Ryan Harris had just heated up some spaghetti and was sitting on the couch in his home in Denver when the phone rang.
It was Chiefs general manager John Dorsey, who only days before the start of training camp was still searching for offensive line depth.
Harris, who had recently enrolled in graduate school to become a teacher, jumped at the chance to continue his career.
“I was training the whole summer, believing something like this could happen,” said Harris, a tackle, “and the training paid off because we had that conditioning test the day after I signed …”
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Meanwhile, Mike McGlynn had just been waived by Washington, where he was trying to win a job as a center. Less than 24 hours later, the five-year veteran was on a plane to Kansas City, and he started at left guard the next night in the Chiefs’ final preseason game at Green Bay.
He hasn’t been out of the lineup since.
McGlynn, Harris and rookie guard Zach Fulton have been invaluable new pieces in the reconstruction of the offensive line for the Chiefs, who are 5-3 heading into Sunday’s game at Buffalo, 5-3.
Remember, the Chiefs lost three starting-caliber offensive linemen — left tackle Branden Albert and guards Geoff Schwartz and Jon Asamoah — to free agency during the offseason. And guard/tackle Jeff Allen, who began the season at right tackle in place of the suspended Donald Stephenson, suffered a season-ending elbow injury in the season opener.
That left only one member of the line, third-year center Rodney Hudson, starting at the same position from a year ago. Harris replaced Allen and has started the last seven games at right tackle. Eric Fisher, the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2013, moved from right tackle to left tackle this season.
So while the old pro football maxim says offensive linemen need several years of playing together to develop as a unit, the Chiefs have done it in a matter of weeks.
“You just make it work,” Harris said. “Every single player in this locker room realizes we have great potential and great talent on this team, and the quicker we came together as an offensive line, it enhances our chances to maximize that potential.”
After an 0-2 start, the Chiefs have won five of six by running the ball effectively and dominating time of possession. Though they’re ranked just 29th in passing, the offensive line has enabled quarterback Alex Smith to complete 67 percent of his passes and help the Chiefs rank second in the league in third-down conversions (52 percent).
“The thing that really jumps out is just the collective pride they have as a group in going out there and setting the tone for us,” said an appreciative Smith. “They really take that on every single week.
“They’re detailed, they’re tough … certainly it was a difficult situation at the beginning of the year, having guys move around. So when you think about that, it is amazing.”
One common denominator that Harris and McGlynn brought to Kansas City was their familiarity with coach Andy Reid’s offense.
Harris, who entered the NFL as a third-round pick by Denver in 2007, was signed as a free agent by the Philadelphia Eagles in 2011 but suffered a back injury in training camp and missed the regular season. McGlynn was a fourth-round pick by the Eagles in 2008 and spent three seasons in Philadelphia.
“They’ve come together as a unit,” Chiefs Hall of Fame guard Will Shields said. “They have said little, which is even better. They’ve went out and worked on their craft, and each week they seem to be finding out each other’s strengths and weaknesses and being able to work off of it.
“The coaches are putting them in great positions, to where they’re not having to be isolated or do things they’re really not capable of doing.”
The Chiefs have come under scrutiny for their dink-and-dunk passing game. Their longest completion this season went for just 34 yards, no wide receiver has caught a touchdown pass, and Smith’s average gain is a mere 6.88 yards, ranking 26th in the NFL.
But in the last seven games, Smith, dropping back just two or three steps before throwing, has completed 146 of 211 attempts for 1,490 yards, 10 touchdowns and just one interception. He’s been sacked just six times in the last four games.
“Give a lot of credit to Andy Reid,” said former Chiefs offensive lineman Rich Baldinger, an analyst for Time Warner Cable Sports and Channel 5. “He figured out in the first couple of weeks, ‘We’re not going to keep the quarterback in the pocket, we’re going to move him, it’s going to be a short passing game …’
“They’re not going to be an Indianapolis and drop back seven steps every time and throw the ball 40 yards down the field. It’s going to be quick underneath, and (the linemen) can be aggressive and not have to worry about holding the pocket for so long.”
During the Chiefs’ 24-10 win over the Jets last week, Smith was getting rid of the ball in 2.1 seconds or less, said former Chiefs quarterback Trent Green, who broadcast the game for CBS.
“They’re doing a great job of keeping defenses on their heels,” Green said. “The ball was coming out of Alex’s hands so quickly, that just frustrates the defensive line and makes it hard to put pressure on him.
“At some point, you’re going to have to get some play-action passes and push the ball up the field. But when you’re running the ball as effectively as they are and are as effective with the short-range passes … Alex isn’t getting sacked, they’re running the ball at a great rate, and they’re not having turnovers.”
Green, who also serves as analyst for the Chiefs’ preseason games, credits offensive line coaches Andy Heck and Eugene Chung for the development of Fisher and Fulton and the performance of this hastily-built unit. Heck spent 12 years as an tackle in the NFL and Chung five. Both were first-round draft picks.
“You’ve got two guys coaching who played the offensive line for a long time at a high level,” Green said. “I’ve talked to Eric Fisher and a couple of linemen, and Andy Heck has been so good about his teaching techniques and being able to communicate it in a way the guys understand it, and I think a lot of that is because he played at such a high level for such a long time.”
A week ago, the Chiefs allowed the Jets, who came into the game tied for fourth in sacks, just one. On the final offensive play of the game, Smith chose to go down and keep the clock moving rather than throw an incompletion.
On Sunday, the Chiefs will be facing an even better pass rush in Buffalo, which ranks second in the NFL with 28 sacks.
“By far, this will be the best front we’ve faced up to date,” Chiefs offensive coordinator Doug Pederson said. “This is an active group. Not a ton of blitzing, but they don’t have to because they’re active with their front four. Our guys up front welcome the opportunity. They’re playing well. Buffalo is playing well, and we’ve just got to handle our business, and it starts with those guys.”
So who exactly are those guys? From right to left:
▪ Right tackle: Harris, a 6-foot-5, 302-pounder from Notre Dame, played high school football at renowned Cretin-Derham Hall, which produced All-Star catcher Joe Maurer, Heisman Trophy winner Chris Weinke and six-time Pro Bowl center Matt Birk.
A three-year starter at Denver, Harris spent the past two seasons with Houston before signing with the Chiefs on July 24, the day before veterans began training camp in St. Joseph.
“Harris has been steady,” said Reid. “He’s done this for a while. Both he and McGlynn … provide veteran leadership in there. They’ve got a good thing going.”
▪ Right guard: Fulton, 6-5, 316 pounds, was a sixth-round pick out of Tennessee in May. But he beat out a group of veterans, including 2013 backups Rishaw Johnson and Rokevious Watkins, for the starting job.
“This kid is making the best of his opportunity to play,” said Shields, a 12-time Pro Bowler at right guard. “It’s going to be getting used to working your way through the long season. When it hits week 10, 11 and 12, as a college player, your season is done. Now you’re going to keep trucking along. Even my rookie year, the coach would rotate us in and out … me and Danny (Villa) would switch out every two series or so, just to keep us fresh and also to keep that third guy in the loop.”
▪ Center: At 6-2, 299 pounds, Hudson is the longest-tenured Chief on the line. But he’s in just his fourth year and second as a full-time starter. His second season, in 2012, ended with a broken leg in the third game of the year.
Hudson is called “the glue to the group” by Reid, and he makes all the line calls before each play.
“The more he sees the better he’ll get,” said Shields. “He can help the quarterback, and they follow his lead. He does a lot of studying and gets himself prepared, which makes the game easy for the rest of the guys. All they do is listen and fall in place. That’s what you love about a center who has confidence and understands the game plan every week.”
▪ Left guard: McGlynn, 6-4, 325 pounds, is with his fourth team, having spent 2008-10 with the Eagles, who took him in the fourth round of the draft out of Pittsburgh; the Bengals in 2011; and the Colts in 2012-13.
“He brings in a little nastiness and veteran leadership,” Reid said. “He’s been good for the group. He’s a two-position guy. He can play center and guard.”
▪ Left tackle: Fisher, 6-7, 315 pounds, is the most scrutinized member of the line. The first overall pick in the 2013 draft, Fisher spent an injury-marred and inconsistency-filled rookie season at right tackle before replacing Albert on the left side, where he protects Smith’s blind side against the NFL’s top pass rushers.
In last week’s game against the Jets, Fisher did not surrender a sack, a hurry or a quarterback hit.
“He’s definitely improved as the season has gone on,” said Green. “He’s diligent with his work. He wants to be good. He wants to be that anchor. He wants to be isolated on that island over there, and he doesn’t want the help that sometimes is coming his way. Because of that work ethic and want-to and steady improvement, he’s in position to have success.”