Chiefs general manager Brett Veach sat inside Exhibit Hall A at the Indianapolis Convention Center, the same room in which one year earlier he would be on the verge of making a franchise-shifting move.
He just didn’t know it yet. Veach actually anticipated reaching an agreement for a contract extension with a star wide receiver at the time, only for finances to necessitate something different days later. Something uncomfortable.
But something worth repeating, which I’ll get to shortly.
It was fitting, though, that two hours after Veach spoke to media in downtown Indianapolis this week, his counterpart in Cincinnati, Bengals general manager Duke Tobin, stood in the same room and received a question about the possibility of trading wide receiver Tee Higgins.
“They want a receiver? Go find your own,” Tobin replied rather tersely. “The trade stuff is a little ridiculous right now.”
The NFL Scouting Combine is take-everything-at-face-value season, but it’s increasingly apparent that a year ago the Chiefs did what other contending teams would not. And what, at least at the face value, other contending teams still can’t even stomach. (And that’s even after it worked for the Chiefs.)
We aren’t here to validate a trade that was more convincingly validated in Glendale, Arizona, earlier this month. That debate is settled.
And the clock is not on the Bengals to follow the leaders. Or the Bills. Or any of the Chiefs’ top competitors.
It’s on the Chiefs.
The conversations revolving around the Chiefs at the Combine are not praising them for trading Tyreek Hill last offseason. Instead, the conversations about this offseason: What are the Chiefs going to do with soon-to-be free agent left tackle Orlando Brown and final-year-of-their-contract players Chris Jones and L’Jarius Sneed?
Here we go again, right?
A Tyreek Hill trade did not represent an end point for the Chiefs but rather the beginning. This is the second phase of life with quarterback Patrick Mahomes — the phase that pays the regular season and Super Bowl most valuable player a tad more handsomely.
A phase that is here to stay. The Chiefs made the most difficult, if not the most against the grain, move since Veach took over. And the reward is to be confronted with similar situations just one year later.
To be clear, the argument is not that the Chiefs need to follow the Tyreek Hill blueprint every time the opportunity arises. In fact, I strongly believe they don’t need to do it every time. But they will have to follow it some of the time, and perhaps as early as this offseason.
Their willingness to do it will be among the key reasons they can acquire long-term sustainability. This is a franchise that should be prioritizing long-term championship windows over quick-fix solutions, because it has what other teams do not.
Oh, and one other thing. The Chiefs also have in-house, indisputable evidence that while they might need to offer Mahomes a competitive supporting cast, they can move on from a castmate and still win the whole thing.
That’s the template they drew up at this time last offseason. A template most others are still too worried to follow.
And the very template that can keep them a step ahead for the future.
Thing is, this kind of situation is a little like you or me operating within a personal financial budget — it only works if you stick to it. You can’t simply save some cash on Monday, then go haywire for the other six days a week and consider yourself set for the future. It must be treated with consistency.
Not much different here. The Chiefs can still spend — they’ve offered themselves room to spend because of their own past — but they can’t spend on everyone when the quarterback is about to charge nearly $50 million to the salary cap.
Consider it the tax of success.
All teams encounters these choices on players — what is their value and how much are you willing to pay for that value — though some of them more frequently than others because some frankly draft and develop better than others. But few teams are paying one player $50 million. None had ever paid someone that percentage of the cap and held the Lombardi Trophy at season’s end.
The Chiefs were the outlier, and they were the outlier in part because they made this kind of move to intentionally separate themselves. The margin for error is thin when you have star players in a capped league.
So what next? Well, there’s a little bit of an it-depends answer here, but the immediacy requires a fact-finding mission. On Jones. On Sneed. On Brown. On the rest.
The Chiefs can just follow their own bread crumbs: Be prepared for every option, however popular or otherwise. Veach left Indianapolis a year ago thinking he’d made progress on a deal with Hill. Things changed. Other wide receivers got paid. Hill’s asking price shot up. The return for a trade — a player the Chiefs had very little interest in moving — was too good to pass up. The salary cap space, too.
We know the final result.
Those same circumstances confront the Chiefs again now. They will next offseason. And in 2025. And on we go.
This is their life now.
What’s the cost of extending their own key players? What’s the market for them?
These aren’t comfortable conversations, but you think it was pleasant broaching the topic of trading the guy who broke the franchise record for receptions in a single season?
The Chiefs are here because they embraced the uncomfortable. Embraced the unpopular.
They do not need to treat the end result of the Hill trade as a guide. They do need to treat the processes that led them to that decision as a guide.
Because at some point, that process will kick out the same long-term answer. And they’ll have to be prepared to pull the trigger on it once more.
Ruthless as it is, the attachment is not the players. The attachment is to winning.