How the AFC West has crumbled around the Chiefs — and why KC is responsible for it

The savior of the Broncos is gone in a flash — just 18 months after his arrival — and paid more than $10 million per win before they took his key card. It unraveled so quickly in Denver that it’s almost easy to forget how encouraged Russell Wilson, his coaches and general manager were when this all started.


The introductory words still ring:

“Come on ya’ll. Russell Wilson. Holy (crud).”

And then it turned to, well, (crud).

The Broncos are set to eat about $39 million to not employ Wilson next season. And then in 2025, they will absorb a $53.6 million cap hit to have him, again, do anything but throw footballs while donning orange and navy.

This isn’t a column on Wilson from 600 miles away in Kansas City. He is merely the symbol of the bigger picture.

The Chiefs have wrecked the keeping-up-with-the-Mahomeses blueprints implemented by their most immediate rivals — to the point where you can’t help but wonder when those rivals will finally acknowledge the reason for the trend.

The rest of the AFC West division will pick fifth, 12th and 13th in the 2024 NFL Draft. All three teams have gone through head coaching changes since a 2022 offseason that was supposed to make the AFC West the toughest division in football. You’d think they’d ask themselves how they got here.

I’ll help: a foolish reaction — or overreaction — to the Chiefs. They want to emulate the Chiefs’ success, yet time after time, they ignore how they’ve achieved it.

The simple answer is Patrick Mahomes, but if we’ve learned anything over these past few years, it’s that Mahomes alone is too simple an answer. And that’s coming from someone who believes he deserves the overwhelming majority of it.

Just not all of it. There’s a reason the NFL had never seen a quarterback with a salary cap charge greater than 13% win a Super Bowl until Mahomes came along. It’s really hard to build a supporting cast with limited resources. Mahomes is better than most, if not all, sure. But the Chiefs have done it better than most, if not all, in the same situation.

They have been big-picture thinkers, a recognition that avoiding bad contracts is just as key as securing good ones. The rivals seem to have overlooked that part. It’s why I scoff at the suggestion that the Chiefs should shove all-in for the chance at becoming the NFL’s first three-peat in history.

Have we been paying attention?

At what point will the rest of the league pay attention? Is the Russell Wilson circumstance finally the lesson?

Well, there have been cautionary tales everywhere.

• There is Wilson’s leftover contract that will put the Broncos in salary cap hell — without a quarterback, no less — for the next two years.

• There is Von Miller eating up nearly 10% of the Bills’ cap this season — a year after recording zero sacks. That’s right. Zero. Oh, and even after they (likely) cut him following the season, Miller will then charge $15.4 million on the 2025 budget and $9 on the 2026 budget after they cut him.

• There is 32-year-old wide receiver Davante Adams set to occupy 10% of the Raiders’ salary cap next season and catch footballs from, well, whom exactly? He will either charge $44 million to the cap in 2025, or the Raiders will cut him and keep paying $15.7 million for nobody in ‘25 and another $7.9 for nobody in 2026.

• There is Deshaun Watson’s embarrassment — for more reasons than one — in Cleveland after an up-and-coming team discarded a quarterback who outplayed him last year.

• Oh, and there is whatever the Chargers have been doing.

The common thread through the plot of examples: There is no trust-the-process mantra. There is instead a rushed process, one that skips over the steps the Chiefs have taken, to try to catch the AFC kings, only for it to catch up to them later.

I’m not going to pretend the NFL lacked urgency or anything of the sort before Mahomes arrived. It’s not a new phenomenon for teams to foolish throw away a future for the chance to attempt to load up for one or two years. But neither can we pretend the timing of such comfort with albatross contract numbers to 30-something NFL players is coincidental with the Chiefs’ dominance.

It’s just that, at some point, they ought to figure out it’s the opposite manner in which the Chiefs have built that dominance. The luxury of some patience has come to Kansas City when Mahomes is on the roster, you could argue. I’d get that argument. But I’d argue Mahomes has made it even more enticing, not less so, for a front office to believe this is the year, and the Chiefs have looked at the big picture anyway.

The Chiefs’ dynasty started with their division dominance, the precursor to what would come next. They did not gloss over that step, nor the tough-but-necessary ones that followed.

Let the rivals ignore that part.