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Dee Ford’s penalty shook up Super Bowl teams’ offseason

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MIAMI — Dee Ford has a chance to ruin the Chiefs’ season for the second year in a row.

This season, he plays for the 49ers. Last season, he played for the Chiefs, who lost in the AFC championship game against the Patriots. Lost because of Ford.

With 1:01 left in that game, Ford lined up in the neutral zone — a five-yard penalty which negated an interception that almost certainly would have won the game for the Chiefs and sent them to the Super Bowl — they had a three-point lead at the time. Instead, they lost when the Patriots scored a touchdown a few plays later.

Monday evening during the opening night of the Super Bowl festivities, Ford reflected on the lowest moment of his career.

“It was hard for a brief period of time,” Ford admitted. “But just like everything else, I had to get over that. Now it’s in a compartment with other bad plays. I got over it.”

The Chiefs never completely got over Ford’s mistake, though. This year, just two days before they beat the Titans in the AFC Championship, Ford’s replacement on the Chiefs, Frank Clark, unloaded about Ford’s penalty.

“That’s a mental mistake,” Clark said. “The ball is right there. You put your hand behind the ball and you’re onside. That’s why I haven’t lined up offsides all season, probably all my career. If I jump offsides, that happens. That’s called battle wounds. It’s OK to jump offsides from time to time as a defensive end. But lining up offsides, it’s inexcusable.”

On Monday night, a reporter asked Ford if Clark’s comments bothered him.

“He’s right,” Ford said, shaking his head. “It’s inexcusable.”

Ford seemed like he was confessing his sins.

The Chiefs never absolved Ford, who was coming off the best season of his career — he had 13 sacks. Despite his terrific numbers, they didn’t offer him a long-term contract extension. They gave him the franchise tag — just a one-year deal — then immediately traded him to the 49ers for a second-round draft pick in 2020.

The Chiefs sold low.

Shortly after dealing Ford, they traded a first-rounder in 2019 and a second-rounder in 2020 to the Seahawks for Clark, then gave him a five-year, $104 million extension. They bought high. That’s how badly the Chiefs wanted to replace Ford. Had he merely lined up onside against the Patriots, he might still be on the Chiefs, and Clark might still be with the Seahawks.

One play changed both of their lives.

“If he didn’t line up in the neutral zone, they would have gone to the Super Bowl and probably won it,” Clark said. “That’s why life is how it is. You never know what you’re going to get out of it.”

Both the Chiefs and 49ers are thrilled with how things turned out. Clark recorded eight sacks this season. Ford recorded just 6.5 sacks, but arguably was the most important player on the 49ers defense.

When Ford is on the field, the 49ers’ sack rate is 16.2 percent, meaning they sack the quarterback roughly once every six times he drops back. Amazing. When Ford is NOT on the field, the 49ers’ sack rate plummets to 5.4 percent, meaning they sack the quarterback roughly once every 19 times he drops back. Amazing.

“Ford unlocks the defense,” 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh explained. “He unlocks it in terms of creating space along the offensive line. And so when you’ve got space for those big guys, it’s hard for those offensive linemen because they can’t just hang on DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead. They have to pay attention to Dee Ford.”

Opposing defenses didn’t always have to pay attention to Ford this season — he was hurt. First he had knee tendinitis and missed most of training camp. Then he injured his quadricep. Then he pulled his hamstring and missed five games. He played only 226 defensive snaps the entire season, or less than 22 percent of the 49ers’ defensive plays.

In that sense, Ford’s season was a disappointment.

But now he’s fresh. And that’s the irony. After ruining the Chiefs’ 2018 season and missing lots of time this season with the 49ers, he’s healthy and ready to redeem himself. Healthier and more rested than if he had played all season.

Was missing time worth it to Ford and the 49ers?

“I wouldn’t say it was worth it, because I couldn’t contribute,” Ford said. “It’s never worth it to me to miss that much time. But it’s what had to be done. It sucked, but I put my head down and worked, and now I’m here.”

Meaning he isn’t over there with the Kansas City Chiefs. Now the Chiefs have something to worry about.

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