The Unbeaten Chiefs: Reborn in Red
Tammy Reid must have hugged 30 of them. Coaches, players and front office men streamed down the red-carpeted corridor from the field to the home locker room, each reaching out for a high five or an embrace with the giddy coach’s wife/team mom in the pink jersey and blue jeans.
This is the closest NFL teams get to the joy of a homecoming victory: For the first time in seven years the Chiefs defeated the Raiders at Arrowhead, 24-7. Last down the pathway came the suit-clad Clark Hunt—the suddenly brilliant 48-year-old team owner who hired Tammy’s husband, Andy, and his friend, John Dorsey, and then promptly took a back seat on this ride to an undefeated start. She wrapped her arms around his shoulders and sang out:
“6-0! What do you know?!”
It was nine months ago, on Jan. 13, when Dorsey, the 53-year-old former NFL linebacker, and Reid, the 55-year-old former college lineman, sat down together in the coaches’ conference room at One Arrowhead Drive in Kansas City and broke down the Chiefs’ roster. Hired two weeks apart—first Reid as coach, then Dorsey as general manager—they had worked together on the Green Bay staff from 1992 to ’98, when Reid was an assistant coach and Dorsey a scout. They brought to later roles the lessons learned with the Packers, and soon agreed upon a way to repair a franchise that finished 2-14 in 2012. The early schedule has been kind—Chiefs opponents have a combined winning percentage of .303—and they've yet to play that other undefeated team in the AFC West, the Broncos, but it's difficult to dispute the early results.
“I believe the greatest combinations of general managers and coaches are when guys believe philosophically in the same thing and they can check their egos at the door and work for the common goal,” Dorsey told me on Saturday. “Whenever you have that, you can do some really good things.”
He and Reid agreed on several necessary personnel measures—a new quarterback, a defensive-scheme shift and an influx of speed. But before that, there were fences to mend with players, media and fans. Dorsey brought in his player leaders, one by one, and shared with them his vision. “When we first met, I felt like I knew him for a while,” says fourth-year safety Eric Berry. “He cracked a few jokes and told me the plan. I immediately jumped on board.”
Part of the plan included signing pending free-agent wide receiver Dwayne Bowe to a five-year, $56-million contract, completed less than two months after Dorsey arrived. “It was so cool. He was like a father figure,” Bowe says of their first meeting. “He told me how proud he was of me and said ‘Let’s get this show on the road and win some games.’ ”
The last regime didn’t have this sort of relationship with its players. Former general manager Scott Pioli, fired after four seasons with the club, drafted or otherwise signed more than a dozen 2013 Week 1 starters. But he also created a “culture of fear,” as two independent player agents described it.
“Guys were afraid to take chances because they were afraid to make mistakes, from the players to the coaches to the scouts,” one agent said. “When Dorsey and Reid came in, you saw them mending fences.”
Pioli declined an interview request for this story.
Beginning in OTAs this season, Reid pulled off the remarkable feat of increasing contact in practice, with players eventually tackling to the ground in training camp, and not just avoiding mutiny but inspiring trust. He asked the players to think of the Chiefs as a football family, and stressed the positives over negatives as he moved on from an unpleasant ending to his 14-year run as Eagles coach without a Super Bowl title.
“They made it clear that they were going to bring a certain kind of work ethic in practice that was going to be just like games,” running back Dexter McCluster says. “The way they approach coaching it makes you want to go out there and give everything you have. Coach has a road map, and all we have to do is follow.”
Often, the things Reid and Dorsey didn’t do spoke as loudly as what they did. Pioli and Todd Haley, the head coach he eventually fired near the end of the 2011 season, had a running joke that rubbed some the wrong way: If they disapproved of an action of a staffer or a player, they would joke, “That’s 2-14 right there.” They were referring to the season before Pioli took over, a 2-14 campaign in 2008 that ended with the departure of longtime general manager Carl Peterson and coach Herm Edwards. Ironically, after injuries ravaged the roster early in the 2012 season, Pioli and his final head coach, Romeo Crennel, finished 2-14.
“He wasn’t doing it to bring us down,” says McCluster of Haley’s joke. “He was trying to make us better. But coach Reid and Mr. Dorsey really take a different approach.”
And it’s an exceedingly optimistic one. Dorsey is a self-described “glass-half-full” guy—playfully antagonistic, but at his core desperately hopeful. His sister’s son, Kansas State wide receiver Curry Sexton (who still gets called “soft” by his uncle despite his accomplishments), recalls a regular-season game during the 1996 Packers' Super Bowl season when Dorsey was so nervous he left the stadium in the second quarter and hurried to a local church to pray for three quarters. Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie, a former Packers executive, fondly remembers searching the room for Dorsey at key points in games and finding him in a corner, unable to watch from his box seat.
“That’s him,” McKenzie says. “An oddball.”
Dorsey may be that, but the plan that he, Reid and several others conjured to save the Chiefs makes all the sense in the world now that the team is 6-0.
“They said, ‘What happened last year, that’s done and over with,’ ” McCluster says. “ ‘This is the 2013 Chiefs, and we’re going to win, and this is how we’re going to do it.’ ”
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Dorsey and Reid's plan had three elements.
1. Find a quarterback
And it didn’t have to be Peyton Manning, whom Pioli had coveted a year before, when Manning was on the market. Reid envisioned a West Coast offense with pistol and spread elements from the college game. But the quarterback needn’t have a big arm; he only needed to manage the game, keep a talented defense well-rested and get the ball to one under-utilized playmaker: running back Jamaal Charles. Niners quarterback Alex Smith, on the trade block after being replaced in San Francisco by Colin Kaepernick, was perfect. He also showed poise in off-field adversity, never flinching as a teammate or a team spokesman even as the younger quarterback took his job. That was important to Dorsey, who sought a calming locker room presence.
“When I talk to guys I always ask myself, ‘Is this a good locker room guy?' ” Dorsey says. “And Alex has got those qualities. He’s very steady. The good ones have it. Guys naturally gravitate to him without him advertising that he’s the guy.”
Sounds like Packers Super Bowl MVP Aaron Rodgers.
“It’s not fair to compare the two,” Dorsey says, “but Aaron’s personality and Alex’s personality are very similar.”
The Chiefs reached a deal with San Francisco on Feb. 27, sending a 2013 second-round pick and a 2014 conditional pick to the Niners for Smith. They got a leader, a gym rat (Dorsey says Smith leads quarterback film sessions into the late night hours on his off day) and a checkdown auteur. After five games, Smith had targeted receivers more than 20 yards downfield fewer times than 30 other quarterbacks, according to Pro Football Focus. Charles already has nearly as many catches, more receiving yards and twice as many targets as he had all of least season, with 33 receptions on 49 targets for 300 yards through six games. His five catches for 50 yards led the team in Sunday’s win.
Crennel favored an old-school 3-4 defense, asking his defensive ends to be two-gap players. The emphasis was not on getting upfield, but on standing your ground and occupying two blockers while linebackers did the work. The nosetackle, in this case young Dontari Poe, drafted by Pioli, was asked to do something similar: command double- and triple-teams. And as the offense floundered with Matt Cassel and Brady Quinn at quarterback, the defense regressed from a 12th-ranked unit in 2011 to 25th in 2012. Schematic changes to go along with the offensive revamp were necessary, but Dorsey and Reid decided not to raze and rebuild a roster suited for Reid’s favorite, the 4-3.
“He saw what personnel he had,” Dorsey says. “All good coaches adjust to what kind of personnel they have. He thought this was a pretty good defense, so he went out and hired a 3-4 expert in former Jets coordinator Bob Sutton. Now Bob’s done a marvelous job on the defensive side of the ball.”
How marvelous? Sutton’s defense has already eclipsed the 27 sacks Crennel’s unit had last season. With 10 sacks on Sunday against the Raiders, the Chiefs are at a league-best 31. He’s doing it with varied blitz looks and disguised coverages—Kansas City has logged 13 QB hits or hurries from defensive backs in six games, compared to eight all of last season. And the gap-shooting defensive line play preferred by Sutton and his players has resulted in breakout seasons for Poe (4.5 sacks) and Tyson Jackson, the former LSU end and former No. 3 overall draft choice who was miscast as a two-gapper as Pioli’s first pick as Chiefs GM in 2009.
“We’re doing a lot of different things,” Berry says. “More blitzes. More attacking. It’s what we try to do: put pressure on offenses so we can make plays.”
In other words, be the hammer, not the nail.
3. Restock the roster
On Aug. 31, NFL teams had until 6 p.m. ET to reduce their rosters from 75 players to 53. It was the culmination of a long summer for most teams, and the final wave of roster moves before the regular season. For some it meant the weekend’s work was over—Jets coach Rex Ryan notably took the day off to attend his son’s college football game. The Chiefs staff, however, was just getting started. As part of the process that saw the bottom 30 players chopped off the roster, Dorsey and director of player personnel Chris Ballard met to plan what became, essentially, a re-draft.
They identified a handful of expendable players on the 53 and built a board consisting of non-Chiefs who would likely become free agents on cut day. When waivers came around on Sept. 1, they struck seven times, signing three former Seahawks—cornerback Ron Parker, tight end Sean McGrath and defensive tackle Jaye Howard—plus erstwhile 49ers corner Marcus Cooper and wide receiver Chad Hall, Browns linebacker James-Michael Johnson and Packers linebacker Dezman Moses. The moves raised eyebrows on a typically quiet day in the NFL. Now those players are turning heads, with all but Howard getting significant playing time.
“That’s something we haven’t done after any cut day I can remember—go out and find free agents who can contribute,” says Mitch Holthus, longtime radio voice of the Chiefs. “We’re calling them the Magnificent Seven.”
Parker came up with a pivotal sack-strip of Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo in the season’s second game, and Cooper, a 2013 seventh-round pick of the Niners, scored a touchdown on a fumble recovery in a win versus the Giants. Cooper also started Sunday for the injured Brandon Flowers, breaking up five passes (though giving up Oakland’s only touchdown).
The common denominator between the two former scrap heap DBs? Speed. Cooper runs the 40-yard dash in 4.4 seconds flat. Parker: 4.35.
Athleticism was part of the rationale for drafting Eric Fisher No. 1 overall in Reid's and Dorsey’s first draft in April. Yet he has become, in these five months, the lone blemish of the new regime’s short and successful record in Kansas City. As a right tackle, the Central Michigan product has allowed at least one sack in three games, and against Oakland he was bulldozed from the very first play, which ended in Sio Moore wrapping up Smith. Dorsey says if he had to do it over again he’d pick the same guy, but like the season, the rookie is a work in progress.
Give Dorsey and Reid the benefit of the doubt on Fisher. After all, who can argue with 6-0?