Sam Mellinger

Better late than never: the Chiefs defense’s overdue culture change with Spagnuolo

Chiefs CB Kendall Fuller on the defense stepping up: ‘It’s just a matter of making plays’

Kansas City Chiefs cornerback Kendall Fuller talked about the keys for the defense heading into the AFC Championship game against the New England Patriots when speaking with the media on Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2019.
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Kansas City Chiefs cornerback Kendall Fuller talked about the keys for the defense heading into the AFC Championship game against the New England Patriots when speaking with the media on Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2019.

As it turned out, the culture change the Chiefs really needed was with the coaches.

This is Andy Reid’s tacit admission here, one we won’t read in a statement or hear in a news conference but can be see plain as day in the last two years of comings and goings of the men involved in the Chiefs’ defense.

A year ago, in the wake of the embarrassing division-round playoff collapse against the Tennessee Titans, the Chiefs used that phrase — culture change — openly. But the turnover was relatively small. Cornerback Marcus Peters was traded, to improve cohesion. Inside linebacker Derrick Johnson was cut, to get younger. Rookie linemen Derrick Nnadi and Breeland Speaks highlighted a defense-first draft class, to get tougher.

You probably noticed: That didn’t work.

So this year, in the wake of another season with one of the league’s worst defenses spoiling one of the best offenses, the Chiefs haven’t used that phrase — culture change — but the turnover in personnel tells the story.

Reid dismissed defensive coordinator Bob Sutton, but that was only the beginning. Steve Spagnuolo was hired as the new coordinator and his staff is completely different: Reid’s son Britt is the only position coach retained, and he’s moved from defensive line to outside linebackers.

Defensive quality control coach Terry Bradden and defensive assistant Alex Whittingham are the only men back in the same job. That means a new coordinator, new defensive line coach, new linebackers coach, new outside linebackers coach, new defensive backs coach and new cornerbacks coach.

These are coaches Spagnuolo chose, and more importantly, coaches he knows and trusts.

“I do think that’s always important,” Spagnuolo said in a conference call on Wednesday, his first public comments since joining the Chiefs a month ago. “Listen, Coach Reid was tremendous ... It was a little bit of a long process, but it was long for a good reason. I think we got the right people.

“You’re right in the fact that many of these guys I have a history with and that’s really, really important especially as you start out this process.”

This is easy to miss, but the turnover is a stark difference from Sutton’s hiring. Back in 2013, Sutton did not bring a single position coach with him from his previous job. Mark DeLeone came as a quality control coach. Three position coaches were holdovers already with the Chiefs, and the fourth worked with Reid in Philadelphia.

By the end, DeLeone and Mike Smith — who also worked for Sutton with the Jets — coached the Chiefs’ linebackers, but it was too late. The die was cast.

There is always a danger in oversimplifying things, and some of this is guided by hindsight. But it stands to reason that a coaching staff without a shared history of relationships, priorities and experiences would be less resilient against fracture.

Sutton has a reputation as a football saint, but he’s never been described as a taskmaster.

How many times do coaches talk about pulling in the same direction? If there wasn’t a single and cohesive push from coaches with different backgrounds, it would presumably be more difficult to keep everyone on the same path.

That ends now.

It’s a year later than it should have been, but Reid desperately wanted to make things work with Sutton and the organization’s timeline changed when Patrick Mahomes skipped a dozen or so steps of development and fast-tracked to stardom.

This, then, is the defensive makeover the Chiefs needed — the culture change they needed.

Their defense doesn’t need to be great. Good will be enough. Average might get it done. But even if the talent isn’t quite what it was — the Chiefs will have a hard time keeping both Dee Ford and Justin Houston around, for instance — they should find progress in better teamwork and a more cohesive vision.

Much has been made of Spagnuolo’s preferred 4-3 base being a significant shift from Sutton’s 3-4, but Spagnuolo was right to point out that the definitions are blurred and evolving, with defenses being in sub packages more than half the snaps.

Spagnuolo is expected to use 4-3 concepts and schemes, but the bulk of improvement needs to come through more of a shared mission.

It’s a good time for a reset, too. Speaks is considered a better fit for the 4-3, and linebacker Anthony Hitchens succeeded in the Dallas Cowboys’ 4-3 before struggling last season with the Chiefs. Nnadi, Chris Jones, Houston, and Ford can all find places in Spagnuolo’s defense.

But that’s getting into the weeds.

The more important thing is making sure those players are in an environment most capable of bringing out their best. That can only happen if the men at the top want the same things, see the same things and prioritize the same things.

That should happen now, finally, in a way that just hasn’t been possible in recent years. We can’t yet know if that will be enough, or if it’ll matter. But this is a significant step in solving the issues that have kept the Chiefs from achieving their highest ambitions.

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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.
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