Sam Mellinger

Chiefs need change, and they should begin by firing defensive coordinator Bob Sutton

Kansas City Chiefs inside linebacker Derrick Johnson (56) spoke with defensive coordinator Bob Sutton in the fourth quarter of the 12-9 overtime loss to the New York Giants on November 19, 2017, at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey.
Kansas City Chiefs inside linebacker Derrick Johnson (56) spoke with defensive coordinator Bob Sutton in the fourth quarter of the 12-9 overtime loss to the New York Giants on November 19, 2017, at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey. deulitt@kcstar.com

Bob Sutton needs to be fired.

The Chiefs should be looking for a new defensive coordinator. There is no joy in calling for a man’s job, but then, there is no joy in watching a defense underperform its talent and fair expectations over and over and over again.

This can’t continue. That is plain. That is obvious.

Andy Reid isn’t ready to talk about this yet and that’s fine, that’s understandable, that’s his right. What’s more — that’s smart.

The head coach lives this in a way that requires space for any major change. Emotional decisions are usually bad decisions, and Reid had to know the Will You Fire Your DC question was coming in the postmortem press conference the day after another embarrassing postseason collapse.

And he had to know he would answer it with a vague non-answer.

“Time in this league has a funny way of working,” Reid said. “You’ve gotta step back. You’ve gotta evaluate. You’ve gotta go through that process. Look at what’s real, and what’s not. You don’t want to do it when you’re emotional or still tied into what happened obviously last night.

“You’ve gotta fight that. A question like that, you’ve gotta fight that. You step back and you evaluate it, and do what’s right for the Chiefs. If you always come back to that, you’re going to be OK.”

That’s an 86-word excerpt from a longer answer that can be generally summarized: “I just had my heart ripped out, again, and am not yet ready to make any decision more serious than lunch.”

Kansas City Chiefs coach Andy Reid held a press conference a day after the Chiefs’ 22-21 loss to the Tennessee Titans in an AFC Wild Card playoff game. It was the Chiefs' sixth straight home playoff loss, a NFL record.

Again, you can understand where he’s coming from. Even if he somehow has already decided to move on from Sutton, he hasn’t had a chance to tell his friend and longtime assistant yet, and taking some time comes with no downside.

Potential replacements aren’t being hired, and in fact may still be working. More to the point, Reid’s coaching philosophy centers around personal accountability.

After every loss, he says some form of, “we need to get better and that starts with me.” After the offense played dead in the second half against the Titans, Reid said he called the plays that didn’t work and assistant Matt Nagy called the plays that did.

Firing his defensive coordinator the next day would reek of scapegoating.

But if he hasn’t yet, Reid must soon come to the cold and unemotional conclusion that the Chiefs need a new voice for the defense.

That needs to be only part of the change. Alex Smith must be replaced by Patrick Mahomes, offensive line coach Andy Heck needs to make a convincing case to keep his job, and no position group on the team underperformed as much as the defensive line coached by Reid’s son Britt.

Reid himself should wear the biggest chunk of this loss. He just finished his 19th season as a head coach and by now has earned a reputation for regular season success and postseason failure.

Seventy-eight teams have led by 18 or more at halftime of a playoff game. Only four have lost, and two have been coached by Reid in the last five seasons. He is tied for the third-most playoff losses of any coach in NFL history, and the two ahead of him won multiple Super Bowls.

According to ESPN research, Andy Reid's Chiefs teams are responsible for two of the only four times in modern NFL playoff history a team has blown an 18-point or larger halftime lead.

Since 2001, he has won just one playoff game as the underdog, and lost seven as the favorite.

The loss to the Titans followed a familiar pattern: the offense went cold, the defense couldn’t get off the field and the Chiefs had a chance to win at the end and failed.

The standard for this team was always postseason success, so the outcome is a failure, and any credible evaluation of another wasted opportunity must acknowledge Reid’s share of this.

But he’s not going anywhere, for better or worse. Chairman Clark Hunt values the stability Reid has created after the horror show Pioli years, Reid signed a contract extension last summer, and he’ll oversee the quarterback transition to Patrick Mahomes.

Sutton has no excuse, and no cushion.

The Chiefs were 28th in total defense, and 27th in yards surrendered per play. They could not stop the run (24th in yards per carry, 202 given up in the playoff loss), which tended to overshadow the fact that they could not stop the pass (24th in yards per attempt).

Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson called Saturday's playoff loss to the Titans one of the toughest of his career.

The advanced metrics, if anything, are worse. Football Outsiders’ DVOA ranks the Chiefs dead last in the league in overall defense.

This fits what the eye sees, too. They could not get off the field on third down (23rd, and second worst among playoff teams), and could not adjust to opponents’ schemes. Sutton allowed Daniel Sorensen to be exposed against the run for far too long, didn’t do enough to scheme pressure, and was far too easy to manipulate.

His scheme had Justin Houston rushing the passer or dropping into coverage based on what the offense showed, which meant the other side was controlling what the Chiefs’ best player did on any given snap.

Sutton had enough to work with, too, even after losing Eric Berry for the season. The Chiefs spend more than half their salary cap on defense, and that’s with stars like Chris Jones and Marcus Peters still on rookie deals, and Reggie Ragland playing for relative peanuts.

If it was bad luck that Berry played just one game, it was good luck that Houston played 17. The injury excuse is a tired one, anyway. Every team has something. The Titans had two defensive starters on IR, and they managed.

Coaches are supposed to put their players in position to succeed, and far too often, Sutton was doing the opposite. The Patriots gave up an average of 32 points in their first four games (including a season-high 42 to the Chiefs in the opener) and then an average of just 14 the rest of the way.

Patriots coach Bill Belichick is an unrealistic standard for defensive scheme, but this is two years in a row the Chiefs have lost a playoff game at home as the betting favorite largely because they could not stop the run and get off the field on third down.

Against the Titans, a team with a struggling quarterback and dangerous running back, the Chiefs used far too much nickel and even dime personnel — including on Derrick Henry’s 35 yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter.

Whether that was because the Titans were able to influence the Chiefs’ substitutions with their own personnel, or because Sutton made the decision on his own is irrelevant. This just can’t continue.

Let us say it one more time: Sutton is not the only problem, and may not even be the biggest.

Reid is Sutton’s boss, and could’ve better protected his defense and an 18-point lead with more carries for the league’s leading rusher.

Even so, the offense could’ve won the game on its last possession, and this is a staggering fact: all but one of the Chiefs’ losses this season could’ve been wins if the offense performed better on its last drive.

The Chiefs aren’t giving the next defensive coordinator a fair shot if they don’t improve the personnel, too, which is part of why the team needs to replace Smith with Mahomes. The change would create $17 million in cap space and whatever draft picks they can acquire in a trade, which is enough for a corner, edge rusher, and defensive lineman.

There can be no doubt, in any part of the organization, about whether change is needed. We can have lively and smart debates about how far that change needs to go.

But there is no question that it needs to include the defensive coordinator, whenever Reid is ready.

Chiefs coach Andy Reid on the Chiefs loss in Arrowhead stadium to the Titans.

Sam Mellinger: 816-234-4365, @mellinger

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