KANSAS CITY, Mo. - First, this: No matter how exasperated he was and how fast he tried to atone, it was absolutely inappropriate for Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce to do what he did to offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy during the 19-13 loss to the Colts Sunday at Arrowhead Stadium.
A player can't do that, after all, because it suggests some combination of contempt and recklessness and selfish disregard for an entire operation that should look more harmonious with all it seems to have going for it.
It's the sort of thing that if you didn't know better might be the indication of a broader fault line. It also leaves you wondering how it would have been treated by the Chiefs, who haven't so much as publicly condemned his action, if a lesser player had done it. Or how it would have gone over if he'd done the same thing to Andy Reid.
The loss of control is all the more disappointing coming from Kelce, whose radiant star power makes him influential and who seemed to have matured through the volatile ways that splotched his first few seasons in Kansas City.
Having said all that, this also is a more nuanced matter with some mitigating elements to it. It was wrong, but ... how wrong?
Starting with just what it was you might think Kelce actually did, which was magnified on a day he resumed openly squabbling with referees.
With Bieniemy in Kelce's grill after the typically sure-handed tight end had dropped two passes (including one that initially was ruled a fumble) on the Chiefs' second drive, Kelce boiled over and placed both hands on Bieniemy and either ...
Shoved him, defined by dictionary.com the way we think of that term in this context as "to push roughly or rudely; jostle."
Or pushed him, defined as "to press upon or against (a thing) with force in order to move it away."
Call it semantics. But in watching this over and over and over and over, I see a relatively measured thrust, not push coming to shove, and the edge come off as soon as teammates intervened.
And I also see Kelce initiating a prompt makeup hug, without which the entire episode would linger differently in my mind.
At first blush, the reflexive hug actually made me think of that scene in "Animal House" when John Belushi repeatedly smashes the guitar and shrugs out a "sorry." But watch closely, and it's too emphatic to be insincere after doing something he said he immediately regretted.
"I mean, you guys saw me hug him afterwards," Kelce said Thursday, in his first media availability since. "I mean, I love that guy. That will never change, and I appreciate him always being on my tail to get me going."
Kelce later repeated his love for Bieniemy and called him "like a father figure." He also said "he's helped me out tremendously as a person, as a professional, and I'm sure he'll keep doing that throughout the rest of my career ...
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"Sometimes (in) football, you get a little heated with your brothers or your coaches."
That doesn't make what happened right or even OK, and it seems to me that Reid ought to have made it clear that can't be condoned when he addressed it on Monday.
While perhaps Reid did say something directly to Kelce, his public statement mostly rationalized it.
"Listen, you see that every week, everywhere. That's football. It's an emotional environment ... Those things happen, but it all worked out alright afterwards," said Reid, who suggested it was more a matter of extra cameras for a Sunday night game capturing the scene than it was about anything unusual. "If you look around the league, it's an emotional game. You see grown men up here who have tears in their eyes after a game. You know that also carries on the field.
"They all want to do good. Coaches want them to do good, and the players want to do good. Emotions get involved sometimes."
This isn't what you call holding somebody accountable. And even as we try to fully understand what happened, the trouble with that is what it says about who's in charge here and to what degree Kelce might feel emboldened to return to his old ways rather than be chastened by this.
The spirited Kelce, who spent a good 20 minutes or so after Sunday's game just staring into his locker, spoke about the internal conflicts he felt in the frustration of the loss.
"I haven't felt like that in a while, and that's definitely something I've been thinking about a lot," he said. "Just how to handle a lot of those situations, looking back seeing how I connected the dots after maybe a frustrating play. And how to kind of hone that in and be able to attack on the next play with a clear mind.
"It's football. It's not always going to go your way, so I've just got to maintain the level of focus and the level of excitement that I have for the game."
His focus and excitement, of course, can be at odds in a game that simultaneously demands both composure and an emotional peak. Kelce's answer when asked about moving on from the loss is as telling about the nature of football as it is his own view.
"The building was kind of drained yesterday; that means everybody cares," he said. "We've just got to light a torch, get a little angry and attack the next game with more aggression and more purpose than we did the last one."
From his view, quarterback Patrick Mahomes said he hadn't felt the need to try to refocus Kelce during the loss
"He knows how to handle this game; he knows how to have success," Mahomes said. "So I'm going to let him go through what he goes through in order to do that."
It's the singular journey of a unique talent, one who has learned from previous mistakes and seems contrite about this one. But he will remain challenged to channel the right balance.
And however we might be able to reconcile what happened, the Chiefs must make it clear that Kelce simply can't do what he did.
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