When the Chiefs’ season came to a crashing thud on Jan. 6, courtesy of a deflating 22-21 home loss to the Tennessee Titans in the Wild-Card round, there was no shortage of fan anger.
Chiefs fans, who have been tortured by more than their fair share of crushing playoff losses over the last 25 years, lit up the team’s social-media accounts with angry tweets and messages. Many demanded the firing of defensive coordinator Bob Sutton, who guided the league’s 28th-ranked unit. Some called for the trade of quarterback Alex Smith, whose 1-4 playoff record as a Chief had worn fans out.
Though there have already been some tweaks this offseason — such as the recent trade of Smith — nothing happened with Sutton because chairman and CEO Clark Hunt trusts coach Andy Reid fully, and Reid gave zero consideration to relieving Sutton of his duties.
And during an interview with The Star on Friday at the Super Bowl, Hunt not only explained why Sutton was ultimately retained — in short, he doesn’t believe Sutton was playing with a full deck due to injuries and significant cap issues — but also why Hunt considers the 2017 season a success and has high hopes for new general manager Brett Veach’s plan for the future.
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“First of all, looking back at it, and this will be clearer the further we get away from it, you would say it’s a successful season,” Hunt said. “We won the division — only the first time in the history of the franchise we’ve won two division championships in a row — we made the playoffs.”
But, Hunt conceded, it was still a very strange year.
“The playoff game was almost a microcosm of the season, where you saw the dominant Chiefs, and then the second half of the season, we just didn’t play very well,” Hunt said. “So we’re very disappointed about the playoff loss, but I will look back and say it was a successful season.”
But even though the defense took much of the blame for the team’s uneven play, particularly after they blew an 18-point lead in a loss to the Titans in the playoffs, Hunt said Reid did not feel that Sutton was an obstacle to their success in 2017.
“That’s completely Andy’s call,” Hunt said. “I let him make all the calls on his staff and believe firmly that’s the right way to do it, whether your coach is Andy Reid or somebody else. You can’t have a situation where the owners are undermining the head coach with his staff selections.
“But Andy is a big believer in Bob Sutton, and if you look at Bob’s tenure with the Chiefs, our performance on defense has been very good. This year, we obviously struggled in certain areas, and Andy knows we have to get better there next year, Bob knows we have to get better there next year ... and Brett Veach also knows.”
The inclusion of Veach, who was promoted to general manager last summer following the firing of John Dorsey, was telling. In fact, it was downright indicative of the fact the Chiefs internally blamed most of their defensive issues in 2017 on personnel, not scheme.
It also, in retrospect, adds some additional clarity to the reasons the Chiefs relieved Dorsey of his duties, which sources told The Star at the time were related to his management style and organizational skills.
“A lot of the issues that we had this year defensively were about personnel and the lack of depth,” Hunt said. “We just didn’t have the depth we needed. We’re always gonna have injuries, right? And yes, losing Eric Berry in week one, that really hurts. But good teams figure out how to get past that, and the way you do that is having depth. I think at the end of the day, we just didn’t have enough depth.”
The Chiefs, for example, were so capped out the last few years that beyond signing Bennie Logan to replace departed nose tackle Dontari Poe, they were largely unable to fortify their defensive depth with any veteran signings last offseason, which prevented them from adding additional help along the defensive line, edge rusher and cornerback, all of which proved to be problem spots in 2017.
The cap issues, it appears, also played a role in the Chiefs’ surprising decision to release receiver Jeremy Maclin last summer, though there were also some questions about whether there would be enough passes to go around for him and Pro Bowl targets Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce.
“We were in a very tight cap situation last year, and it resulted in us having to part ways with some players we would have rather not parted ways with,” Hunt said. “We weren’t able to do much from a free-agent standpoint.
“We were lucky to bring in Bennie Logan because we needed somebody to be able to play that nose position, having lost Dontari Poe. That was probably the one move and it did help us, but we weren’t able to do enough — whether it was free agency or the draft — to make a difference.”
That said, it’s possible the Chiefs won’t be big spenders in free agency this year. Even with the trade of Smith — which is expected to create $15.6 million in cap room — the Chiefs only stand to have approximately $8 million to spend at the moment.
And while they could easily create approximately $16 million more by releasing a handful of veterans, like Derrick Johnson and Tamba Hali, with a first-year starter like Mahomes in the mix, they could potentially roll over plenty of that to 2019, when they’ll have a bevy of cap space. Were they to do that they could execute the gameplan of the 2014 Seattle Seahawks, who won a Super Bowl by surrounding a talented young quarterback on a cheap rookie deal (Russell Wilson) with a number of talented free-agent veterans.
“You don’t want to put yourself in a rebuilding mode, and certainly, as a two-time division winner, we’re not in a rebuilding mode,” Hunt said. “But we do have holes in the roster, at starting positions and backup positions, that we’ve got to fill, and I’m not sure you can do that intelligently in one year.
“So are we going to keep making the playoffs every year? I don’t know, I sure hope so, because that’s the goal and that’s how we take our step chart to our final goal, winning a Super Bowl. But I don’t see us in a situation where we’re blowing the roster up and starting over.”
Because the long-term goal, he reiterated, is to make the Super Bowl and win it.
“There’s no ifs, ands or buts about that,” Hunt said. “Andy knows it. That’s why he’s in the game. That’s what he wants.”