to try to beat the Chiefs, from attempting fourth-down conversions to onside kicks to fake punts. Mahomes said some opponents showed the Chiefs pass coverages they hadn’t used before.
“You just knew guys were going to play you harder,” said former Dallas offensive lineman Nate Newton, who played on the Cowboys’ back-to-back title teams in the early 1990s. “It’s hard to explain, but when you’d play the game, you’re like, ‘OK, this isn’t the same guy I saw on tape.'”
Understanding that teams will be focused on you is one of the biggest hurdles. Since the Patriots won back-to-back titles in 2003-04, only two Super Bowl winners have even returned to the big game the next year: the Seahawks following the 2014 season and the Patriots following the 2017 season. Five teams during the same span did not return to the playoffs at all. Of the past 10 Super Bowl champions, including the Chiefs, five have seen a decrease in offensive efficiency the year after earning the Lombardi trophy, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. Two of those were a decrease of more than 20%. On the defensive side of the ball during the same span, six teams have had a decrease in defensive efficiency and four of those were by 20% or more.
“A lot of times when you win a championship, it becomes an incentive for your opponent to beat you,” said former Pittsburgh running back Rocky Bleier, who played for the Steelers in the 1970s, when they twice won back-to-back Super Bowls.
“But that was also a motivator for us, knowing they’re going to play their best or their hardest. You knew you had to bring your best game. It made us a better team.”
And things have gotten more difficult even as the sport and its reach have gotten bigger. Teams are restrained in what they can spend for players by the salary cap, which began in 1994. Pro football had 24 teams between the NFL and AFL in 1966, when the Super Bowl era started. The NFL has 32 now.
“You just can’t go out and buy a [championship] football team,” Brady said.
Sharpe believes it is more difficult for a team to repeat in the era of social media, when everybody is a star and can claim credit for a championship.
“One of the things you have to guard against is that when you win the Super Bowl, there are a lot of people thinking they were the reason why,” Sharpe said. “You get the people who cut the grass thinking because they cut the grass a certain height is the reason we won. And the caterer thinks it’s because the food was nice and hot. And the guy who did this and this is why and a guy who did that and this is why. You just have to understand you’re part of a team and accept everybody played a role and all of the roles were significant. We did a good job of that, and we came in with the sole purpose [in 1998] of winning another one.
“You get the people who cut the grass thinking because they cut the grass a certain height is the reason we won. And the caterer thinks it’s because the food was nice and hot.”
Shannon Sharpe on everyone thinking they’re the reason for a Super Bowl win
“You had your big stars [in the 1990s], but very few guys who were a brand, actually a brand. Now you’ve got the 48th guy thinking he’s a brand, he’s promoting something, he’s on TikTok, trying to be a brand, and I know I’d be like, ‘Bruh.’ … It looks to me sometimes, guys are more concerned about likes and follows and clicks, more concerned about their brand than their brand of football.”
The Chiefs have done a nice job of navigating the minefields so far: complacency, taking everyone’s best shot, salary-cap constraints and just the general pressure of repeating. While their defensive efficiency has dropped 25%, they are up 8.6% on offense since last season. But they haven’t yet finished the job.
“They stayed humble,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said of his players. “It wasn’t something that they counted on or beat their chest on, that they were the Super Bowl champs. That’s not what they did. They know it’s a tough road to get where we want to go.”
The Chiefs began preparing to win another championship not long after beating the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl LIV. They retained 20 of their 22 Super Bowl starters, although running back Damien Williams and guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif opted out for the season shortly before the start of training camp because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Kansas City’s experience is very similar to ours in 2011,” said Dallas Cowboys coach Mike McCarthy, who coached Aaron Rodgers to his one championship with the Green Bay Packers following the 2010 season. The Packers went 15-1 the following year but lost in the divisional round of the playoffs. “The fact that we were coming off of a lockout offseason and Kansas City was coming off the COVID challenge. … It could help you a little bit because you’re not talking about it throughout the whole offseason program. It’s not the responsibility that you have to deal with daily as far as conversations and answering questions.”
With all of last season’s key players returning, the Chiefs used the theme of “Run it Back” as a marketing slogan. It also became a rallying cry in the locker room, where players understood the championship window the Chiefs have open. Many of their best players are young, including Mahomes, who turned 25 in September. The only key Chiefs player who is over 30 is tight end Travis Kelce. He turned 31 in October and responded with 1,416 yards, the best season for a player at his position in NFL history.
“I’ve been on a back-to-back team going to the Super Bowl when I was an assistant,” said Reid of his time with the Packers. “We ended up losing the second one. I understand the intensity level that it takes to get there the first time. There’s a certain ‘climb the ladder’ attitude that takes place the first time. The second time that you go, some of those motivations, it’s not the same motivation that you had the first time. You really have to focus in on trying to be better, trying to challenge yourselves to be even greater than what you were that previous year.”
In order to “Run it Back,” the Chiefs re-signed key players such as defensive tackle Chris Jones and cornerback Bashaud Breeland. They restructured the contract of wide receiver Sammy Watkins to keep him around at a lower cost. They even extended deals for Mahomes and Kelce, although both had time remaining on their existing contracts.
All the moves gave the Chiefs a roster continuity many defending championship teams lack.
“When I look at the Chiefs,” Gruden said, “I recognize all of the players, for the most part. They’ve done an unbelievable job keeping the team together. I’ve got a lot of respect for Kansas City. They’ve had great continuity on all three levels on defense and on offense.”
The 2020 offseason for the Chiefs was unlike those of previous defending champions. The NFL canceled all in-person and organized workouts prior to training camp and practices because of the fear of spreading the coronavirus.
Everything was done virtually instead. That reduced opportunities for the Chiefs to celebrate their championship and potentially lose focus on training for 2020.
“They have an advantage this year,” Bucs coach Bruce Arians said, comparing the Chiefs to other past champions. “In years past, it lingers all the way through spring, that Super Bowl hangover. It lasts a long time. But in this year with no offseason and then having everybody back, I think it was over quickly.
“In other years, you’re getting accolades all the way through training camp. You’re getting rings and you’re getting this and you’re getting that and you’re getting invited to everything. Sometimes it can become a distraction for that team. Sometimes the injury bug hits you, too, because guys didn’t quite work out as hard as they had in past years.”
The Chiefs seem to understand their place in history. Beginning in the spring, they talked about the commitment it would take from each player and coach to be able to repeat. They’re now one game away from pulling that off.
“As a team, a lot of the time, when you win that Super Bowl, you kind of relax because you feel like you’ve done it,” Mahomes said in the spring. “You went out there and accomplished the goal and you relax a little bit that offseason. But I think with our team, the little bit of difference that we have is that it feels like for every single guy on our team, once we won the Super Bowl — we definitely celebrated for about a week or two — it was that mindset of ‘We’re going to get back after it.’
“We want to do this again.”
ESPN NFL Nation reporters Todd Archer, Brady Henderson, Jenna Laine and Jeff Legwold contributed to this story