SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Why can’t anyone stop Patrick Mahomes and Travis Kelce? Because no one knows what they’re going to do on a given snap — including Mahomes and Kelce.
That’s the San Francisco 49ers’ assessment of the Kansas City Chiefs’ quarterback-tight end duo: They’ve been together long enough now — seven seasons — that they can make things up as they go, and by doing so they thwart even the best conceived plans to stop them.
“It’s really a thing of beauty to watch — the imagination that he has in his game,” general manager John Lynch, a former safety, said Friday when asked about Kelce’s postseason success.
Lynch recalled having a similar, unspoken communication with former Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker Derrick Brooks and with former Denver Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey. You play so long with someone, Lynch said, and all it takes is a look or a nod to know exactly what the other is doing.
On Sunday, Mahomes and Kelce took on a Baltimore Ravens defense that boasted Pro Bowlers at both linebacker spots and at safety. Kelce, however, still caught all 11 passes that went his way for 116 yards. That included a 19-yard touchdown against safety Kyle Hamilton, the first touchdown Hamilton gave up to a tight end all season.
The 49ers defense, meanwhile, has been strong against tight ends this season. That is, until Sunday when Detroit Lions rookie Sam LaPorta caught nine passes for 97 yards, a season high for a tight end versus San Francisco.
Defensive coordinator Steve Wilks said the 49ers have to be especially focused on Kelce when the play breaks down and Mahomes starts to scramble. That’s when their special chemistry can be most damaging.
“That’s a point we try to emphasize in practice — the down is never over,” he said. “We’ve got to be ready to extend the down once Mahomes starts scrambling.”
Lynch noted the Mahomes-Kelce connection has a third member, Chiefs head coach Andy Reid.
“I think you have to give Andy a lot of credit for giving them that freedom,” Lynch said. “A lot of coaches will say: ‘Hey, you’ve got to play within our system. You’ve got to run the route called.’ And you can tell a lot of times (Kelce’s) just making it up. But it works out really well.”
Lynch spoke to reporters for a little more than 20 minutes Friday on a variety of topics:
• He was asked how the team will replace assistant general manager Adam Peters, whom the Washington Commanders hired last month to be their new GM. The Commanders also are retaining Martin Mayhew, their previous GM who had worked under Lynch from 2017 to 2020.
Lynch didn’t give specifics, but it sounds as if he could give Tariq Ahmad and/or RJ Gillen expanded roles. Ahmad is the director of college scouting while Gillen is the director of pro personnel.
“We’ve got a really good plan,” Lynch said. “I can tell you this: It’s gonna come internally. Not to say that later on there might be an add — we’re always looking. But we’ve got great candidates. … We really do a great job of training these guys such that there’s a pipeline.”
• Lynch was his usual upbeat self during most of his session, but he became serious when asked about the 49ers’ effort issues in the conference championship. Both he and Wilks — who called some plays Sunday “embarrassing” — said the issue has been taken care of.
“Effort’s a non-negotiable,” Lynch said. “I mean, that’s one of our core values. And I believe that in my heart of hearts. We’ve got four Hall of Famers who represent the defense I played in in Tampa. And if you ask any one of them, ‘What was our calling card?’ (they’d say) it starts with effort.
‘Not good enough’: 49ers know recent defensive effort won’t cut it vs. Chiefs
“Sometimes that comes,” he said of defensive lapses. “There’s excuses for it. But they’re just that — they’re excuses. But that has to be non-negotiable. Play your heart out, and we’ve got a lot of good players and a lot of good depth and you can get (a breather). So those aren’t plays that we’re proud of, those players are proud of. It’s been addressed, and I’d be real surprised if I saw it again.”
• Lynch knew there was a possibility he’d have a rookie kicking in the Super Bowl when the team drafted Jake Moody in the third round, and he said he had no regrets about that selection.
Moody missed four field goals during the regular season and has had a miss in each of the 49ers’ playoff games so far. He also went 0 for 2 in the preseason opener at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas, the site of the Super Bowl.
“I think a lot of people want to talk about some challenges that he’s had,” Lynch said. “But I like to look at how he responds to those. And he’s very steady. He really is. And we felt very convicted (during the draft). We had a lot of confidence in Jake and we still have a lot of confidence. Because we see him day in and day out. I think he’s ready for the moment and really proud of the season he’s had.”
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• Lynch gave his version of the story team owner Jed York told Thursday — the account of Kyle Shanahan telling York, early in 2022 training camp, that then-rookie Brock Purdy was the best quarterback on a roster that also included Jimmy Garoppolo and Trey Lance.
“My jaw hit the floor,” said Lynch, who was on hand at the time.
He said he and Shanahan had discussed the quarterback trio previously and that they “had a hunch” Purdy would turn out to be what he is today. But he wasn’t exactly expecting him to tell the owner that at that juncture.
“Kyle is about as direct a person as there is,” he said. “He’s real easy to work with because there’s no gray area.”
49ers owner Jed York on another Super Bowl shot, Brock Purdy and Jim Harbaugh
Odds and ends
• Both Arik Armstead (foot, knee) and tight end George Kittle (toe) missed practice for the second consecutive day. Armstead’s issues caused him to miss five games in December and January, and he’s likely trying to stay off his feet as much as possible in the run-up to the Super Bowl.
Like Shanahan on Thursday, Kittle declined to discuss the specifics of his injury but said it wasn’t serious. That is, both are expected to play in the Super Bowl. Meanwhile, linebacker Oren Burks (shoulder) and cornerback Ambry Thomas (ankle) were listed as limited participants.
• For the Chiefs, defensive end Charles Omenihu (knee) and guard Joe Thuney (pectoral) missed practice this week. Omenihu tore his ACL on Sunday and will not play in the Super Bowl.
(Top photo of John Lynch: David J. Phillip / Associated Press)