An NFL locker room is always a fun place after a win, the palpable sounds of laughter and relief overwhelming everything.
Sunday marked the first time Chiefs cornerback Phillip Gaines got to experience this as a starting defensive back, and one of the vets — six-year veteran Sean Smith — wasn’t going to pass on a chance to make sure Gaines got the full experience.
So he decided to crack on Gaines’ in-game celebration of choice, an exaggerated incomplete signal with his arms that bears a resemblance to Smith’s go-to incompletion celebration.
“That’s swagger jacking,” Smith joked.
Gaines rebutted that it’s a universal celebration, a charge Smith didn’t completely deny, though he noted he does his a little differently than Gaines.
“I don’t jump around and do it,” Gaines offered. “I just stand up and give it to them.”
Gaines would know — he broke it out plenty of times in his first NFL start on Sunday. The Chiefs’ 2014 third-round pick, Gaines got the start at nickel corner for injured starter Chris Owens, and was targeted multiple times by the Chargers. Gaines fared well as he forced a handful of incompletions and was never beaten deep.
Gaines wasn’t the only youngster in the secondary who got a chance to make an impact Sunday. Jamell Fleming, a third-year pro, made his first start since 2012, ahead of Marcus Cooper, who was apparently demoted for a week, at least.
“Those two played well,” Chiefs coach Andy Reid said of Gaines and Fleming. “They battled against a really good offense. (Defensive coordinator) Bob Sutton had a nice game plan.”
The game plan was predicated on taking away the deep ball. Fleming was beaten a handful of times, and he was also whistled for a pair of pass-interference penalties, but Reid said he simply beat out Cooper, who had started the Chiefs’ first five games, this week.
“Both those two had shown well in practice,” Reid said of Gaines and Fleming. “We’re lucky to have Cooper, too. He’ll be back in there rolling. You can’t have enough good corners.”
Cooper, who did not appear on the injury report this week and says he is healthy, was told about the move early last week.
“They do a great job of telling you stuff,” Cooper said. “Hat’s off to Fleming and Gaines, they came in and did well.”
The latter, especially. Gaines even had a signature play in the fourth quarter, when he found himself matched up with star receiver Keenan Allen over the middle and managed to deflected the third-down pass from red-hot quarterback Philip Rivers in the Chiefs’ end zone. The Chargers decided to go for a field goal, which cut the Chiefs’ lead to 20-17 with nine minutes and 40 seconds left, but it was obviously preferable to a touchdown.
“That was great coverage,” said Smith, who saw the play. “He watched his hands, he never grabbed. It was technique all the way.”
Gaines said the nature of Allen’s route led him to make a play on the ball.
“I should have gotten two hands on it,” Gaines said with a laugh.
Gaines’ teammates playfully gave him some grief for this, but he took it in stride. After logging only four of 318 possible defensive snaps entering the game, he stepped in and showed some of the promise that prompted the Chiefs to draft him.
“I take my hat off to Phillip,” Smith said. “The nickel position is usually for grown men, for vets, because there’s so much going on. But I felt he went out there and executed the game plan flawlessly. He played, man. He’s a baller.”
To the naked eye, Gaines has certainly gotten better since his last extended action, when he got torched against the Packers in the Chiefs’ final exhibition game.
Gaines said he now has a better understanding of the team’s defensive concepts, and where his help will be.
“Coming in, I was just taking it as everything was zero coverage,” Gaines said, referring to the term when corners don’t have safety help. “I didn’t know where my leverage was. Now I’m getting more comfortable with the defense, I know who is coming down, where I can lose a person, all that.”
These are the things an established NFL cornerback must comprehend, in addition to having a go-to celebration, of course.
Gaines is obviously making progress on both fronts, though he still refuses to get ahead of himself.
“There’s still a lot of things in this tape I’ll have to review,” Gaines said. “I have to keep getting better.”