Fixing The Chiefs In Five (Easy?) Steps
The first 10 words of the following sentence might make you roll your eyes or laugh or curse, but here it comes anyway:
If the Chiefs are to win a Super Bowl soon — HAHAHAHAHA! — the first full offseason with general manager Brett Veach must be a pivotal and productive one that breaks franchise convention and challenges personal comforts.
The Chiefs’ roster is at least five years in the making, and if the pieces mostly fit they don’t always connect. Four postseasons in five years can be reason for pride, but if the men involved are honest with themselves they must also know it’s not nearly enough.
Blake Bortles has now won more playoff games this month than the Chiefs have in two decades, and the Jaguars’ participation in the AFC Championship Game is a reminder that no franchises are given success and none are prohibited from it.
The Chiefs are at a moment in their history that will either further confirm a well-earned reputation of being just good enough to break their fans’ hearts or rewrite their story the way the Royals did in 2014 and 2015.
The urgency must be felt. Eric Berry turned 29 last month. Justin Houston turns 29 on Sunday. Travis Kelce will do the same in October. Tamba Hali has almost certainly played his last game with the Chiefs, ending 12 years here that featured four GMs, four head coaches and at least three distinct “building” phases.
He is far from the first talented player to give his career to the Chiefs without receiving any postseason success in return.
It is largely up to Veach and the decisions of this offseason to determine whether stars like Berry, Houston and Kelce will avoid the same fate.
Here, then, are five suggestions, in reverse order of importance, complete with the likelihood of each occurring:
5. Add talent. Pretty basic, right? Sign good players, duh. But this will be Veach’s first real test in the new job. Whether through the draft or free agency, Veach should target, in order: cornerback, edge rush, defensive line, safety, backup quarterback, interior offensive line, middle linebacker and tight end.
The free-agent fits are intriguing, including defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson, defensive back Lamarcus Joyner, cornerback Prince Amukamara, and others. The group is always in flux, because free agents can be tagged, and players under contract for 2018 (like Broncos corner Aqib Talib) can be released.
The Chiefs don’t have a first-round pick, so Veach will be tested right away. It’s interesting that all three local FBS schools have potential fits: Dorance Armstrong from Kansas, Marcell Frazier from Missouri and D.J. Reed from K-State.
Chance of adding enough: 60 percent, but this completely depends on your trust in Veach.
4. Cuts and salary-cap management. The Chiefs can potentially save more than $20 million in cap space by cutting Hali ($8 million) and cutting or reworking deals with linebacker Derrick Johnson ($8 million in potential savings) and defensive lineman Allen Bailey ($6 million in potential savings).
Cutting Hali will be the team’s easiest decision of the offseason. He’s a franchise icon but played just five games last season, with limited snaps. His contract is impossible to justify. Johnson was better late in the season, which presents hope he could be stronger the more removed he is from his second Achilles rupture. But he’s certainly not worth $8 million in 2018 and may not even be worth a restructured deal, depending on how it affects future seasons.
Bailey is productive but could reasonably be asked to restructure. Other potential cuts or savings include veteran corner Darrelle Revis ($4.5 million), tight end Demetrius Harris ($2 million) and even linebacker Dee Ford ($8.7 million).
This is oversimplifying, because a draft class will have to be signed and the team still needs a backup quarterback and punter (Dustin Colquitt is a free agent). But the Chiefs could create needed flexibility by making some smart cuts.
Chance the Chiefs will clear adequate cap space: 90 percent.
3. Replace Bob Sutton with a more creative and innovative defensive coordinator. The Chiefs ranked 28th in total defense, and dead last in Football Outsiders’ DVOA metric, this season. This is unacceptable.
They could not develop even an average pass rush despite getting a full season from Houston and having enough talent along the defensive line. You saw this with the naked eye, but the data is even more damning: according to Pro Football Focus, the Chiefs were 27th or worse in sack percentage, quarterback pressure percentage and time required to create pressure.
Berry’s injury in the season opener exposed Sutton’s inability to adjust, which in turn exposed backup safety Daniel Sorensen far too often and far too long. The Chiefs’ defensive line is too talented for its lack of production, and Sutton’s scheme made it too easy for opposing offenses to control the Chiefs’ personnel and whether Houston rushed the quarterback or dropped into coverage. Sutton was conservative to the point of counter-production: no team ran fewer stunts on pass plays, and the Chiefs tied for the fifth-lowest blitz rate, according to PFF.
The collapse against the Titans checked too many familiar boxes. The Chiefs could not stop the run, even when they knew the run was coming. In one key moment, backup safety Eric Murray was lined up at defensive end. Sutton’s defenses have surrendered 373 yards in home playoff losses the last two seasons. The Titans were 19th, with 20.6 points per game, and scored 19 in the second half of the wild-card game against Sutton’s group, which allowed eight conversions on 13 third downs.
The Chiefs need a defensive coordinator more adept at adjusting to inevitable challenges both in-game and week-to-week, better at designing and calling blitz packages, and able to simply put stars like Houston, cornerback Marcus Peters and defensive lineman Chris Jones in position to succeed more consistently.
Chance of this actually happening — of Sutton being replaced: 40 percent.
2. Trade Alex Smith. This should be the second-easiest roster decision of the offseason (after cutting Hali), and the most important: without it, the Chiefs are stuck, or worse.
Smith’s ability has been one of Kansas City’s most consistently debated topics over the last five years, right up there with building a new terminal at KCI. It’s a little strange, then, that his exodus will have less to do with his play (he really was great overall in 2017) and more with business.
The Chiefs are $8.3 million over the 2018 salary cap just with their current contracts. Trading Smith would put them $8.7 million under the 2018 cap, and the (presumed) draft pick acquired in exchange would help fill a hole elsewhere on the roster.
Even following his career season, the market for Smith may not be robust. Plenty of teams will need quarterbacks, but plenty will be available from a group that may include Kirk Cousins, Teddy Bridgewater, Sam Bradford and Eli Manning. A team trading for Smith will either pay him $20 million in 2018 or give him a contract extension.
Still, any argument for keeping Smith fizzles under the scrutiny of reality. Keeping Smith on the roster essentially means no additions, and additional subtractions required just to be cap-compliant and sign the incoming draft class.
This is part of why the Chiefs were so aggressive a year ago in trading up to select quarterback Patrick Mahomes. Sources in the organization continue to rave about Mahomes’ potential. Recent NFL history is full of teams winning big with quarterbacks on rookie contracts, in no small part because their cheap labor allows a better supporting roster.
Chance of Smith being traded: 95 percent.
1. Andy Reid needs to evolve. Some of this is tied into whether Sutton indeed keeps his job, because Reid is famously loyal to his assistants. But this goes beyond tough decisions on assistants.
This is going to require Reid to get uncomfortable. He is terrifically effective at play design, his innovative approach literally changing how teams across the league looked last year.
But in ways of program management, Reid is stubbornly conservative, holding onto familiar routines. Each of the last two years, the Chiefs’ offense has benefitted from a midseason injection of more input from the offensive coordinator. Well, why wait so long?
Reid’s teams have a well-earned reputation for fast starts and late fades — best illustrated by two historic playoff collapses — so why not script plays during the week for the second half like he does the first? Or, as an alternative, empower an assistant for more effective input after halftime?
One of Reid’s greatest strengths is the respect he has from his players, but there are times his teams appear too undisciplined and too unfocused in crucial moments. That must be addressed.
No sport is more controlled by head coaches than football, and Reid has more control than most. His time with the Chiefs is marked by just one playoff win, and that was against Brian Hoyer.
Reid is 19 years into a career of building routines and comforts. The result is consistent regular-season success and consistent playoff losses. No coach has ever won his first championship this far into his career. If Reid is to be the first, he can’t continue with the same safe and known choices that have brought him this far.
Chance of significantly happening: 50 percent, a tug of war between Reid’s stubborness and self-awareness.