Sam Mellinger

How Andy Reid led the Chiefs from their darkest moment to one of their brightest

The most dysfunctional, ugly and tragic season in their professional lives had just ended in an appropriately non-competitive loss in Denver. Afterward, in his post-game news conference, the dazed head coach had no coherent response when asked why he should keep his job.

The 2012 Chiefs won just two games. They did not so much as hold a lead until their ninth game. A starting linebacker murdered the mother of their child, then drove to the practice facility and shot himself in the head with his bosses watching in horror.

The players showered and dressed in silence that day in Denver. Heads shook. They walked slowly from the locker room to the bus and out into the uncertainty of their futures.

“Thanks for playing hard,” Norma Hunt, the franchise founder’s widow, told many of them individually. “We have a lot to look forward to.”

A few weeks later, punter Dustin Colquitt worked out alone at the Chiefs’ practice facility. He’d been selected to the Pro Bowl and kicked through his preparation. A staffer approached. The new head coach wanted a word. Don’t interrupt your work. Whenever you’re done, walk into his office.

Colquitt liked that. The message came through clear. Work first, then we can get to know each other. He liked the meeting even more.

“Are you done with this city?” Reid said, according to Colquitt. “Or are you just done with what’s transpired over the last four years?”

Colquitt answered quickly, and with certainty. “No, I love this city. I have too much going on. I don’t want to start over.”

Reid: “You don’t have to. We want you here.”

This is just one of a million moments that helped drag the Chiefs from their lowest point in history to now, perhaps their most anticipated season since Super Bowl IV.

Chiefs chairman Clark Hunt talked constantly of wanting stability. He used the Pittsburgh Steelers as the model, and for a while, that felt somewhat cruel. The Chiefs presented the ultimate picture of chaos: three head coaches in five years, in-fighting with the front office, distrust between the locker room and bosses.

Then came Hunt’s finest moment. He blew up the only power hierarchy the team had ever known in an effort to promote more in-house cohesion, and then moved swiftly and decisively, out-maneuvering several other teams to hire Reid as his head coach.

The first bit of evidence that the Chiefs had steered away from the cliff’s edge and back toward relevance came in Reid’s first game as coach — a 28-2 win in Jacksonville so refreshing and encouraging that players literally sang their way into and danced their way around the post-game locker room.

Exactly six years to the day later, the Chiefs again open a season in Jacksonville. The questions have moved from whether Reid can save the franchise’s dignity to whether he will deliver its first Super Bowl championship in 50 years.

This is the perfect moment to examine how the Chiefs got from there to here, through the eyes of five men who’ve been here the whole time: Reid, Colquitt, left tackle Eric Fisher, fullback Anthony Sherman and tight end Travis Kelce.

“Man, how did we get here?” Kelce said. “Back to Jacksonville, Week 1. It’s luck of the draw, but I’m so fortunate to get stuck here with Andy Reid.”

Reid’s leadership

A million reasons exist for the Chiefs’ climb from the bottom to the precipice of the top. Most of them lead back to Reid, and we’ll get into that soon, but no man walks alone.

The first thing Reid needed: buy-in. The strategy is multi-fold. Players describe him as stubbornly honest, always available and relentlessly committed to making them better.

“I haven’t known anything different,” said Sherman, among the first players acquired by Reid in Kansas City. “You know who he is, so let’s go.”

Reid’s meeting with Colquitt is a good illustration of his leadership philosophy. You shouldn’t be coaching down to anyone. These are grown men. Set boundaries, but if you respect them, they’ll respect you. Some bosses are driven by ego. You probably know the type. It can be effective for a time, but eventually it is transparent — in a bad way.

The Chiefs had seen that, by the way. Several players came to see coach Todd Haley that way, before he was fired. General manager Scott Pioli, too. One-time Chiefs defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel, later promoted to head coach when Haley was ousted, is generally believed to be a good man with pure intentions, but even his relationships with players were often torpedoed by assistants.

In some ways, then, it’s possible to think of the situation Reid inherited as destined for one of two directions. The players could have been so thoroughly burned out and mentally drained that they could trust no one in the building again, or so starved for success that they wrapped their arms around the new direction. That particular locker room had been beaten down, but it retained its pride.

“It’s tough to even look back and even remember how things were, and you don’t want to,” said Colquitt, who has been a Chief longer than any other current player, coach or executive. “It’s cut and dried. You know where you stand. There’s no hidden agenda or surprises. He wants us to work, get better, be men, don’t argue about trivial stuff that doesn’t make us sharpen each other.

“Everything is on the forefront. These things can hurt us, and these things are great for our chemistry. We’re going to stick with the things that are great for our chemistry.”

Quickly, game-planning meetings that used to be full of friction and passive-aggressive signals became united. If you had something to offer, do it. The players quickly learned to trust that nobody would put anyone else in a bad spot.

Coaches talk about distractions so often it is perhaps the sport’s most overused cliche. But they don’t just mean outside noise. They mean clearing out anything that isn’t helping push the team forward, including and especially petty in-house disagreements based more on ego or self-interest than the greater good.

Starting in 2013, the Chiefs operated with clear minds. Ask Colquitt if that was new.

“Absolutely,” he said. “I would say there’s no conflict now.”

The difference could not be more stark, and by now the pattern has exposed itself. The Chiefs’ culture change from 2012 is about a change in personality and style from the previous leadership group to Reid.

Where insecurity and distrust once spread, there is now confidence and cohesion. Where the head coach was once hired after two years as an offensive coordinator, there is now a man with 207 wins, including the playoffs, over 20 seasons.

Setting expectations

The message is the same, whether it’s told by guys who used to play for Reid, still play for Reid, have coached with Reid — or are Reid.

Be honest. Communicate. Be trustworthy. Work hard. Set high expectations, and help your coaches and players reach them.

“Whatever they throw out on the table, maybe I can help it or I can’t help it, but I’m going to give them an honest answer,” Reid said. “If I need to find something out that I don’t know, I’ll look into that. If we’re serving Mahomes flakes and they don’t want them, I’ll go figure it out, right? It can be that simple.

“And it’s not going to leave that room. I’m not going to hold a grudge if it’s something I don’t agree with. Just get it out of there, and then it works out OK. Then there’s a trust that builds up.”

Isn’t that what all coaches should do? All leaders? Of course it is, but conversations over the years with various players with experience in multiple organizations reveals a generally similar hangup: The pressure of the NFL exposes the slightest faults.

A coach without full confidence might not fully share credit. He might work harder to gain trust and credibility than he does earning it.

This isn’t simply about Reid, either. Assistants matter, and more than a quarter of the league’s teams are coached by Reid or a former Reid assistant. That’s not an accident.

“I’m not afraid to hire guys that are intelligent,” Reid said. “Sometimes people get nervous (their assistants are) going to take over for you, or engulf you, impress more than you impress. The ego, or whatever you want to say. I don’t worry about all that. I just want to find the best guys that love the game, and I don’t have to worry about off the field (problems).”

The result is a culture that those involved in have consistently described as pure, together and focused on the same things.

Reid’s teams in Kansas City have started 9-0 and 1-5, and Colquitt is among the players who swear the message stayed consistent. That builds trust, especially when the most important factor exists — that players believe the coach is helping them succeed.

“We get a lot of guys coming from other places and we have a special thing going here,” Fisher said. “I don’t think every locker room around the league is as tight as we have here. We have a core group of guys who’ve been around a while and know in and out what coach Reid expects of us, and we can kind of lead the newer guys on what’s expected on a daily basis.”

One more thing that keeps coming up in these conversations: fun. Reid’s monotone, say-nothing news conferences belie his true self. He is wickedly funny, with a sharp and quick and often self-deprecating sense of humor.

He has developed the people skills required to lead 53 players and a coaching staff, everyone with different wants and priorities. The NFL is a brutal business, and when teams lose fun, they always lose games.

Reid’s Chiefs prioritize fun. That’s easier now, too, with a quarterback who makes nothing impossible leading what could be one of the greatest offenses of all time.

“I think what was missing a little before this coaching staff walked in the building is joy,” Colquitt said. “He’s happy to wake up, happy to come to the office and happy that God has given him so many creative blessings. He joyfully comes to work and is thankful for what shoes he fills. That rubs off.”

The results are there. A franchise without direction is now surgically focused. A franchise that was rocked by instability has made the playoffs five times and had a winning record in each of Reid’s six seasons.

The transformation is thorough. All that’s left is to see if the Chiefs can complete the journey from worst example of the NFL to the best.

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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.