The most critical play in a game between two of the best teams in the NFL started with a football delivered to the hands of Tyreek Hill.
The most critical play in a game between two of the best teams in the NFL concluded with the football in the hands of Chiefs safety Bryan Cook, his feet blazing into the end zone for his first-ever touchdown.
If you’re paying attention, you’re going to hear a narrative after the Chiefs’ 21-14 win Sunday in Frankfurt, Germany, that they ultimately made the right decision in walking away from Hill nearly two years ago.
For the wrong reasons.
I want to tell you a backstory, the story behind one of the Chiefs’ wildest touchdowns in, what, a decade? Longer? And we’ll get to it soon. After all, it’s not often two defensive players possess the ball on a scoring play. The fact that Hill is the scapegoat for it — while an acquired draft pick, cornerback Trent McDuffie, forced the fumble — sweetens the pot.
But it was already pretty sweet.
The play helped change the outcome of a single game about 5,000 miles from Kansas City. The trade helped forever change the trajectory of the franchise located there. The first sentence of this paragraph is not the causation for the second.
The Chiefs are 7-2 despite an offense whose learning curve is looking more like a line made along the straight edge of a ruler. The reason the Chiefs are here, still tied atop the AFC despite the offense enduring its most frustrating season since Patrick Mahomes’ arrival, is the depth of the defense.
And that’s where you can trace this real narrative back to Hill — beyond one draft pick that pried the ball loose from him. Sure, it makes for a neat story that McDuffie, in a roundabout way, is part of the return package acquired when the Chiefs traded Hill to Miami last offseason. In the transaction report, that return will forever read as a collection of draft picks.
What’s missing: the money. The salary-cap space.
And what the Chiefs did with it.
They didn’t elect to replace one high-priced superstar wide receiver with another, but instead turned to building a defense with depth as its foundation. After Sunday’s game, Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce told me, “This is the best defense I’ve ever played with.” I asked Patrick Mahomes, and without hesitation, he replied, “I mean, for sure.”
That doesn’t happen — can’t happen — with Hill making $30 million per season in Kansas City. The Chiefs undoubtedly miss Hill. They didn’t suddenly determine him replaceable. His one mistake Sunday doesn’t change his value. He is the odds-on favorite to win the league’s offensive player of the year award.
But they’ve already won a Super Bowl without him. And if they win another, they can point once more to the full effect of the decision to let him walk — they’ve built a top-five NFL defense in Kansas City on the back of that decision.
Members of their defense — not Patrick Mahomes, not Travis Kelce — just upheld a win late in the fourth quarter again, and the game felt more comfortable with the outcome resting in their hands. That’s not a sentence I expected to write. But the Chiefs’ defense held the Dolphins to a season-low in points and yards per play. They are why the Chiefs left Frankfurt with a win, for reasons beyond one play.
Pretty nice play, though, wasn’t it?
So, yeah, about that. The backstory.
Sitting in man-to-man defense, McDuffie read the play from the jump. He’d seen it on film earlier in the week. “It was pretty easy seeing that screen develop,” he said. So he busted it up for a loss, and then busted the football from Hill’s grip.
Safety Mike Edwards grabbed the fumble first, securing a turnover but with his mind thinking about much more. When Hill grabbed him around the legs, Edwards lateraled the ball backward to Cook, whose speed took care of the rest. Cook ran 59 yards for his first NFL score, reaching 21.31 miles per hour — the fastest of any Chiefs ball-carrier this season, per Next Gen Stats.
“The anchor man of a 4x1 (relay) in track,” Mahomes said.
One of Cook’s lead blockers? That would be Edwards, who immediately turned up-field after pitching the ball.
“I was waiting on the lateral,” Cook said, before adding once more for emphasis: “Waiting on it.”
He wasn’t the only one. Next to him, cornerback Joshua Williams was also screaming for the pitch, a pair of defenders operating on the same sheet of music.
Well, that circles back to a practice play about a week ago. Edwards had an interception one afternoon in Kansas City, and at the tail end of it, he lateraled the ball to teammate Justin Reid, who wasn’t quite expecting it.
So in the defensive backs room, the players started talking and determined that the next turnover they got, they were going to lateral their way to the end zone.
“We were kind of joking, but it played out today exactly how we planned it,” Williams said.
“It’s crazy it happened,” cornerback L’Jarius Sneed said.
And in real-time: “I felt Tyreek on my ankles, and I was about to get tackled,” Edwards said. “I’m like, ‘Nah, we gotta get this home. We gotta do something else.’ I saw (Cook).
“You gotta have trust to do something like that.”
And the players to execute it.