The first play Andy Reid called as coach of the Chiefs was a calculated gamble.
He dialed up a slow-developing, play-action boot for quarterback Alex Smith that was designed to get the ball deep to tight end Anthony Fasano. For the play to work, Smith would need enough time for Fasano to sneak across the formation and upfield on a backside wheel route.
“He called it, like, four days before. He was like, ‘We’re doing it,’” said Smith, an 11-year veteran.
“And I remember (being) like, ‘Gah, this is weird. What if it’s, like, awful?’ Because it’s kind of like a hit-or-nothing play.”
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(This story is part of The Kansas City Star's Football 2015 special section that publishes Sunday, Aug. 30. Pick one up and check out more here.)
The play hit. Kind of. Fasano was wide open. The blocking held up. And when Smith lofted the football down the left sideline, a big gain looked inevitable — until the ball landed just beyond Fasano’s outstretched fingertips.
In a way, the play was a microcosm of Reid’s 14 years as coach in Philadelphia, where Reid was hailed as something of an offensive genius. The process looked good from the start, but the end result was incomplete.
As Reid, 57, enters his third season in Kansas City, he’s faced with the prospect of proving himself all over again as a play caller, a job he had to cede in Philly before he was ultimately fired.
With a roster filled with many key pieces sought by Reid, it’s fair to expect the Chiefs to make the playoffs for the second time in three years. Remember, in Reid’s third year in Philadelphia, the Eagles went 11-5 and made the first of their four consecutive NFC championship game appearances.
Yet, there are some hurdles. After finishing 10th in touchdowns scored in 2013, the Chiefs fell to a middling 16th last year, in part because of a receiving corps that somehow failed to record a single touchdown, and a far-too-leaky offensive line.
The addition of Jeremy Maclin should help the receivers, and for the first time in his career, quarterback Alex Smith is in the same offensive system for the third year in a row. But the offensive line didn’t look much better through two preseason games.
Still, Reid is back doing what he loves — teaching and calling the offensive plays. And he’s motivated to avoid how things ended in Philly.
“He is so rejuvenated right now,” said receivers coach David Culley, a longtime assistant under Reid. “I see it in his eyes all the time.”
It shines through, too, especially when Reid is asked to describe what it’s like to dial up the perfect play at the perfect moment on Sundays.
“That’s a pretty good feeling,” he said with a wink. “That’s like a good cheeseburger.”
When Andy Reid became the Eagles’ coach in 1999, he held a reputation for having a solid offensive mind.
He worked the previous seven years in Green Bay, the last two as quarterbacks coach, where he helped guide Brett Favre and played a role in the Packers’ 1996 Super Bowl title.
But no one knew if Reid could call plays because then-Packers coach Mike Holmgren wouldn’t let his offensive assistants try it.
“So I think Andy felt in his mind like ‘Yep, when I get a chance, my assistants are going to watch me do this,’” said former San Francisco and Detroit coach Steve Mariucci, who worked with Reid in Green Bay.
After Reid’s first team finished 5-11, Donovan McNabb — the No. 2 overall pick in the 1999 NFL Draft — blossomed into an upper-tier quarterback and the Eagles won at least 11 games the next five seasons.
The run culminated with a 13-victory 2004 season in which Reid and the Eagles finally reached the Super Bowl, where they lost 24-21 to New England.
The game will always be remembered by a strange fourth quarter in which the Eagles, who trailed by 10 points with 5 minutes left, never operated in hurry-up mode. It wouldn’t be the last time Reid’s game management was questioned.
Still, Reid had built one of the best teams of that era, a perennial contender with a 70-42 record in his first seven years with the Eagles. He essentially took over the team’s general manager duties in 2001 and continued to call plays, relying on a pass-heavy attack in which the Eagles threw 58.5 percent of the time.
“The great thing about what Andy does is, Andy adapts to his personnel,” said St. Louis coach Jeff Fisher, who is 4-1 vs. Reid after his Rams lost to the Chiefs 34-7 last October.
Things, however, started to unravel after the Super Bowl run. McNabb got hurt the next year and the Eagles finished 6-10. And in 2006, with the Eagles struggling at 5-6 and Reid facing mounting criticism for his pass-happy ways, he ceded the play calling duties to offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg.
The Eagles rallied and won their next five games and made the playoffs with a more balanced attack, but Reid concedes it didn’t take long for him to miss calling plays.
“It was a year or two,” Reid said.
Toward the tail end of his tenure in Philly, Culley noticed Reid was slowly becoming more involved in the offensive game-plan meetings.
“You knew what was happening — you knew right then,” Culley said with a laugh. “Whether we were there or wherever it was going to be, he was going to be more involved.”
So when Reid was fired from the Eagles after a 50-45-1 record in his last six seasons and hired by the Chiefs in 2013, he was all too willing to leave the general manager duties to John Dorsey and get back to what he really loves.
“I got into this to be a coach, and I enjoy teaching,” Reid said. “If you’re going to call the plays … then you’ve got to spend time with that.”
And no one, members of his staff say, spends more time at putting together an offensive game plan than Reid.
“He doesn’t have a hobby,” said Chiefs spread-game analyst and special-projects coach Brad Childress, also a friend of Reid’s. “He doesn’t golf. He doesn’t fish. He’s got family and football and faith.”
It would be hard to blame Reid after joining the Chiefs if he wanted to rely on his assistants more than other coaches. Not only did he have a Super Bowl ring, he had won six division titles as a head coach and made millions of dollars.
But by all accounts, Reid is still working just as hard as he did early in his tenure with the Eagles.
For example, it’s Reid who runs the daily meetings where new offensive plays are installed.
“And he does it play by play by play, and night after night here in training camp, and every day during the season,” Childress said. “(That’s) very rare.”
Smith, who played under three head coaches and seven offensive coordinators in San Francisco, said he has never seen a head coach so hands-on with the offense.
“He’s coaching everybody in the room,” Smith said, “down to the smallest details.”
And if the Chiefs are playing in week 12, for example, it’s not unusual for Reid to power through all 11 of that team’s games early in that week, offensive coordinator Doug Pederson said. Reid might even study a game against the opponent’s defensive coordinator from, say, four years ago.
“One o’clock in the morning, midnight, whatever it is,” Pederson said, “he’s in there grinding out some tape and making some notes.”
Reid embraces it all. His six years in Philly when he didn’t call plays taught him how much he missed the grind, and the way it always culminated on Sundays in what amounted to a weekly chess match.
“I would tell you that it’s probably like studying for finals every week,” Reid said. “You kind of love … getting in there and finding out what’s going on with the team you’re playing and then coming up with something you think can be effective in beating that team. So, there’s a charge to that.”
Reid’s ability to get the most out of an offense that could struggle along the line will likely play a role in whether the Chiefs return to the playoffs.
“He’s been one of the toughest guys to go against, just because there’s a new wrinkle, there’s a new thing that’s not on tape, not part of the game plan,” said Atlanta coach and former Seattle defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, whose Seahawks lost to the Chiefs 24-20 last November. “It’s like ‘man, how’d he find that?’”
Tight end Travis Kelce first realized what Reid could do as a play caller last September, when he caught a season-high eight passes for 93 yards and a touchdown in the Chiefs’ 41-14 rout of the eventual Super Bowl champion Patriots on “Monday Night Football.”
“I was open on just about every single play,” Kelce said. “I mean, you just find yourself open and you don’t even understand why. Then you look back at the film and you see the stats of them using certain coverages in certain situations, and we always had plays in our back pocket to put on the table.
“He throws those cards down, man. It’s like a royal flush every single time he picks one.”
On the first play of the Chiefs’ first preseason game this year, Reid tried to send another message.
That’s when the Chiefs, in a play that was again mapped out days earlier, opened the game at Arizona with a deep pass to new $55-million speedster Jeremy Maclin. But like the daring call to Fasano against Jacksonville, this one also landed incomplete.
Yet, it was a promising development, especially considering Smith threw deep the fewest times of any NFL starter a season ago. Reid has encouraged Smith to take more chances this preseason, and through the first two games, Smith has thrown three passes longer than 20 yards, two more than he threw during the entire preseason last year.
But the regular season is when Reid will have to earn his paycheck, to make sure his encore performance as an NFL coach and full-time play caller ends better than his debut.
“Normally your third year, it fits,” Reid said. “You kind of establish what you are or what direction you’re going.
“If you just study the longevity of coaches that third year, if it’s not rolling, they don’t quite make it through the four- to five-year contract they’ve signed. It hits you in the head like it’s a baseball bat.”
Andy Reid in Philly vs. KC
While coaching the Eagles, Reid built one of the NFL’s better offenses in his first seven seasons.
Lost in second round
Lost NFC title game
Lost NFC title game
Lost NFC title game
Lost Super Bowl
Lost in first round