Sam Mellinger

Why Chiefs’ Andy Reid, NFL’s most innovative coach, is so stubborn about the preseason

Andy Reid has a house that faces the Pacific Ocean. He paddleboards. He reads. He relaxes. He makes memories with his wife and kids and friends. It is supposed to be his escape.

And it usually is! But not always. He carries a notepad with him everywhere and constantly. Because you never know when inspiration will hit. One second you’re watching the waves and the next you realize the center might have a better angle on that one screen if he runs horizontally past the hash and then downfield.

Everything in the Chiefs coach’s life is subject to reevaluation, is the point. In Andy Reid’s first season as a head coach, the Seattle Seahawks played in the AFC and Kurt Warner won the MVP in a city that no longer has a team.

You don’t last that long with this much success — eighth all-time in wins — without innovating. You can’t do something again just because you did it last year, but, as it turns out, the most creative offensive coach in the NFL is unmovable on just two things:

He’s going with the walrus mustache, and at least some of his starters will play into the third quarter of the Chiefs’ third preseason game.

That’s more than most teams. Perhaps more than all.

“I’m going to tell you that I’ve kind of stayed on the same schedule that I’ve been on,” Reid said.

Last week in Pittsburgh, the Chiefs lost receiver Marcus Kemp for the season and tight end Deon Yelder indefinitely with injuries.

That’s a bummer, if hardly a major problem for the offense. But it’s also a reminder that teams across the league are increasingly treating preseason games with all the ambition of a pair of tube socks.

The Chicago Bears — coached by Matt Nagy, Reid’s former offensive coordinator — and the L.A. Rams are among the returning playoff teams to rest all starters in week two of the preseason.

Russell Wilson, Ben Roethlisberger, and Philip Rivers are among the star quarterbacks to not even suit up for at least one preseason game this month. Tom Brady, who typically plays most preseason games, sat out last week.

A significant injury to Patrick Mahomes, Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, Frank Clark, Chris Jones or Tyrann Mathieu would be devastating. Mathieu is nursing what’s still being labeled as a minor shoulder injury and might not play Saturday. The rest of them will, and extensively, injury risk be damned.

Reid said he will treat the third preseason game the way he always has — a dress rehearsal of sorts where starters will play all or most of the first half, and some will play at least some in the third quarter.

Not changing is a significant change for Reid. He’s led the way on merging college concepts with NFL offenses. He’s constantly pushing boundaries on personnel groupings, formations, pre-snap motion and so much more.

Much of his success and reputation, really, has been built with thorough and relentless reevaluation. That’s how he ends up with touchdown passes to and by a 340-pound nose tackle and shovel passes that look like magic tricks and screens that look like ballet.

But it’s not going to change a philosophy on the preseason that dates back to the Clinton administration.

“I try to go off of experience,” he said.

The thought of losing a star in a televised scrimmage before the most anticipated Chiefs season in a generation or more is terrifying to Chiefs fans, but when an innovator like Reid doesn’t budge, it’s worth thinking about why.

The short answer: It works.

Reid has had starts of 9-0, 5-0 and 5-0 with the Chiefs. Alex Smith was on an MVP track in early 2017. The most efficient chunk of Mahomes’ MVP season in 2018 was the first four games.

Reid’s approach is about more than just preseason playing time. He also insists on the team getting away from Kansas City for training camp, and runs what is largely thought to be one of the more physical camps in the league.

In six years under Reid, the Chiefs have averaged 27.3 points in their first four games. Only the Broncos and Falcons have been more prolific, and only the Broncos have won more in the season’s first quarter.

The Chiefs score a lot of points, period, but under Reid they’ve been at their best early.

Doesn’t it stand to reason that getting more work in early gives the Chiefs a head start on their opponents?

The view on Reid’s preseason playing time is drastically different depending on where you’re looking from, too.

For fans and media, it’s easy to focus on the potential problems. The offense was a rocket ship last year, returns mostly whole, so what do they need with fake games and watered down schemes? The only significant outcome is an injury.

Reid doesn’t see it that way. He sees improvement with timing, the value of playing together, the importance of competing before the season opener and more.

Offenses typically need more practice than defenses, and the limitations on the offseason and training camp put each snap at a premium.

“They get good work in,” Reid said. “You just need to kick it up a notch. It’s not as fast as what you’re getting in the regular season, but you’re cranking it up and it’s the next step.”

One point worth considering is whether the wider league trend of resting starters will inevitably impact the value Reid puts on these games. Part of his reasoning is allowing his starters to work against other teams’ starters, so if it’s increasingly his starters working against other teams’ backups, maybe that’s what finally changes his mind.

In the meantime, a city holds its breath against the fear of Mahomes being injured.

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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.