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Super Bowl LVIII: Rashee Rice rising to occasion as key piece of Kansas City Chiefs' offense

LAS VEGAS -- Rashee Rice didn't know what he was walking into when he strolled onto the practice fields at Texas Christian University last April. He had been working out for weeks with his old college teammate at Southern Methodist, quarterback Shane Buechele, and the two had rekindled a reliable rhythm in their passing game connection. Only this time, Rice didn't just find Buechele warming up in preparation for that day's sessions. There in the middle of the field, tossing passes to a collection of professional receivers who were in town to train as well, was Buechele's teammate at the time: Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes.

To his credit, Rice wasn't fazed by the chance to catch footballs from a player who had won his second NFL MVP award and Super Bowl ring a few months earlier. He stretched, lined up with the other receivers and ran his routes with an intensity consistent with a young man hoping to be selected high in that year's draft. The pace of the workout exhausted him at times, but Rice also exuded confidence with every throw Mahomes rifled his way.

"You know that feeling you get when you shoot a 3-pointer in basketball and you know it's going in?" Rice said recently. "It felt like that when I saw the ball in the air the first time he threw it to me."

It seemed like that would be the last time Rice and Mahomes crossed paths, until the Chiefs used a second-round pick in the 2023 NFL Draft to add Rice to their franchise. He was a talented prospect at the time, a player who was supposed to need serious seasoning before he could help the defending Super Bowl champions. That characterization crumbled as soon the Chiefs sensed Rice could grow a lot faster. Now they're heading into a Super Bowl LVIII matchup with the San Francisco 49ers knowing full well his presence could determine whether this game ends in their favor.

Rice's ability to develop from an intriguing talent into one of the best first-year receivers in the league is noteworthy on its own. Throw in the fact that he literally was the key that unlocked a surprisingly inconsistent Chiefs passing attack, and that makes him even more impressive.

"This year came together for me when I got drafted by (Chiefs head) coach (Andy) Reid," Rice said during Monday's Super Bowl Media Night. "Wherever he puts me, he always says I need to make a play because I'm going to get the opportunity. And that's what I try to do."

"He's super talented," added Chiefs offensive coordinator Matt Nagy. "So much so that now we're designing plays to get him the ball and see what he can do with it. When the personnel department can get a guy like that, give him to the coaches and then watch him develop and grow quickly, that's a win-win situation for everyone."

The numbers Rice generated have been critical to the Chiefs attack. He produced 79 receptions for 938 yards and seven touchdowns this season; only the Los Angeles Rams' Puka Nacua was more prolific as a rookie wide receiver. Reid's appreciation for Rice's role in this offense is even more telling when considering the way Rice's opportunities increased over the course of the year. The rookie had only 41 targets in the first nine regular season games and 61 in his final seven (he didn't play in Kansas City's season-ending win over the Chargers).

It wasn't lost on Rice that his ascendance in this offense began in the same place he'll be playing this Sunday: Allegiant Stadium. He had eight catches for 107 yards in a 31-17 win over Las Vegas in Week 12, highlighted by a 39-yard touchdown scored after he grabbed a short crossing route and out-raced the Raiders defenders to the end zone. Rice fondly remembered that moment while wearing sunglasses and answering reporters' questions during Media Night. A few minutes into the session, fellow wide receiver Mecole Hardman ambled over and teased the first-year pro about all the attention he was receiving.

Rice was such a limited presence for the Chiefs at the start of the season that he had just 17 receptions through the first five games. Now he's preparing for the biggest game of his life fully knowing that the San Francisco 49ers must find a way to contain him. "Every week he's gotten a little better," Reid said at the start of the postseason. "He's got a great relationship with Pat (Mahomes) and they talk through things. MVS (Marquez Valdes-Scantling) has been phenomenal for him [as far as] just sharing his knowledge and experience. He's all ears. He wants to be great, and he's willing to work at it."

Added Mahomes: "I think he just has a better understanding of the entire offense. He still is going to continue to get better and better and learn more and more. He's willing to learn, he's always behind those veteran guys, asking questions and getting in the extra work. He's a great football player and he has all the physical ability and I think he has the mental attitude to go out there and get better and better every single week. Obviously we need him to be great right now but I think he'll continue to get even better after the season and into the rest of his career. That's the type of attitude that he has."

The most astonishing aspect of Rice's success so far is how quickly it came. Reid is known for running a complex offense that demands quite a bit from the wide receivers in his system. They need to see the defensive coverages in the same way Mahomes does, while also being able to adjust routes on the fly based on the schemes presented to them. Younger players, especially those just entering the league, tend to struggle with that level of sophistication.

Second-year pro Skyy Moore still hasn't found his footing -- he had 22 receptions as a rookie and 21 this season before a knee injury sidelined him -- while Kadarius Toney, a former first-round pick of the New York Giants acquired in a midseason trade last year, has yet to make any sizable impact in the system.

"There are a lot of details in this offense that may seem small or insignificant but everything is for a reason," said wide receiver Justin Watson, a sixth-year pro in his second season with the Chiefs. "We'll have two plays that every single route looks the same on paper but they are two different play calls that we like against two different defenses. You have to be able to take it from the page onto the field. It's a big playbook and every route is different based on the coverage."

Rice acknowledged that he needed some time to acclimate himself to such expectations when he arrived for his first training camp. As Nagy remembered those early days, he said, "We used to joke that Rashee was drinking water through a fire hydrant with all the stuff that was overwhelming him because he could barely get out of the huddle." Rice also had problems dealing with the intensity Reid demanded in those summer practices. He even vomited during one of the first camp sessions after all the constant running in stifling humidity.

Rice impressed the veterans with his willingness to push through those setbacks -- "He usually hit a wall and got winded but he always came back and made plays," Watson said -- and to stay diligent in his preparation. "The relationship I built with the older guys off the field allowed me to feel comfortable asking questions," Rice said. "I know I'm young and I might have been asking crazy questions that they'd heard before. But it also made me open up and ask about things that could help me grow."

Rice started the regular season as one of many Chiefs receivers hoping to make an impact. The top wideout from 2022, JuJu Smith-Schuster, signed a free-agent deal with the New England Patriots, and Reid believed he had several appealing options to replace his production. Rice ultimately was one of seven wide receivers kept on the roster when the regular season began. It didn't take long to see that he had the best chance to be a difference-maker on this squad.

The Chiefs had big hopes for receivers like Toney and Valdes-Scantling, but they struggled with drops. Moore often disappeared in games before landing on injured reserve. The rest of the bunch -- Watson, Justyn Ross and Richie James -- had made their names as role players, the kind of targets who worked best as fourth and fifth options. That left Rice in a position to rise to the top of the depth chart for a team that was used to more prolific offensive production, especially during the tenure of All-Pro receiver Tyreek Hill, who was traded to the Dolphins in 2022.

It wasn't an easy process. The Chiefs loved Rice's 6-2, 203-pound frame and the way he eluded tacklers after the catch, but he too often found himself out of position when Mahomes looked his way early on. Rice also fumbled in a loss to Buffalo and would have recorded another in a defeat at Green Bay if officials had not ruled he was down on replay. The first half of the season was also especially tough on him because he wanted to do more but couldn't find his rhythm.

It wasn't until a 21-14 win over Miami in Frankfurt in Week 9 that Rice began to display more maturation. He was playing faster, picking things up quicker and, as Nagy said, "It was starting to click with him." Added general manager Brett Veach: "When we had that lull there with our receivers [struggling], he just got better and better. It was never a matter of talent with him. It was familiarity with the offense, being able to move him around and utilizing him as part of the game plan. In the beginning, we just put him in one position and had him run some plays. But as he made plays, and that talent we saw in college unfolded on Sundays, we slowly gave him more. So instead of being the second or third option, he started to become the primary."

The Chiefs created more possibilities for Rice by streamlining their offense late in the season. Instead of relying on a system where Mahomes spread the ball around to as many as eight or nine different players, Reid relied more on his most dependable playmakers. A surprising 20-14 loss to the Raiders on Christmas Day -- when the Chiefs offense gave up two defensive touchdowns to Las Vegas -- resulted in that change, but it also helped that Rice had grown so much. Heading into the postseason, the Chiefs pinned most of their offensive hopes on him, Mahomes, tight end Travis Kelce and running back Isiah Pacheco.

Rice did his part on Super Wild Card Weekend, leading the team with eight receptions for 130 yards and a touchdown in a 26-7 win over Miami. He's spent this past week trying to prepare his mind for the 49ers while also taking more cues from his veteran teammates. "I've just gotten the vibe throughout the practice so they haven't really had to say anything to me," he said. "I'm on the same train everybody else is. We all came in ready to work. It's just a little more intense than it usually is."

Rice explained what a lot of Chiefs have said over the course of this postseason run -- that all the ups and downs of this year turned out to be a blessing. Despite all the frustrating moments, Kansas City found a way to win its eighth straight AFC West title, along with three consecutive playoff games (the last two coming on the road). The offense wasn't nearly as dangerous as the team has been accustomed to in previous seasons. On the other hand, the defense became elite and helped this bunch return to its fourth Super Bowl in five years.

It's fair to wonder where the Chiefs would be if Rice hadn't become a larger part of this narrative. After that Miami game in Germany, Nagy tried to prepare Rice for better things ahead, pulling the rookie aside and encouraging him to keep improving. Even though Rice only caught two passes for 17 yards in that contest, Nagy knew he could contribute far more to this offense once this time of year arrived. Rice appreciated that advice then, and he cited that moment as a critical step in his development.

Rice might not have started the year as a player opponents needed to fear. However, he's coming into his first Super Bowl with exactly that type of expectation. "I'm bringing the Mamba mentality," Rice said. "Obviously, I'm in the Super Bowl in my rookie year but what I've done best is to not let the moments overpower our goal. So I'm going to continue to stay focused on doing what I have to do."

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