Rashee Rice is the rookie who can save a Hall of Fame trio from wasting a year of their careers.
Any year that head coach Andy Reid, quarterback Patrick Mahomes and tight end Travis Kelce are together and not competing for a Super Bowl ring is a dynasty destroyer — and the Chiefs have looked like just another playoff team for most of this season.
Except for when Rice plays like he did Saturday night in a 26-7 AFC wild-card victory against the Dolphins and at a few other points along the way.
“It’s hard to believe that he’s a rookie,” Reid said.
As good of a scouting job as general manager Brett Veach did in 2017 identifying Mahomes and convincing his predecessor to trade up and draft him … and as good of a job as he did hitting on pick after pick in the 2022 draft class to flip the Chiefs into a defensive force … is as bad of a job as Veach did assembling this Chiefs’ receiving corps.
Except for when Rice plays like he did with eight catches for 130 yards and a touchdown — a second score was negated by penalty — in his playoff debut, smoothly catching the ball with his hands away from his body despite the frigid minus-7 degree temperatures.
All 12 of his targets were against off coverage, and he tallied 80 yards after the catch, according to NextGenStats.
“He just keeps working; he’s relentless with that,” Reid said. “He’s got Pat’s respect.”
Why was he needed?
Super Bowl star Kadarius Toney was inactive for yet another game because of his long injury history.
Kelce dropped two passes — and had another high fastball go off his hands — in the first half, continuing the worst season of his prime.
Mecole Hardman quit on a route to beg for a pass interference penalty that should’ve been called but wasn’t.
To make matters worse Saturday, Tyreek Hill — the most dynamic weapon in the NFL and Mahomes’ go-to playmaker from 2018-2021 — broke tackles and shook off pass interference for a 53-yard touchdown catch for the Dolphins to draw within 10-7.
One year ago, the Chiefs proved they could win the Super Bowl without Hill because Kelce was at the top of his game and veteran one-year rental Juju Smith-Schuster was a viable No. 2 option. For the Chiefs to have a chance to repeat, they could have to go on the road in the playoffs next week for the first time in the Mahomes Era and ask Rice to keep filling that Smith-Schuster role.
“We have a lot more games to play right now,” Rice said on Chiefs’ Rewind. “To be able to get this one out of the way and advance is great for the team.”
The Chiefs didn’t sign DeAndre Hopkins or Odell Beckham Jr. in offseason free agency, and they didn’t swing a bold trade for Mike Evans or Davante Adams before the Oct. 31 deadline. Instead, they assembled a cast of pass-catchers that totaled a league-high 44 drops and frustrated Mahomes and Reid.
The Chiefs did not look like the Chiefs.
Except for moments like when Rice was accelerating across the face of a limping linebacker on a crossing route for a game-opening touchdown.
“Trav … understands the whole concept, and he got in the way of my defender and his defender,” Rice said. “I caught the ball, and it was green grass from there.”
Or when Rice was turning up field for a 39-yard gain to convert a third-and-10 and set up the field goal that turned a one-score game into a two-score game.
“Some of those guys hit a rookie wall, and it just seems like he’s pushed right through it,” Mahomes said. “He made a lot of great plays for us that helped us win the game.”
Rice was the seventh wide receiver taken in the 2023 draft (No. 55 overall) and finished with more catches (79) and more yards (938) than the six ahead of him and any behind him other than record-setting fifth-rounder Puka Nacua (Rams).
No wonder, then, that the home crowd was holding its collective breath when Rice limped off in the third quarter after awkwardly slamming his ankle into the frozen grass. And no wonder that Rice’s return for his final catch — to break the franchises’ 53-year-old rookie record for receiving yards in a playoff game — was a sigh of relief.
Rice is the X-factor that could extend the Chiefs’ championship window — or the jeweler for Reid, Mahomes and Kelce to add to a third Super Bowl ring.