Part of what distinguished the dignified Bob Sutton as an NFL defensive coordinator was his cordial and cerebral demeanor. West Point background and all, he typically was the calming and refreshing opposite of the drill sergeant caricature.
That, and how it initially resonated with his players, was striking in 2013 amid a 9-0 start by Andy Reid’s first Chiefs team, which gave up a total of 111 points in that span.
When safety Quintin Demps considered how to describe the mild-mannered, even-keeled Sutton, he thought of “brainiac.”
“It’s like lecture classes,” cornerback Dunta Robinson said then. “You get all of the yelling and all of the fussing in high school and college. We’ve moved past that now. We’re grown men. So teach us, show us and let’s go out and get it done.
“The biggest thing is trust, and we definitely don’t want to let a guy down who believes in us that much.”
Virtually any remaining such trust, alas, had turned to dust by the time Sutton’s role came to an end Tuesday. His voice seemingly no longer being heard, his ideas no longer embraced, the Chiefs announced he had been “Relieved of Defensive Coordinator Duties” in the wake of their 37-31 overtime loss to New England in the AFC Championship Game on Sunday.
This story, though, really is about Reid.
Surely in conflict with his heart and possibly against his instincts, Reid either consented to or engineered a move that had become essential for the morale of the franchise (and fans). Even with Sutton’s replacement not yet known, the action presumably provides an instant jolt of energy and even healing as the Chiefs seek to reset, look ahead and make the most of quarterback Patrick Mahomes’ special gifts in the years to come.
“Bob is a good football coach and a great person,” Reid said Tuesday in a release from the team announcing the move. “He played an integral role in the success of our team over the last six seasons. I’ve said before that change can be a good thing, for both parties, and I believe that is the case here for the Chiefs and Bob. This was not an easy decision, but one I feel is in the best interest of the Kansas City Chiefs moving forward.”
Indeed, much as this might have been an obvious necessity to so many, it’s no small thing that Reid managed to overcome his typical inclination to stay the course and do something he disliked doing.
In a sense, Reid’s action echoes the Cadet Prayer, which Sutton must know so well from his 17 years working at the U.S. Military Academy, including nine as football coach: “Make us to choose the harder right instead of the easier wrong and never to be content with a half truth when the whole can be won.”
With Sutton, 67, a deeply respected man around the organization, this was the harder right and the whole truth for many reasons that simply could no longer be otherwise rationalized.
Seemingly at the core of the move is a report from Ian Rapoport of NFL Network that the Chiefs — players and coaches — widely had lost faith internally in Sutton’s decisions.
“Over the course of the past few days, the #Chiefs have talked with players and coaches about defensive coordinator Bob Sutton, whose lack of adjustments has been a non-stop frustration,” Rapoport posted on Twitter.
Fans clamoring for this for years finally got what they sought, and it’s hard to say this shouldn’t have been done sooner.
Looking back, you could even make a case that Reid wouldn’t have been wrong to fire Sutton after the Chiefs blew the 38-10 lead to lose 45-44 at Indianapolis in the first playoff game they coached here in 2014.
That also would have reeked of scapegoating, and there was plenty of blame to go around and legitimate reason to believe the best was ahead. And there were some good times.
But there was ample evidence to make the change by a year ago, another playoff loss with no ability to stop the run, and some of our best minds made a persuasive argument that went unheeded.
It was soon a popular sentiment even to oust Sutton in the middle of last season, which seems to me would have been a panicked, counterproductive move … even if it’s easy to see it differently in hindsight.
But Reid’s optimistic — or perhaps simply hopeful — decision to stay the course became utterly indefensible by the end of this season, when the Chiefs defense was the worst in the NFL in many ways and ultimately their undoing in a ghastly, porous overtime against the Patriots.
This team blessed with a quarterback who could throw 50 touchdown passes in his first season as a NFL starter gave up an average of 40.2 points in its five losses, making Sutton’s future as the coordinator untenable.
Both in terms of what message retaining him would send to Chiefs players and any reasonable expectation he could create or engage crucial changes himself.
In fact, keeping him now would have had reverberations of one definition of insanity — doing the same thing over and over and magically expecting different results.
You could say that of course that means Reid had no choice but to make the move, but that wouldn’t be quite true.
It’s a thin line between loyalty and pure stubbornness, after all, and any great leader better be conscious of the group implications in how valued and even beloved individuals are treated. Especially one as likable and smart as Sutton.
One reason players and coaches and other staff love to work for Reid is that he is as dedicated to those in his employ as they are to him.
On balance, that’s a tremendous thing. But, of course, it can cloud judgment at times on what’s win-win for all. Sometimes, as many of us might relate to, wanting to see somebody succeed obscures the hard reality.
And based on how Reid mildly but uncharacteristically bristled Monday at some questions related to Sutton’s future, it was hardly a certainty he would go this way. (Most likely, he wasn’t going to make any conclusions with the emotions of the game less than 24 hours old. Or if he had, you could surmise out of respect for Sutton that he didn’t want to present it as a foregone conclusion.)
“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.”
But he doubtless remembered something himself even as he urged others to remember how close the Chiefs came to their first Super Bowl in 49 years:
What might have been is one thing, but what could yet be is another.
To move forward, to maximize the precious present with Mahomes and overhaul their weak link, Reid and the Chiefs make a change that brought no one any glee.
It remains to be seen who will replace Sutton or how effective he will be — or how loud. But this harder right will be energizing, adds to Reid’s credibility to do what’s best for all, not just this man he cares about, and reminds of his capacity to grow in this job even as he is soon to turn 60.