Good news awaited Kansas City Chiefs fans on Wednesday afternoon’s injury report.
Star quarterback Patrick Mahomes, though in concussion protocol and battling a toe injury, was classified as a full participant in practice.
The designation breeds optimism for Mahomes’ availability when the Chiefs host the Buffalo Bills in Sunday’s AFC Championship game.
In fairness, Chiefs coach Andy Reid explained, he had scheduled his team for light work on Wednesday. Nonetheless, Reid was pleased that Mahomes “took all the snaps” and “feels good” just three days after sustaining a concussion in a 22-17 win over the Cleveland Browns.
“He’s done well up to this point and they just progress you through (each) day,” Reid said. “So today was work – limited work – and no contact, I think, was the schedule today. That’s kind of what we’re doing on Wednesday, so it fit in perfectly.”
The NFL’s five-phase concussion protocol progresses players from symptom-limited activity to aerobic exercise to football-specific exercise for 30 minutes or less. Club-based non-contact training drills is the step immediately before full football activity clearance. An independent neurological consultant must examine a player before he is cleared.
That’s the blueprint for Mahomes’ route back to competing against Buffalo in Sunday’s AFC championship, the third straight at Arrowhead Stadium. The Chiefs aim to become the first NFL team to defend their Super Bowl title since the Patriots in 2004-05.
Veteran journeyman Chad Henne, who replaced Mahomes against the Browns, would be expected to start if Mahomes is unavailable.
“The goal is to have Patrick back,” five-time Pro Bowl receiver Tyreek Hill said. “But I feel like it doesn’t matter who out there. Whoever steps in at quarterback, we’re going to put our confidence in. … If Chad come in the game and he’s feeling like awkward or something like that then who knows man how that game will turn out. But I feel like the moment he came in, guys were patting him on the back, showing him love, making plays strong.
“That really helps a guy out.”
Mahomes sustained the concussion halfway through the third quarter in the divisional contest when he scrambled on an option play, facing third-and-1. Browns linebacker Mack Wilson wrapped Mahomes just short of the chains. Mahomes rolled over then pressed the ground, attempting to stand. He instead wobbled, his teammates quick to grasp him until trainers were in place. Mahomes’ eyes appeared out of focus as he walked slowly off the field between trainers.
He was evaluated in a sideline blue medical tent and then the locker room, ruled out shortly after as he entered NFL concussion protocol. Henne, a 13-year NFL journeyman, replaced Mahomes and completed 6-of-8 passes for 66 yards and an interception. Henne was sacked with 2:33 to play, the game on the line, when he barreled 13 yards to set up fourth-and-1. The Chiefs didn’t force the Browns offside, or punt, or run. Reid keyed up a quick pass to speedy receiver Tyreek Hill in the flat. Henne converted. The Chiefs won. And Mahomes, from concussion protocol in the locker room, tweeted an iconic “#HenneThingIsPossible.”
“He came in the huddle and was just crisp as can be, spitting out the play calls perfectly, no hesitation,” left tackle Eric Fisher said. “He was ready to go.”
Henne said he’ll be ready to go if needed against the Bills. He’ll continue to take mental reps, dropping back and going through his progressions to the side any time Mahomes is cycling through team snaps. After practice, Henne said, he and fellow quarterback Matt Moore ensure they get throws in.
“For my preparation, it’s going to stay the same,” Henne said. “Prepare like you’re the starter each and every week no matter what happens.”
Chiefs teammates, will, too. Hill – who caught eight catches for 110 yards last week, three for 32 by way of from Henne – expects the group to step up and compete, regardless who’s behind center.
“We’re still going to compete because it’s still in us,” Hill said. “We can’t just not go out there Sunday and play hard. We wouldn’t be playing at the highest level if it wasn’t in us.”
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jori Epstein on Twitter @JoriEpstein