The first public words this week from Travis Kelce aren’t much, and depending on your perspective, you can make them fit whatever you thought before.
If you are reading this, you know the story about the Chiefs star. He declared himself mature in an interview broadcast nationally before the Chiefs’ season opener, and is now working on a streak of four consecutive games marked in some way by his knucklehead tendencies.
An unexplained suspension. Unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for shoving a defender in the back. A taunting penalty for shoving the ball into a defender’s man parts. Another taunting penalty in the Chiefs’ win over the Eagles on Sunday, the details of which are murky, but in some way involve him rushing toward the opponent’s sideline after a touchdown.
When approached by The Star during a relatively quiet moment in the Chiefs’ locker room on Thursday, Kelce was polite, friendly, and entirely uninterested in talking about the drama.
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“I’m just going to go ahead and let my play speak for itself,” he said.
OK. But had any teammates said anything to him this week, in addition to whatever’s come from the coaching staff?
“I’m just going to leave it where it is right now,” he said.
If you are inclined to believe Kelce is an unrepentant child, you can read the lack of public regret — he avoided all questions about it on Sunday, too — as a sign he’s not about to change.
But if you are inclined to believe Kelce is a genuinely good-natured man who loves his teammates and team, you can read the lack of public defense and reference to staying low-key as a sign he is about to change.
The problem is that Kelce is most likely both of those things.
We don’t know professional athletes. Not in any real way, and especially not when you consider how much more often you see your neighbors and friends and you still don’t know exactly what’s in their deepest thoughts and motivations.
But there has never been a whiff of off-the-field scandal with Kelce in Kansas City. The closest thing would be some social-media posts hinting he was out late the night before a game, but come on. He had 160 yards and a touchdown the next day. Kelce hasn’t been arrested, hasn’t been charged with any crimes, and more than that low standard, there are stories all over town of him being gracious and kind and at times even shy when out in public.
He has also shown himself to be unrepentant about all these unnecessary penalties. He is a recidivist. The Chiefs knew he was a habitual line-stepper when they drafted him. They thought they could control him, and they thought he could help them win. They were right about the last part, and have been proven wrong over and over and over on the first part.
Kansas City Chiefs coach Andy Reid fielded a trio of questions about tight end Travis Kelce's rash of penalties on Wednesday. The third one tested Reid's patience.David Eulitt The Kansas City Star
You can tell Chiefs coach Andy Reid is ticked off about all this. Reid is a fascinating man. The son of an artist and doctor, with a kind heart he doesn’t publicize, and a self-deprecating sense of humor that would make him the funniest famous man in town if he wanted. He can be articulate and expansive when he wants, like when someone asked about rookie sensation Kareem Hunt the other day.
His answer was 105 words. His answer to a follow-up was 136 words. Then came the Kelce question, about whether he’s continued asking Kelce to stop acting like an eighth-grader.
“Travis knows how I think.”
Two follow-ups drew a total of seven words, and then he broke character after another question later.
“I’ve taken care of it,” he said. “I’ve taken care of it. If you want to ask me again, I’ll give you the same answers. You got it? Is it clear to you?”
The problem is that Reid hasn’t taken care of it. If he had, the questions wouldn’t be asked, because there would be no recidivism to talk about. The same questions have been asked each time, not just these last four games, but before that, too.
After Kelce’s fine for a, um, gesture about a referee’s call. After he openly criticized Reid’s play calling. After he threw his towel at a referee (that one earned an ejection). After each, Reid has given the same answers.
Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce was frustrated with team's 19-17 loss to Titans on Dec. 18, 2016.Blair Kerkhoff The Kansas City Star
He may even sit Kelce this weekend, for a series or a half or even a game. But there is no indication it will do any good. Kelce has spent a football life challenging authority, and he’s never backed down, and you’d have to say he’s won. He’s a star, one of the best in his profession, and the penalties have never hurt the Chiefs in any tangible way.
Reid appears as frustrated about Kelce’s repeated penalties as anything in his five years here, and some of that has to be the realization that this is beyond his control. NFL coaches like to control everything. They are, literally, dictating the livelihoods of dozens of grown men.
Reid is better than most at this, and has been doing it longer than all but a few. This appears to be a problem he cannot solve. Because if Reid had his way, these knuckleheaded penalties would be growing less frequent with Kelce maturing and “knowing how he thinks.” Instead, they are growing more frequent with Kelce’s growing wealth and fame.
Reid has threatened Kelce before, starting with the phone call before the Chiefs drafted him, but this is nothing new for Kelce. His college coach kicked him clean off the team, and accepted him back only after Kelce spent a year working in a call center and his old teammates begged.
Here is where we get to the solution part of this column.
Because his teammates are the ones most capable of getting Kelce to act more like a fifth-year professional who will turn 28 in two weeks.
Kelce cares about that in a personal way. His entire life has been challenging convention and authority figures, but he’s always craved the approval of his peers.
He continued to live with those old teammates the year he was kicked off his college team, and if you’ve seen him out around town — and if you’ve been out around town, there’s a good chance you have — you’ve probably seen him with his current teammates.
The most passionate he’s ever been talking with reporters wasn’t about a penalty he was called for, or even a touchdown he scored. It was defending Eric Fisher after a holding penalty in last season’s playoff loss to the Steelers.
Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce was unhappy with a holding call that negated the game-tying two-point conversion during the closing minutes of an 18–16 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the AFC Divisional playoffs on January 15, 2017, at Arrowhead Stadium.Tod Palmer The Kansas City Star
Reid talks constantly of the character on his roster. It’s a bit of a bizarre piece of ground to stake out, considering the Chiefs have actually been best at finding value where others saw risk. But either way, there are some strong personalities. Justin Houston. Derrick Johnson. Alex Smith. Eric Berry, even now.
Each of those men is older than Kelce, with more years in the league than Kelce. If Reid has been unable to make a difference with Kelce, those teammates can try in a way that is fundamentally impossible for a 59-year-old coach.
Kelce has been lucky, so far. None of his silliness has cost the Chiefs a game. His teammates have always covered for him. That cannot last forever, one way or the other. The coach has tried. The coach has failed.
Time for Kelce’s peers to try, for his sake and theirs. It’s the only way the meaning of Kelce’s words will be what Reid wishes them to be.