The Kansas City Chiefs have ample well-known superstars. However, one man along the defensive line has proved invaluable while keeping a low profile.
Mike Pennel almost saw his dream die. Now he’s in the Super Bowl.
Nothing has come easy for Pennel. The 28-year-old defensive tackle was undrafted out of Arizona State before sticking with the Green Bay Packers for three years in a backup role. After two years with the New York Jets, he landed with the New England Patriots this summer on a two-year deal. He didn’t make it to September before being released.
Out of football for the better part of two months, Pennel’s future was unclear at best. Then, two teams came calling.
“We got lucky with Mike because we actually called a week before we signed him and he was scheduled to fly out to Green Bay,” said Kansas City general manager Brett Veach. “He started his career in Green Bay and was scheduled to go back up there. Then Green Bay had an injury with the tight end position so they had to cancel.
“It kind of worked out that Mike became available again. Right after the (Week 7) Denver game when we played that Thursday night, we actually got wind that he wouldn’t be signing and we’d have another opportunity to get him. We actually brought him to the hotel before we played Denver and said ‘look, it’s too soon, our gameplan is in, but the next day we’ll sign you.’ It’s worked out. He’s been great. He brings a lot of energy and he fits right in with that crowd.”
The Chiefs have thrived since Pennel became a fixture along their defensive front. While the improved health of defensive end Frank Clark and the defense’s overall comfort level with first-year coordinator Steve Spagnuolo’s defense have been key factors, the run defense has been significantly better when Pennel is clogging the middle.
In eight games without Pennel in the lineup, Kansas City has allowed 158.4 rushing yards per game on 5.39 yards per carry.
In 10 games with him (including playoffs), the Chiefs have surrendered 96.3 rushing yards on 4.28 YPC.
The first set of stats would have ranked dead last in both categories across the league during the regular season. The latter statistics would’ve checked in seventh and 18th, respectively.
“It’s just comfortability,” Pennel said. “When I came in they treated me as family. The guys in the locker room, Chris Jones, Frank Clark, Xavier Williams, (Derrick) Nnadi, those guys brought me in and treated me as family from day one. It was real easy to play for guys like that.”
Incredibly, none of the opponent’s total rushing totals in Pennel’s 10 games came within 30 yards of Kansas City’s previous average without him.
“He’s got a great passion for the game,” said Chiefs defensive line coach Brendan Daly. “He’s got a great energy. He works really hard. He’s got a good skill set in terms of length, and he’s got some explosiveness. He’s been able to learn well in terms of quickly picking up our system and what we’ve asked him to do.”
Almost out of football, Pennel finds himself on the brink of a championship.
“Surreal,” Pennel said when asked about being in the Super Bowl. “It’s been a real rollercoaster, man. At times and moments, I couldn’t predict what was going on but I’m glad I found a home in (Kansas City). I’ve been able to play real well and gel with these guys.”
Yet this week hasn’t been easy on Pennel. On Monday, the defensive tackle spoke with reporters and found himself at the foot of controversy with stories coming out accusing him of slamming the Patriots for a lack of transparency over the summer. Pennel provided a statement on Tuesday night to FanSided on the matter.
“I have the utmost respect for the New England Patriots organization, including the entire coaching staff. Although my tenure there was short lived, I am grateful for the opportunity and appreciate the time I spent with the Patriots.”
Regardless, Pennel’s prowess will be needed on Sunday, after the San Francisco 49ers ran for 285 yards and four touchdowns in an easy 37-20 win over the Green Bay Packers in the NFC Championship Game.
Earlier that day, the Chiefs defeated the Tennessee Titans at Arrowhead Stadium, earning the Lamar Hunt Trophy — named for their founder — for the first time. Pennel, a Kansas City native and lifelong Chiefs fan, was seen in tears on the field and continued weeping in the locker room. When asked why, he couldn’t narrow down the reasons.
“Just everything,” Pennel said. “With how this year has gone from knowing how hard I work to knowing how much things were different a couple months ago, being able to play in that game and contribute to my team in a positive way was overwhelming.”