Lost in the ruckus over Andy Reid’s Philadelphia homecoming last week was the return to that pivotal site for Chiefs defensive coordinator Bob Sutton, who like Reid wouldn’t be in Kansas City now — and making a crucial contribution to the energized Chiefs — if not for life-changing events there, too.
During 17 seasons at Army, including nine as the head coach, 17 times Sutton embraced the thrill like no other of emerging from the stadium tunnel in Philly into the pageantry of the annual game with Navy.
The magic and sheer emotion of the game came to permeate Sutton, whose greatest coaching influence came from the “leadership laboratory” of West Point.
“There’s a feeling there,” he said, “that’s hard to describe.”
Alas, there also was a feeling hard to convey when he was crudely fired on a Philadelphia street corner in 1999, a day after his team lost to Navy and suffered a second straight 3-8 season, leaving him with a career record of 44-55-1.
“I don’t want to get into that, but, yeah, that’s how it happened,” he said, mustering a smile.
Never mind that he had been 6-3 against Navy, had gone 10-2 in 1996 and had enjoyed the second-longest tenure in Army history behind the legendary Earl “Red” Blaik.
Never mind that Sutton is widely considered a gentleman who at least deserved a more dignified ending, a gentleman who doesn’t mention that since his departure, Army is on its fifth coach and has gone just 39-120.
“We changed leadership, and we changed the direction they wanted the program to go, and they thought they could do something better,” he said. “And that’s fine. We all know when we get in this that that’s the territory you’re in.”
Except Sutton was in utterly foreign territory now.
Starting as a graduate assistant at Michigan under Bo Schembechler, Sutton had spent his entire career coaching at the collegiate level and had seemed rooted at Army.
At 48, he wasn’t too old for another coaching job. But where and what the next job would be wasn’t clear, either.
The idea of coaching in the NFL had never crossed his mind. And he had reservations when it was suggested by New York Jets assistant Dan Henning, against whom Sutton had competed when Henning was at Boston College.
But Sutton didn’t object, either. And when Henning recommended Sutton to general manager Bill Parcells and coach Al Groh, they snapped to attention.
Each, after all, had coached at Army and maybe saw something in him that Sutton wasn’t sure was there.
“I really didn’t know what I was getting into,” Sutton said.
As it happens, he was getting into something he fit as well or better and now is the architect of a Chiefs defense that has been instrumental in their 3-0 start entering Sunday’s game with the New York Giants.
“I think he was right for this team here,” said Reid, who while coaching the Eagles had asked Jets coach Rex Ryan for permission to interview Sutton. “Rex did the same thing I would have done and denied permission.”
Denying permission is one way to sum up what the Chiefs’ defense has been doing so far under the attacking concepts of Sutton, 62.
Although it’s early in the season, the Chiefs are second in the NFL in points allowed (11.3 per game), first in sacks (15) and fourth in takeaways (nine).
For perspective, consider that the Chiefs gave up 27 points a game last season and had 13 takeaways and 27 sacks the entire year.
Consider, too, that eight of the starters are the same as last season, and it’s a point of logic that the difference is a combination of Sutton’s schemes, a less mistake-prone offense and his ability to reach his players.
And Army background notwithstanding, it’s decidedly not by trying to be a drill sergeant.
When Chiefs safety Quintin Demps considers how to describe Sutton, the word that comes to mind is “brainiac.”
“Very. It’s like lecture classes,” cornerback Dunta Robinson said. “You get all of the yelling and all of the fussing in high school and college. We’ve moved past that now. We’re grown men. So teach us, show us and let’s go out and get it done.
“The biggest thing is trust, and we definitely don’t want to let a guy down who believes in us that much.”
Or as defensive tackle Mike DeVito, who played for Sutton with the Jets, put it: “He’s a guy that guys want to play for.”
It’s also because they feel liberated by being able to play fast and aggressively and not having to think too much. Sutton will agonize over the details so they don’t have to.
“He’s brought in a system that allows players to be who they are,” linebacker Tamba Hali said. “That says a lot.”
While Sutton didn’t immediately understand what he was getting into in the NFL, he had some pleasant surprises fast.
Coming out of what he called “the epitome of college football,” for instance, he had wondered just how much professionals would be willing to listen, particularly the veteran linebackers he was to work with in his first year.
“Probably one of my biggest shocks was that these guys all wanted to get coached; they all wanted to get better,” said Sutton, who survived three head coaching changes in New York and last year ascended to assistant head coach.
He also soon came to realize that even if Army and West Point seemed extremes well-removed from the NFL, what he had learned there, the basis of whom he had become as a coach, was valid even in this far-flung world.
It wasn’t just cadets who were learning who they were there. Like his players, who had no specific “bullet points” for what becoming a leader was, Sutton set about “identifying that style of leadership that’s closest to your personality and appeals to you.”
For him, that meant a studious, methodical approach and one that included soliciting feedback from players.
He also came to see parallels in coaching there and in the NFL, including a notion based on his marveling at how the cadets met all their responsibilities that there is “a deep reservoir of strength” within players to be tapped to bring out their maximum performance.
And even if West Point is a unique culture, it’s one he believes has meaningful applications here as he set about instilling a new mind-set.
“Culture is just a learned behavioral pattern,” he said. “You’re not born with it. You can’t buy it. You learn. Somebody teaches you, ‘This is how you do things.’ That’s always stayed with me. We’ve tried to emphasize that here with the players, that it’s not so much what we do but how we do it.
“The one thing that you know in group dynamics is that you’ve got to get everybody to feel a sense of responsibility to each other. If we’re all independent contractors, it’s not going to work very well in the end.”
Here, Sutton draws analogies between football and the military. Normally, these comparisons might make me wince, but I don’t believe he means them literally so much as they are colorful teaching points.
“You have to count on the people on your flanks. You’ve got to count on the people who are giving you the coordinates to bring this kind of artillery in,” he said. “It’s a tremendous trust that has to be built up there, and it’s built up over time. And not only time but through competency, that you’re going to do it: I can rely on you; I can count on you.”
Especially, he adds, because as much as you might go in with a plan “once that first bullet’s fired, most plans go to hell. And you’ve got to be able to adjust. That’s just the truth of it.
“So the people who are really good, they can do that. They’ve got that something. I don’t know what it is, but you see it there.”
Sutton wasn’t talking about himself, but it’s something he might see if he looked closely in the mirror: someone who adapted under adversity and made a new way, and someone who seems to have “that something.”