THE CHIEFS HAVE GONE FROM 2--14 BOTTOM FEEDERS TO THE LEAGUE'S ONLY UNDEFEATED TEAM. BUT DON'T BE SO SURPRISED. THIS TURNAROUND IS BUILT ON A STRONG FOUNDATION OF PLAYERS, A SHREWD FRONT OFFICE AND A NEW COACH WHO HAS BROUGHT OUT THE BEST IN BOTH
ONE PLAY from the Chiefs' 9--0 start illustrates why they love playing for new coach Andy Reid.
It happened in Week 8, late in the first half, at home against the Browns. Kansas City had a first down at the Cleveland 28. As the Chiefs broke the huddle, they lined up in trips right, with wideout Dwayne Bowe, slot receiver Dexter McCluster and tight end Anthony Fasano, left to right.
Earlier, when Kansas City had used this formation to run Z Out Zebra Post, Bowe noticed one of the defensive backs clap twice and nod in his direction. Then, on the snap, two defenders blanketed Bowe as he sprinted up the right seam, and quarterback Alex Smith had to look elsewhere. After the series, when Bowe went to the sideline, Reid asked, "Hey, 82, what do you see?"
If they were to call Z Out Zebra Post again, Bowe said, he should run a short out instead, taking two DBs with him, while McCluster ran the deep seam route. That way McCluster would be single-covered. With his quickness, he'd easily get a step on his man.
So here came that chance. Reid called Z Out Zebra Post, with Bowe and McCluster instructed to switch their routes. At the line of scrimmage, Bowe got the double clap again; he knew he'd draw two defenders. As he ran the out route, safety T.J. Ward and cornerback Buster Skrine bracketed him. Meanwhile, streaking downfield, McCluster got two steps on corner Joe Haden. Smith threw. McCluster stretched for the ball at the goal line. Bingo. Easy touchdown.
"Hey, 82 ... 82!" Reid yelled to a grinning Bowe when he returned to the sideline. "You got a job doing this coaching thing someday."
McCluster's TD made the score 20--7. The final was 23--17. Bowe had essentially designed the play that made K.C. 8--0. "I've never had input like that," he says. "Some coaches have an ego. Some coaches want to win. Andy's that kind—he just wants to win."
ONE DAY from the Chiefs' 9--0 start illustrates why their assistant coaches love working for Andy Reid.
For Kansas City, as for most NFL teams, Tuesday is the players' day off. But last week at the Chiefs' practice facility, as the only remaining unbeaten team prepared for its ninth game, Tuesday didn't look much different from a typical Wednesday or Thursday. Around lunchtime two tables in the second-floor cafeteria were filled with players, talking and eating, and two more were filled with coaches, taking a break from game planning for the Bills. Reid, in a red windbreaker, chatted up everyone. Eventually owner Clark Hunt would come in for a bite. Three offensive coaches, including coordinator Doug Pederson and assistant Brad Childress, looked as if they hadn't gotten much sleep; Childress had three-day stubble and a raspy voice.
"Looks pretty busy for a Tuesday," a visitor told Pederson.
"We're 8--0," he replied, "but we work like we're 2--6."
Last year, in the Chiefs' crash-and-burn 2--14 season, between 10 and 15 players would populate the building on the off day—watching tape, working out, taking a steam. On this Tuesday there were about 35. Never has a one- or two- or three-win NFL team started its next season 9--0. "This doesn't feel like an NFL team," said safety Eric Berry. "It feels like a college team. We want to put in the extra time on our own to do whatever it takes. That's the atmosphere Andy's created."
Second-string quarterback Chase Daniel was in the building for seven hours last Tuesday, dissecting video from four Buffalo games with the starter, Smith. Said Daniel, "Andy'll ask me, 'How are the guys doing? What do you think of running this play out of this formation? How do you like this call right here?' I'm the backup quarterback, and he always wants to know my opinion."
ONE SCENE from before the Chiefs' 9--0 start illustrates why Clark Hunt bought into Andy Reid.
Last January, two days after Reid was fired by the Eagles, a four-man contingent led by Hunt was on a plane to Philadelphia. Hunt wondered, as did everyone else on board, whether Reid had burned out. He had coached 14 years in football-frenzied Philly. He had witnessed two sons become addicted to drugs—one of them, 29-year-old Garrett, having died of an overdose while working with the strength and conditioning department in Eagles camp just five months earlier. It seemed only natural to think, This man needs to breathe; he needs six months on a beach.
When the group arrived at Philadelphia International Airport, Hunt asked to spend some time alone with Reid in a conference room. Reid told Hunt that in the last few years he had grown to hate the personnel side of the job. There had been a power struggle in the Eagles' front office among owner Jeff Lurie, president Joe Banner, former personnel czar Tom Heckert and current GM Howie Roseman. Reid had had enough.
"Look, I'm a football coach," he said. "All I want to do is coach."
Hunt planned for a four-hour interview with Reid. It lasted eight. This is what thrilled the Chiefs' owner most: Reid had already watched offensive and defensive video of every Kansas City snap from the 2012 season.
Think about that. Hunt had called Reid on Monday afternoon, around 3 p.m., and here it was, about 10 a.m. on Wednesday, and Reid had seen and taken notes on 1,988 plays from the Chiefs' nightmare campaign. "He knew our personnel very, very well," says Hunt. "The amount [of work] he had done was really impressive. I saw in him an energy, an excitement. He had a twinkle in his eye, as if this were his first head-coaching interview."
Reid wouldn't be interviewed for this story; to keep the focus on the team, he has refused all one-on-ones in the first two months of the season (even when his former Eagles quarterback, Donovan McNabb, now with Fox Sports, came calling). But asked about the "he needs time off" notion during the off-season, Reid told Sports Illustrated, "I love what I do. Garrett loved what I did. It doesn't feel like work. I didn't want to sit home and not coach. What was I going to do? There was nothing I wanted to do as much as coach football. The thing with Garrett—it was not very sudden; this was a long, long process. Unfortunately, [drug addiction] is so rampant in America, and people who have gone through it realize that you don't just, as in my case, lose a son; you lose a great friend. The other side of this is working to move on like a man and handle what life throws at you."
In fact, friends say that, deep down, Reid believes Lurie's decision to fire him came a year or two too late. Hunt was eager for change as well. Fans had been so angry over the Chiefs' performance under coach Romeo Crennel that late in 2012, some had taken to wearing black to Arrowhead Stadium, which in better years was awash in red.
This has a chance to work, Hunt thought a few minutes into their session. By the end of it, this was his man—he wanted Reid badly. Reid canceled his trip to meet with Cardinals brass. ESPN was reporting a 95% chance that Reid would join Arizona, but he pshawed that. "The Hunts are one of four or five bedrock families in the NFL," he said later. If Clark Hunt was offering, he was in, and the five-year deal was done 48 hours after the interview.
ONE LONG NIGHT in September, two months before the Chiefs reached 9--0, illustrates why GM John Dorsey loves working alongside Andy Reid.
Reid had empowered Dorsey to fine-tune the roster as August ended, and because of the circumstances—Kansas City was No. 1 on the waiver priority list by virtue of having the worst record in 2012, so the team would get every player it claimed after the final cutdown on Labor Day weekend—this was no small task. "It was like a second draft," says Dorsey.
The Chiefs got the waiver list at 8 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 6, and had until 11 a.m. the following day to make their claims. So Dorsey and seven scouts combed through tape of 35 players—they'd already begun their work based on unconfirmed reports of guys being waived—until 2:30 a.m. on Saturday.
They napped. They showered. They were back at it by 5 a.m., studying tape for five more hours, then meeting to finalize their choices.
Reid wasn't involved. He meant what he'd said to Dorsey when he hired him: You're doing the personnel.
This led to an awkward situation. The cutdown to 53 players, made on Friday, was one thing; that happened with every team. But now Dorsey was putting claims in on seven new players from around the league, meaning that assistant coaches were going to have to teach them the playbook, and fast. Meanwhile, K.C. players who were still acquainting themselves with the new regime would watch as seven of their buddies got fired—replaced by seven guys they didn't know.
"Andy brought the team into a meeting," Dorsey says, "and he told them, 'I know this is tough; I know a lot of these guys are your buddies. But you have to trust us. You have to help us get these guys ready to play.' So he's trusting us to do our job."
The players had to trust Reid. Reid had to trust Dorsey. And the players, in turn, had to trust that Dorsey was firing and hiring the right seven guys.
Evidently, Dorsey did. One of the imported cornerbacks, Marcus Cooper, who had been drafted and dropped by the 49ers, was groomed for a nickel role immediately. Veteran corner Dunta Robinson, who himself had only signed with the Chiefs in March, told the secondary group, "We gotta get this guy ready right now."
The seven newbies showed up to practice for the Week 1 opener on a Wednesday. Five days later, six of them played in Jacksonville. They averaged 25.6 plays in a 28--2 victory.
Cooper, especially, has shown that Reid was right to trust his GM. In Week 5 against the Titans, he played gunner on the punt team and recovered a muffed ball in the end zone for a touchdown. Later, with six minutes left, he stepped in front of receiver Nate Washington to pick off a pass in Tennessee territory, leading to a clinching field goal. Cooper was responsible for 10 points that afternoon. The Chiefs won by nine, 26--17.
That, said Berry, "showed us that [the new members of the front office] knew what they were doing. Going into that Tennessee game, we were like, This kid looks good; now let's see what happens under the bright lights. He showed us that day. Then the Oakland game—that was icing on the cake."
The next week: Chiefs up 14--7 with four minutes to play, Raiders quarterback Terrelle Pryor driving toward a tie. Cooper, starting for the injured Brandon Flowers, outfought Denarius Moore for an interception. Chiefs win. Cooper played all 71 defensive snaps and, in addition to the pick, deflected four passes.
Now jump 16 days later, to Oct. 29, three hours before the NFL trading deadline. Over the previous 14 seasons, Reid would have been fielding or making calls at this point, on the off chance there was a trade that could help his team. But not now. A club source says that Reid's attitude on potential moves at the deadline was, I don't know, and I don't care. I leave that to John.
ONE SPEECH and one hire before the Chiefs' 9--0 start illustrate why the puzzle pieces have fit so well for Andy Reid. Reid loves Jon Gruden, the two having worked together under Mike Holmgren for three years in Green Bay. In January, when he was in need of a defensive coordinator for his K.C. staff, Reid heard from the Monday Night Football analyst. "You gotta hire Bob Sutton," Gruden told him.
Gruden relates the story: "I go around the planet every year trying to learn new tricks. So a few years ago I'm visiting the Jets, talking to [assistants] Bill Callahan and Brian Schottenheimer, and we're breaking down plays from five in the morning till 10 at night. This defensive coach, Bob Sutton, is sitting in the back of the room, and then we talk for a while, till midnight. And I find out this guy knows defense. It's not just the defensive fronts, now. His understanding of coverage concepts tying into the overall scheme was amazing. And I thought, This is one of the greatest teachers of football I have ever met. I tried to get Bob and Andy together before, but it didn't work. Now, here, this is one of the great marriages in football—two of the best teachers the game has seen."
Sutton has quite a pedigree too: the discipline of Army (which he coached from 1991 through '99) and the freewheeling, attacking style of Rex Ryan (under whom he worked for four years in New York). While the Chiefs got acquainted with his blitz-happy schemes, one memorable address from Reid hit home. "Men," Reid told the players the night before opening the preseason against the Saints, "this is a beautiful thing we're involved in, the National Football League. Not everyone gets to play here. I want to see your personalities. I want you to have fun. Football is fun. Show me who you are out there."
Defensive players, especially, loved that. "I never heard a coach tell me, Let your personality show out there," says linebacker Derrick Johnson. "But it makes sense, doesn't it? You play loose, you play like you're having fun—and you're going to have fun, and you'll play better."
Before Reid and Dorsey arrived, Kansas City had averaged 4.8 wins in the six previous seasons. But one thing that has been largely overlooked in K.C.'s rise: just how well-stocked the roster was with players from the eras of Carl Peterson/Bill Kuharich (Flowers, Johnson, running back Jamaal Charles, tackle Branden Albert and linebacker Tamba Hali) and Scott Pioli (Berry, McCluster, defensive tackle Dontari Poe, defensive end Tyson Jackson and linebacker Justin Houston).
Above all, what Sutton saw when he got the job was a deep pass-rush roster: Hali and Houston on the outside, Johnson and Poe on the inside. The choreography has worked. The Chiefs totaled 27 sacks last year. Through nine games this season they have an NFL-high 36. "Speed kills," Sutton tells his players. As do some of the strange rush combinations that Sutton runs—Houston and Johnson rushing together over the same gap, Poe cleaning up on the inside. Holding nine straight opponents to 17 points or fewer? It's mind-boggling in this pass-happy NFL.
"That is incredible, under 17 every week," says Johnson. "In eight years in the NFL, I've never seen anything like this defense. One of the keys is that we're always moving. It's hard for people to get a read on us because we won't be in the same spot twice."
ONE CATCH, early in the Chiefs' 9--0 start, illustrates how this fresh beginning has been so successful for Andy Reid.
On the sixth play of the opener, at Jacksonville, Jamaal Charles broke the huddle and jogged out wide right. He was the only receiving option on that side of the formation. Confused, linebacker Geno Hayes looked around, then focused on Charles, lining up to bump him.
Why the confusion? Because only 14 times in all of 2012 had the speedy running back split out like a wide receiver. At the snap, Charles received only a small shove, got inside Hayes's outside shoulder and sprinted upfield on a short slant route with the linebacker in pursuit. Smith hit Charles in stride. Gain of 15.
It has been well-documented what a perfect fit the 29-year-old Smith was to run Reid's strict interpretation of the West Coast offense. Accuracy issues aside, Smith (another Dorsey acquisition) doesn't turn it over much; he has just four interceptions and hasn't lost a fumble through nine games—all the more impressive considering that the offensive line is one of the team's few weak spots.
But what hasn't been as widely noticed is how great Reid has been for Charles. Already this year, the back split out wide 36 times. Add in his eight snaps in the slot and you've got 4.8 times per game that Charles, one of the most dangerous open-field threats in the league, is essentially playing receiver. That's five times as often as he did a year ago. The result: Charles isn't just leading the Chiefs in receptions with 47 (after never having more than 45 in a season), he's almost lapping the field. He's 14 ahead of Bowe.
"When I first met with Andy," says Charles, "he talked about wanting to get me in space and do a lot of things with me. So the first game in Jacksonville, we do it, and I see the surprise on their faces.
"Now it's not just catching it out of the backfield—[I'm running] slants and go routes, split out. And they're covering me with corners, not linebackers. Andy's playbook has taken my game to another level."
Indeed, one move, one play, one scene after another illustrates why the 9--0 Chiefs placed their trust in Andy Reid.
"SOME COACHES HAVE AN EGO," SAYS BOWE. "SOME COACHES WANT TO WIN. ANDY JUST WANTS TO WIN."
"HE HAD A TWINKLE IN HIS EYE," HUNT RECALLS OF MEETING REID, "AS IF THIS WERE HIS FIRST HEAD-COACHING INTERVIEW."
HAVING LOST BOTH HIS JOB AND HIS OLDEST SON IN THE SAME YEAR, REID SAID, YOU "MOVE ON LIKE A MAN AND HANDLE WHAT LIFE THROWS AT YOU."
"I NEVER HEARD A COACH TELL ME, LET YOUR PERSONALITY SHOW," SAYS JOHNSON. "BUT IT MAKES SENSE, DOESN'T IT? PLAY LOOSE, LIKE YOU'RE HAVING FUN—AND YOU'RE GOING TO HAVE FUN, PLAY BETTER."
PRO FOOTBALL NOW
TheMMQB.com editor-in-chief Peter King assesses the league at midseason, Thursday at 10:30 a.m., on SI.com's weekly live NFL talk show, presented by John Hancock and hosted by Maggie Gray and Amani Toomer.
Photograph by AL TIELEMANS/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
CAUTION TO THE WIN Alex Smith has been the perfect QB for Andy Reid's low-risk system: Kansas City has turned the ball over less than once per game.
DAVID E. KLUTHO/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
TOO MANY CHIEFS Or not enough protection? It can feel like some of both to QBs like Case Keenum, who was sacked five times by K.C. in Week 7.
DAVID E. KLUTHO/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
REID OPTION The former Eagles coach has liked what he's seen in Smith, who has lost only four times in his last 32 NFL starts.
DAVID E. KLUTHO/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
DONNY ON THE SPOT Another example of why Dorsey is trusted: Donny Avery. The free-agent pickup tops the team in receiving yards.
AL TIELEMANS/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
BREAKING AWAY Blending free agents such as TE Anthony Fasano (above) with established stars like Charles (left), Reid & Co. have produced a runaway playoff team.