May 20, 2024

AS THE FOURTH quarter of Super Bowl LVII neared 11 minutes, Kadarius Toney fielded a punt at his own 37-yard line while the Kansas City Chiefs held a 28-27 lead over the Philadelphia Eagles. Toney was surrounded by seven Eagles and had seemingly no way out of trouble.

After taking a hit, Toney regained his balance and found one. He reversed field and eventually made his way down the opposite sideline to complete the Super Bowl-record 65-yard punt return that set up the Chiefs for their final touchdown of the game.

The play made apparent the talent the Chiefs saw in Toney when they traded for him ahead of last year’s deadline. But this season has so far highlighted why the New York Giants were so willing to trade Toney in the first place.

Toney tore his meniscus during a kick return drill moments before the Chiefs were to begin their first training camp practice. He had surgery and made it back for the season’s first game against the Detroit Lions, and his play was the story of the game: He dropped several passes, including one he deflected to a defender who returned it for a touchdown in a game the Chiefs lost by one point.

Almost a year after dealing for him, the Chiefs are no closer than the Giants were to solving the riddle of Toney. Is he the game-breaker who delivered the big play and scored a fourth-quarter touchdown in the Super Bowl or the injury-prone player who is liable for the 1-yard game he had against Detroit?

“He’s not maybe your every-down wide receiver with pure fundamentals,” said Dan Mullen, who coached Toney at Florida. “I don’t know that he’s going to ever be a No. 1 receiver. That’s not his style of play. But he can be that guy in the return game and the screen game and all of these other things you can do with him.

“You get him the ball and you can see what happens. He’s a weapon you’d love to have on your team, and there’s nobody better than Andy in finding different ways to isolate people and getting them the ball and utilize their talents.”

THE CHIEFS HAD chased Toney for a year and a half before finally finishing the job last year. They hoped to maneuver into position to draft him in 2021 but failed when the Giants picked him in the first round. They tried trading for him in spring 2022 but couldn’t come to an agreement then with the Giants.

All along, it was clear the Chiefs thought a lot of Toney. He caught 70 passes in his final season at Florida, ran a scorching 4.39 40-yard dash at his pro day and had an unusual ability to change direction in the open field and make defenders miss, as he showed on his Super Bowl punt return.

“He’s really good,” Chiefs general manager Brett Veach said. “He can do anything. He’s predominately been a guy that is a slot receiver, returner, runner, gadget guy if you will, but I don’t know if there is a limit on his game because he has a vertical game.

“He was a first-round pick for a reason. There’s a reason why we traded for him.”

After losing two of last season’s top wide receivers, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Mecole Hardman, in free agency, Toney seemed this year to be in a perfect spot to become Mahomes’ new favorite target.

Through five games, Toney has 14 catches for 83 yards, averaging 5.9 yards per catch. He has not found the end zone. He is eighth on the team in receiving yards, behind running back Isiah Pacheco.

“I told coach, I told Pat, I told all the guys, ‘That’s on me,'” Toney said. “At the end of the day, you all count on me and rely on me to make certain plays and I’ve got to be there to do that.’

“There [isn’t] really [any] excuse.”

TONEY’S STINT WITH the Giants was doomed from the day he first set foot in the building in spring 2021. He pulled himself out of his first rookie minicamp practice to adjust his shoe and did not return.

One team source later told ESPN that Toney’s cleats were the wrong size and had caused discomfort because they were too tight. The source said Toney started to wear socks once he arrived in the NFL, something he hadn’t done in college, and they did not fit inside his cleats. And that was just the beginning.

Toney didn’t show up to voluntary OTAs while he and the Giants worked out his rookie contract. Then came the hamstring, ankle, quad, oblique and knee injuries. Toney also had a pair of bouts with COVID-19. By the time all was said and done, he had missed 12 of a possible 24 games with the Giants through a season and a half.

Toney constantly objected to the idea that he was unhappy about playing time or that he was injury prone, despite vague social media posts that suggested otherwise.

In his most productive game in a Big Blue uniform (vs. Dallas on Oct. 10, 2021) he didn’t make it to the finish line. Toney was ejected for throwing a punch in the fourth quarter after hauling in 10 catches on 13 targets for 189 yards while making defenders look silly trying to tackle him.

With all this on his résumé, general manager Joe Schoen and Brian Daboll decided Toney didn’t fit the culture they were trying to build in their first season in New York.

Toney was drafted by the previous GM and coach, Dave Gettleman and Joe Judge. One former Giants assistant thought Toney could blossom into the “best receiver in the league.”

It never happened in New York. Schoen traded Toney prior to the deadline because he knew Toney’s value could continue to diminish below the third- and sixth-round picks the Giants received from the Chiefs, especially if he missed more games because of injury (which he eventually did).

The Giants had lost trust in Toney. It dated back to the arrival of the new leadership in the 2022 offseason, when they didn’t know what the talented wide receiver was doing in regards to his training/rehab in the offseason. By the time the draft came around several months later, other teams were under the impression that Toney’s services could be had for the right price, even though Schoen insisted he never “shopped” the talented receiver.

When Toney joined the Giants in spring 2022, he hurt his knee on the first day of offseason workouts and needed to have a procedure. He again spent the rest of the spring and most of the summer on the sideline

Toney was active in Weeks 1 and 2, logging two catches for 0 yards, but reinjured his hamstring in the Week 2 win over the Carolina Panthers and that sidelined him for Weeks 3 and 4.

Toney then injured his left hamstring in practice ahead of Week 5, saying the injury to his left hamstring was likely a result of trying to return too quickly from the previous injuries to his right hamstring.

Schoen and the Giants weren’t sure Toney would stay for treatment through the Giants’ Week 9 bye. So they jumped at the Chiefs’ offer, which came several weeks before the actual trade deadline.

The Giants used the third-round pick to trade for tight end Darren Waller. The sixth-round selection turned into cornerback Tre Hawkins III, who was the surprise of Giants training camp and has appeared in four games this season.

IT’S NOT TOO late for Toney to become the player the Chiefs long envisioned. The Chiefs have seven wide receivers, but none has played consistently well this season. Tight end Travis Kelce is the team’s leading receiver.

In any case, the Chiefs have no receiver quite like Toney.

“He brings energy,” Kelce said. “I think his ability speaks for itself. He’s very quick, can put his foot in the ground with the best of them. And he’s special with the ball in his hands. He’s one of those guys where his awareness is crazy. You think he’s got eyes in the back of his head because he sees guys coming from different angles and stuff.

“He’s electric. … He was that piece for us in the Super Bowl and he was that piece for us through the year last year.”

Toney has been with Mahomes for almost a full season. But they’ve rarely had dedicated practice time together. Training camp is the best time for that. Toney was in camp with the Giants last year and didn’t practice at camp this year after having the meniscus surgery.

The Chiefs are hopeful that playing with a quarterback like Mahomes can expand Toney’s game.

“I don’t know if [the Giants] were a team that really vertically pushed the ball down the field,” Veach said. “It’s a fair question to [ask]: Has he ever played with a quarterback that likes to push the ball down the field?

“We have a lot of high hopes for him. I think the sky is the limit for him.”

The trade to the Chiefs, at least initially, seemed to energize Toney. He said shortly after joining the Chiefs that he already felt more a part of things in Kansas City than he ever did with the Giants. Mullen said the switch in teams was a much-needed fresh start for Toney.

But eventually, he’s going to have to produce.

“He’s an outside-the-box player,” Mullen said. “But he’s playing for an outside-the-box coach and with an outside-the-box quarterback and an outside-the-box organization that allows him to have some freedom and have some fun.

“He’s got a unique set of skills. He’s like Liam Neeson in “Taken.” He’s got a special set of skills that make him very dangerous, but it’s only if he’s in the hands of the right person.”

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