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Eamonn Sweeney: 'Dark days are over for Chiefs' chief'

Eamonn Sweeney


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‘There’s a pragmatic case in favour of sticking with native-born players.’ Photo: Stephen McCarthy

‘There’s a pragmatic case in favour of sticking with native-born players.’ Photo: Stephen McCarthy

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‘There’s a pragmatic case in favour of sticking with native-born players.’ Photo: Stephen McCarthy

Tonight's Super Bowl will be the story of the grand old coach and the great young coach, of the superhero quarterback and the super scary defence, of a has-been franchise and one that hardly ever was. It should be a cracker and it's nearly too close to call. Nearly.

The grand old coach is Andy Reid of the Kansas City Chiefs. Sixty one years old and 21 years a head coach, in which time he's amassed 221 victories. That puts him number six on the all-time list. But number one among coaches who've never won the Super Bowl.

Reid is American Football's ultimate Nearly Man. In the early noughties his Philadelphia Eagles lost three NFC Championship games in a row. When they won at the fourth attempt, they lost 24-21 to the New England Patriots in the 2005 Super Bowl.

Since then there've been two more Championship game losses, with the Eagles in 2006 and the Chiefs last year. On 14 occasions, Reid has taken teams to the play-offs without winning the big prize. In the process he's earned himself a reputation for making crucial mistakes in the really big games.

There's even a scene in the great movie Silver Linings Playbook where Robert De Niro's fanatical Eagles supporter flies into a rage because an error of judgement by Reid has cost the team victory. Reid's problems with time management are both proverbial and somewhat exaggerated. But he needs a Super Bowl win to put them behind him.

Few outside San Francisco would begrudge Reid a sentimental triumph tonight. There's a lugubrious Beckettian quality to the man which excites sympathy. When a calamitous series of mistakes put the Chiefs 21-0 down in the first quarter of their play-off game against the Houston Texans last month, shots of Reid on the sideline suggested a man whose worst suspicions about the vicissitudes of fate had been confirmed yet again.

Andy Reid's life has been a hard one off the pitch. Two of his sons developed serious drug problems before both were arrested in separate incidents on the same day in 2007 and sent to jail.

The eldest, Garrett, was helping his father at an Eagles training camp in 2012 when he died of a heroin overdose at the age of 29. Britt, imprisoned for brandishing a gun at a fellow motorist, has been luckier. His prison time proved a wake-up call, he got clean and tonight he takes his place alongside his father as the Chiefs' linebacker coach. God knows what emotions the Reid family will be going through tonight.

Life's been easier for Kyle Shanahan, who's brought the 49ers to the Super Bowl in just his third season as head coach. If they win, the 40-year-old will become the third youngest successful coach in Super Bowl history. He'll also be following in the footsteps of his father Mike, who steered the Denver Broncos to victory in 1998 and 1999.

There have been few more unlikely Super Bowl contenders than the Niners who won just 10 out of their 32 games in Shanahan's first two seasons. When they began this season with a few wins on the trot, you waited for them to be brought down to earth with a bang. That never happened and they've been remorseless in the play-offs, crushing the Green Bay Packers and the Minnesota Vikings with the two most dominant performances of the post-season.

This zeroes to heroes transformation is a remarkable achievement for Shanahan yet it hasn't always been plain sailing for him either. His appointment by his father as Washington Redskins offensive co-ordinator at the age of 30 was criticised as nepotism before both Mike and Kyle were sacked.

Three years ago, Shanahan was offensive co-ordinator for the Atlanta Falcons who raced into a 28-3 lead midway through the third quarter before the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history saw the Patriots come through 34-28 in overtime. Shanahan was criticised for not playing safer when the Falcons were ahead, but in truth they were undone by the extraordinary display of opposition quarterback Tom Brady.

Tonight they face another extraordinary quarterback, and one who shouldn't have made this game at all. Because when Patrick Mahomes dislocated his right kneecap against the Denver Broncos on October 17 the Chiefs' season looked over.

Losing a quarterback is bad enough, but Mahomes was the reigning league MVP after a season where he'd become just the third player in history, along with Brady and Peyton Manning, to throw over 50 touchdown passes. Gloom reigned at Arrowhead Stadium. Yet Mahomes was back just three weeks later as it emerged that the unusual flexibility of his knee ligaments had enabled him to avoid more serious injury.

It only added to the impression of the uncanny surrounding a player who in just his second season as a starter is better than any quarterback has been at this stage. There's something different about Mahomes. His pass has been timed as one of the fastest in NFL history and has a unique bullet like quality. He throws no-look passes as though he has a third eye in his head. Being off balance or throwing back across himself seems to make no difference to the speed and accuracy of his deliveries.

When the Chiefs slumped to that 24-0 deficit against the Texans, Mahomes seemed like the calmest man in Kansas. His reaction was to throw three touchdown passes in four minutes and another one just before the break to put the Chiefs into the lead.

In the NFC Championship game, he showed an extra dimension to his talents. Mahomes isn't an athletic running quarterback like Lamar Jackson of the Baltimore Ravens so the Tennessee Titans got a shock when he took off on a 27-yard touchdown run. Barrelling through tackles, he looked more like a rugby back row forward than a quarterback.

The son of former Minnesota Twins pitcher Pat, Mahomes was also a leading baseball prospect. And though he's chosen football instead, at certain times he resembles a pitcher firing in a fastball. At others, he delivers a pass like a shortstop gunning down a runner at second base.

If Mahomes gets time and space tonight it's curtains for the 49ers. He has superb options available to him, among them the all-time great tight end Travis Kelce, who scored three touchdowns against the Texans and a wide receiver Tyreek Hill who's run 9.98 for 100m.

San Francisco have good attacking firepower with under-rated quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, a former understudy to Tom Brady, George Kittle, who's just set a record for receiving yards by a tight end in a season, and Raheem Mostert whose time of 10.15 for 100m makes him the fastest running back in the game.

But tonight's critical battle is between Mahomes and a 49ers defence that's second best in the league in terms of yards conceded. In the NFC Conference game they subdued the great Green Bay Packers quarter-back Aaron Rodgers. As a unit they are perhaps the meanest, most physically intimidating bunch since the Seattle Seahawks' famous 'Legion of Boom' which walked all over the Broncos in the 2014 Super Bowl.

That's not entirely a coincidence. Because among their number is Richard Sherman, the Legion's one-time spiritual leader. Sherman's great days seemed to be over when Seattle released him two seasons ago, but the cornerback has been a man reborn this term. He intercepted a Rodgers' pass in the championship game and will be aiming to do something similar to Mahomes.

The other man with the Kansas quarterback in his sights is only a rookie. But what a rookie. Defensive end Nick Bosa was selected second in last year's draft despite missing almost the entire college season through injury.

This year he's been Rookie of the Year, made the Pro Bowl and spread terror through opposition defensive lines. The great grandson of one-time Chicago mafia leader Tony Accardo, Bosa sacked Vikings' quarterback Kirk Cousins twice and has the ability to keep Mahomes under pressure.

Whoever wins, it's going to be pretty special. The Chiefs haven't even been in the Super Bowl since 1970. The 49ers won five between 1982 and 1995, but have drawn a blank since then.

The teams are so evenly matched it could be one of those nights when everything is decided by an individual error or a great play on special teams, perhaps by the Chiefs' brilliant kick returner Mecole Hardman.

You never really know what you'll get with the Super Bowl. Last year's Patriots-Rams game was a complete damp squib. But the previous two, with the Patriots' miracle comeback against the Falcons followed by the high scoring seismic upset of their defeat by the Eagles, may have been the two greatest of all-time. Tonight could well be another classic and should be close, only three of the last 12 have been won by more than 10 points.

It looks like the Chiefs, just about. By the early hours of tomorrow morning our time, the world will know the name of Patrick Mahomes. And in Miami's Hard Rock Stadium, after travelling a long hard road, Andy Reid will finally get his day in the sun.

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