Sam Mellinger

Why Chiefs coach Andy Reid needs to fire defensive coordinator Bob Sutton

Chiefs Andy Reid on the defense and coordinator day after loss

Kansas City Chiefs head coach Andy Reid comments on the defense and how it was magnified in the final series of plays in AFC Championship Game against the New England Patriots. Reid plans on taking more time in evaluating the coordinators position.
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Kansas City Chiefs head coach Andy Reid comments on the defense and how it was magnified in the final series of plays in AFC Championship Game against the New England Patriots. Reid plans on taking more time in evaluating the coordinators position.

The first season with the quarterback he waited his whole life for ended in an instant, literally by inches, a year’s worth of work flushed away by a wicked combination of randomness and luck and execution.

Andy Reid might be in the Hall of Fame someday, and if so it’ll be largely because of his constant thirst for improvement and belief in day-to-day routine. Those things can be at odds at times, like on Sunday night, in the wake of one of the most disappointing defeats of his career — 37-31, in overtime against the New England Patriots, at home in the AFC Championship Game.

There is much for the Chiefs coach to evaluate. Much to improve. After the game, with an organization to lead, Reid watched film and organized people and paperwork in preparation for baggie day — when lockers are emptied into trash bags, players take their exit physicals, and everyone meets with the head coach before going their separate ways.

“I didn’t sleep much last night,” Reid said Monday. “But I’m ready to go.”

Reid is unfailingly loyal. He also has a belief in process and the people around him that can at times grow into stubbornness. He’s not unique in this way. Lots of coaches can be described similarly.

But Reid does occasionally drag those traits to extremes, which is almost always an asset. He’s won 195 games, more than all but seven coaches in NFL history. Everyone above him on the list has coached longer. The results are there.

But Reid is about to meet head-on with another juxtaposition, one more instance in which his natural instincts are at odds with what’s required in the moment. And this time it’ll be much more consequential than Sunday night’s conflict between instant film evaluation and meeting prep.

He’s going to need to fire Bob Sutton, his defensive coordinator for six years and friend for longer.

Reid was asked about this multiple times, from multiple directions, in what amounted to an exit press conference on Monday. He conceded nothing, as you would expect.

“I’ll never talk about that here,” he said. “I’ve never done that. I just go back and I look at everything. That’s the best answer I can give you on that.”

That’s fair. This is too soon to reasonably expect a decision. The day before, Reid was focused solely on beating the Patriots. A decision made immediately would have been a decision that had effectively been made already, which would’ve been a bad look for team’s cohesion and push to a few inches from the Super Bowl.

But when the time comes, the decision should be clear. It’s a decision that should have been made a year ago, when the Chiefs finished 28th in defense and blew a 21-3 lead at home in the playoffs.

This is not hindsight. Sutton is a smart coach and decent man but was unable to adapt after Eric Berry’s injury. The Chiefs struggled to pressure quarterbacks and were essentially helpless against the run.

Sutton was given a reprieve, with Reid’s loyalty and value of consistency winning the day, but somehow the Chiefs were even worse in 2018. They finished 31st in defense, 30th in Football Outsiders’ catch-all DVOA measurement, 31st in passing yards surrendered and 31st in average yards per rush.

They lost five games this season, with opponents scoring an average of 40.2 points in those games. The playoff loss to the Patriots was something like a mashup of the reasons the Chiefs’ defense needs a new leader — they could not stop the run, could not cover backs in the passing game and could not cover tight end Rob Gronkowski when the world knew that’s what was required.

All of this despite the defense being healthier than ever before, with breakout seasons by Dee Ford and Chris Jones that turned quarterback pressures from a weakness to a strength.

“We led the National Football League in sacks, and hurries on the quarterback, all these things,” Reid said. “We tightened it up on the back end a little bit and got better there. That’s not an easy thing to do. It’s not easy to be in the (conference) championship game. Remember that. As you ask all these questions, remember that.”

Reid is defending his guy. That’s understandable, and even admirable. He talked a lot about how the team’s losses were all close, and that’s true — by a total of 14 points in the regular season, and then in overtime in the playoffs.

If Ford wasn’t called for offsides in a crucial moment — or if the official had warned Ford or Reid, as is typical — the Chiefs would’ve clinched their first Super Bowl in 49 years on a turnover forced by their defense.

That would have been an effective talking point, but the underlying issues would still exist.

The Chiefs gave up more first downs than any team in NFL history during the regular season, and then 36 more in Sunday’s playoff loss. Going back to 1940, only eight teams have ever given up more first downs in a game. Only nine teams have surrendered more yards in a season.

There can’t be many units in the league that underperformed their talent and context worse than the Chiefs’ defense. The offense was a rocket ship, especially early, which meant the defense was often playing with the lead in obvious passing situations. That played to the group’s strength, which was the pass rush, and away from its weaknesses — stopping the run and quick passes.

The rub is that by protecting Sutton, Reid has opened him to more criticism. Sutton is not a bad coach. From 2013 to 2016, he led defenses that finished no worse than seventh in points allowed and twice finished seventh in yards allowed.

But those were different groups, with personnel so good the scheme didn’t matter as much. The Chiefs now have a defense with a few stars (Jones, Ford, Houston), a few solid starters (Allen Bailey, Steven Nelson, Charvarius Ward) and a glaring weakness (the safeties).

That’s the kind of situation that demands deft coaching, to maximize the strengths and cover the weaknesses, but the opposite has happened. Sutton’s opponents are exploiting the Chiefs’ weaknesses, and particularly against the Patriots there appeared to be few adjustments.

Perhaps most tellingly, the inside linebackers underperformed. You can give Chiefs general manager Brett Veach some of the blame here, but Anthony Hitchens was a good player in Dallas. He has a diverse skill-set and balanced game that should’ve translated well to a new system. Instead, he was ineffective.

Did he suddenly forget how to play, or at age 26 become too old? Or did Sutton fail to put him in the best position to succeed? One of these is much more logical than the other. From the moment former Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson stopped playing like a ninja, inside linebackers have struggled in Sutton’s system.

A year ago, the Chiefs decided the defense’s shortcomings were personnel, not coaching. The results this year were even worse. This is a group that clearly and desperately needs a new voice to lead it, or the franchise risks wasting another year of Patrick Mahomes’ rookie contract.

This doesn’t mean Sutton is a bad coach, or that he should be treated as such. Reid was fired once, too.

He can do this humanely. With respect. Let Sutton resign. Give him credit for the development of Jones and Ford. Promise him a Super Bowl ring when the time comes.

At this point, it’s clear that’s the best way to win one.

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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.