Chiefs' return to Super Bowl validates mantra to 'Run it back'

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Their fingerprints were still fresh on the Lombardi Trophy from Super Bowl LIV when the Kansas City Chiefs hit on a theme for the 2020 season. They wanted to, in their words, "Run it back" by winning another championship with largely the same cast.

"This isn't the only time," defensive lineman Chris Jones said in the euphoric moments after the Super Bowl win. "We are going to crank this thing up. Kansas City, we are going to build something special here and we are going to come back. We are going to come back. This is not the only one we are going to win for coach [Andy] Reid and the Hunt family. We are going to come back and we are going to make it happen.

"Win not only one championship, [but] two, three, four. We've got to build a dynasty here."

The Chiefs still have some work to do to fulfill Jones' promise, but they're off to a good start. They'll face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Super Bowl LV on Feb. 7 (6:30 p.m. ET, CBS) after beating the Buffalo Bills in the AFC Championship Game.

Their success can be traced to the offseason decision to keep the 2019 roster mostly intact.

"We had a good core and nucleus with Pat [Mahomes] and Chris [Jones] and Tyrann [Mathieu], and I think our mindset was to just fill in as much talent as we could," general manager Brett Veach said after the victory over the Bills. "I think you know when you have a Hall of Fame coach and you have the best player in the National Football League that you're going to have a chance to win every game. I think we knew that there was a good chance that we could go out there and compete week in and week out.

"It was just a matter of filling out the depth of that roster and making sure that when we did run into some issues throughout the course of the season, we were prepared from a depth standpoint."

The Chiefs, who at one point early in the offseason had $177 of salary-cap space, managed new contracts for key players in Jones and cornerback Bashaud Breeland and a restructured deal for wide receiver Sammy Watkins.

They also re-signed others, such as backup quarterback Chad Henne and wide receiver Demarcus Robinson, and even found room for extensions for Mahomes and tight end Travis Kelce.

As training camp loomed, the Chiefs looked set to bring back 10 Super Bowl starters on both offense and defense. The losses were a linebacker, Reggie Ragland -- who, though technically a starter, came out of the lineup on passing downs and played about a quarter of the Chiefs' defensive snaps during the season -- and an offensive lineman, Stefen Wisniewski.

Wisniewski returned to the Chiefs at midseason and is a likely starter in the Super Bowl.

The number of returning starters was reduced as training camp started when running back Damien Williams and guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif opted out for COVID-19 reasons. The Chiefs still went into the season with incredible continuity for any team, much less a defending Super Bowl champion with a tight salary-cap situation and some big contracts to wrestle with.

"The Chiefs seem to have their whole team back," Las Vegas coach Jon Gruden said before a Chiefs-Raiders game in Week 11. "When I look at the Chiefs, 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."

Most of the higher-priced players signed or re-signed by the Chiefs since Veach became the general manager in the summer of 2017 were in the prime of their careers. Watkins was 24 when he joined the Chiefs, linebacker Anthony Hitchens 25, defensive back Tyrann Mathieu 26 and defensive end Frank Clark 25.

Wide receiver Tyreek Hill was 25 when he received a new contract. Jones was 26, Mahomes 24.

The exception was Kelce, who was two months away from turning 31 when he signed an extension last summer. But Kelce just finished his best regular season -- he finished second in the NFL in receiving yards with 1,416 -- and had two big games in the playoffs.

"When we brought the nucleus of this team together, the idea was to have a team that would be together for a number of years," chairman Clark Hunt said. "Many of the key contributors were very young when we either drafted them or signed them as free agents, and we're just watching the group grow up in front of our eyes."

The Chiefs were driven last year by the previous season's overtime loss to the New England Patriots. Their motivation this season is that because they decided to "Run it back," their opportunity to win a second consecutive title is wide open.

"I guess in years past we were the hunters," Veach said. "But they embrace being the hunted, and they love that challenge. These guys are always looking for ways to motivate themselves, so that was another way to do that."