KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — The 35-year-old journeyman quarterback that made the two plucky plays in the final minutes of regulation that helped get the Kansas City Chiefs into the AFC championship game was fortunate to even be on the team.
Chad Henne had spent nearly a decade with Miami and Jacksonville, where his career could best be described as the essence of mediocrity. He was 18-35 as the starter for two franchises perpetually rebuilding, and upon his release from the Jaguars in 2017, he found himself in a competition with another veteran, Matt Moore, to be Patrick Mahomes’ backup.
“It was almost a flip of the coin,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said this week.
Henne got the job. And three years later, he had the opportunity to reward the Chiefs for their faith in him. Mahomes left in the third quarter of their divisional-round game against the Browns because of a concussion, and Henne calmly stepped into the huddle and led them to a field goal on his first drive to push the lead to 22-10 late in the third quarter.
Those two plucky plays came in the fourth, when the Chiefs were clinging to a 22-17 lead and trying to run out the clock.
The first came on third-and-14 deep in their own territory, when Henne got his creaky old legs going so fast that it even surprised his teammates. He was flushed from the pocket and scrambled to his left, his eyes trained downfield until he had crossed the line of scrimmage, at which point he tucked the ball and took a bit of a shot as he dived for the first down.
He came up inches short, leading to the second play. Reid had gone over the scenario with Mahomes and Henne the previous night — fourth-and-1 with a chance to win the game — and they had a call they liked, so the Super Bowl-winning coach sent his backup quarterback onto the field. Henne was so calm that it appeared he was trying to pull Cleveland offside and that Kansas City would otherwise punt, but then he called for the snap and snapped a pass to Tyreek Hill in the flat.
It went for a first down. The Chiefs ran out the clock.
Mahomes got the Chiefs fans everywhere tweeting “HenneThingIsPossible.”
“I talk to Chad basically every morning, I think. We’re usually in there pretty early,” Chiefs safety Tyrann Mathieu said. “He is a true professional. If you were able to watch this guy every single day, Monday through Saturday, he has the same routine.
“Any given moment you need to be prepared to play at a high level, and it was good to see him make some plays.”
So what kept Henne going all those years, when the Dolphins no longer wanted him and the Jaguars let him go? What gave him the humility to accept a job as the backup to a young hotshot, uncertain he would ever step on the field again?
“I think my personality,” Henne said. “I’m always a competitor, throughout the years, if it went my way or didn’t go my way. I just felt like I loved the game still. I loved the locker room and coming here just enlightened me. Coach Reid and his staff and the players here brought a lot out of me, and seeing Patrick and his success, he’s helped me out more than I feel like I helped him out. It’s just a pleasure being here. This is why I play.”
Henne fractured his ankle in the preseason last year and again could have hung up his cleats, especially when Moore was signed and proved successful when Mahomes had a knee injury. But he instead went through grueling physical therapy, ultimately returning to the team for the postseason.
The Chiefs thought so highly of him that they gave him a two-year, $3.25 million contract last March.
“You never want to see a guy like Patrick go down, one of the best players in the league,” Henne said. “That’s why I’m here, come in prepared. There’s a lot of great players around me that make me feel confident.”
There are signs that Mahomes will be cleared to play against the Buffalo Bills in Sunday’s conference championship game, at which point Henne will once again be at the ready as the backup. But if concussion symptoms linger and Mahomes is unable to step on the field, the Chiefs have confidence that Mahomes can carry them back to the Super Bowl.
“All the guys have confidence in Chad if he has to be in there, you know, just like they did with Matt the year before,” Reid said. “It’s the way those guys handle themselves. So you know, I don’t think anything would change if he has to play. I don’t think we think twice about that. If Pat can’t go, then Chad jumps in and rolls.”