Sam Mellinger

Short of #FireSutton, here’s how Chiefs coach Andy Reid can fix his Bob Sutton Problem

Andy Reid’s biggest problem is his own creation. He has nobody to blame but himself, because he could have fixed it cleanly and reasonably long before we got to this point. He didn’t, which means he now must fix it on the move, with tools imperfect for the job, like using zip ties as shoelaces.

This is Reid’s Bob Sutton problem.

Reid, the Chiefs’ head coach, has spent a lifetime working toward a team like this, with the league’s most dynamic quarterback, fastest receiver and best tight end. This group is capable of playing offense as perfectly as the calibrations of football allow, which is nice because there are times the defense is so bad the offense has to be perfect.

Few NFL coaches have more power than Reid. Perhaps none have more connections, or a better eye for coaching talent. He could have — should have — replaced his defensive coordinator after last season and hired a more agile coach with a fresh message.

He did not, and the defense has been even worse than many feared, so now it’s up to Reid and his offense to play a little defense, too.

This is said without malice or insult toward Sutton, a thoughtful and decent man with a career and outlook that demand respect. This is said factually: It’s just not working here anymore. That’s never been more obvious.

Safety Eric Berry spent much of his season debut screaming at teammates lined up in the wrong spots. Anthony Hitchens signed a free-agent contract with $25 million guaranteed, largely because of his intelligence and acumen. He’s been significantly worse here than in Dallas. Kendall Fuller has been solid, but not as productive as he was in Washington.

The same mistakes keep happening: too many penalties, too many missed tackles, too many missed assignments. Sutton has led some excellent defenses here in Kansas City, but the Chiefs’ drop in production over the last few years has far outpaced their drop in talent.

The Chiefs’ defense ranks dead last in passing yards and rushing average allowed, first downs surrendered, penalties and yards given up per possession. They rank in the bottom four in points and yards. The organization was horrified at another blown playoff lead last season, and vowed to remake the defense. That’s more than a one-year process, but despite the emergence of Chris Jones as a star and the best season of Dee Ford’s career, the defense is actually worse.

Berry will make it better — or maybe less worse? — but the point has been made. There can be little disagreement over this. Berry might be the team’s best run defender, is among its best blitzers, and is by far its best cover safety. Even if that only means a better outcome on a possession or two per game, that can be a massive difference.

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But it’s also true that the defense has more problems than Berry can fix.

The Chargers scored the game-winning conversion in their Thursday night game on a relatively simple play they had run earlier. The Chiefs miscommunicated, blew an assignment and left a receiver open by 10 yards. Berry can be a safety net against some of that, but he can’t solve everything.

Sutton was asked about the last two drives against the Chargers, which turned a 14-point Chiefs lead into a gut-stomping defeat. He mentioned a penalty on fourth and 3, perfect execution by Philip Rivers on fourth and 7 and referenced a phantom penalty on third and 10 in the second quarter. That turned into a four-point penalty, so if you play that forward the Chiefs would’ve won.

“I always say it’s going to come down to these few plays, and if you can do it,” Sutton said. “They don’t always come down to the last play or the last drive. If you can win enough of these critical ones, you can help your team get in position to win the game.”

That’s true, but as an explanation falls short. Because this is what the Chiefs’ defense has proven itself to be.

This group can be disruptive, both with sacks and turnovers, but should never be depended on. Not with an offense this good, anyway.

This is where Reid can help.

The Chiefs are a marriage of extremes — the No. 1 offense and No. 31 defense. Traditional thinking cannot apply, and two examples from last week’s loss to the Chargers stick out.

First, a decision to punt on fourth and 3 from the Chargers’ 42. It was a terrific punt, downed at the 5. But it also meant trading the Chiefs’ biggest advantage (offense) for its biggest weakness (defense).

Even when they’re good, Sutton’s defenses give up yards. Bend but don’t break is the shorthand, and within five plays the Chiefs gave up the yards gained with the punt plus 14 more. The defense stiffened near the goal line, the drive ending with Kendall Fuller’s interception in the end zone, but that could’ve been accomplished if the Chargers took the ball on a turnover on downs.

Might’ve been done quicker, too, which would have given the offense more time to score before halftime.

The second example came on the Chiefs’ last drive. They took the ball with 3:43 left, up a touchdown, and went conservative — a run the Chargers appeared to know was coming, and a short pass that set up third and long.

In most cases, that’s a fine strategy. Make the Chargers use two timeouts and give your defense the chance to win by giving up anything other than a touchdown. But this defense has proven it should not be trusted, and this offense has proven it can take on more responsibility.

The Chiefs’ best chance there was to kill the game with their offense, but they were hampered by play calling that appeared to prioritize the clock over yards. Once the burden shifted to the defense, the Chiefs got what was coming.

Think about it this way: If you’re the opponent, would you want the Chiefs to neuter their offense in an effort to help their defense? Or would you rather they fully open up the offense?

“I like doing that if the situation is right,” Reid said when asked specifically about going for it fourth downs. “It’s not because of that (the offense’s strength and defense’s weakness). It is because I had good stuff and I felt good about it.”

To be sure, Reid is an aggressive coach in most ways. Few if any have pushed harder against the boundaries of convention with play design and personnel usage. Reid has usually been among the league’s most daring coaches on fourth down, and that’s true again this year. The Chiefs are fifth in fourth down conversions, but their 11 attempts are more than just four teams. They’ve converted 10 of 11. Why not go all in with more attempts?

All of this needs to be amplified further, and applied everywhere.

This is the Chiefs’ best team in more than a decade. They are well-positioned in the ways that matter most — the most dynamic offense in a league now won by offense, and a proven ability to beat the league’s best defenses.

But the playoffs will bring additional challenges, under heightened pressure. Rethinking a broader approach would be appropriate. The downside of additional risk is diminished, because the defense is probably giving up those yards anyway. The upside is heightened, because the offense is the best in the league.

We are simplifying here. Reid lives in nuance. His decisions have to account for so much, down to the confidence he’d have in a potential play call. But the context of those decisions should change. This is the best offense he’s ever coached, and it makes sense to amplify that strength at every opportunity.

The alternative is to trust one of the franchise’s most promising seasons ever to one of its worst defenses ever.

This is a problem. Reid and his offense need to be the solution.

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Sam Mellinger is a sports columnist for the Kansas City Star, where he’s worked since 2000. He has won numerous national and regional awards for coverage of the Chiefs, Royals, colleges, and other sports both national and local.