Vahe Gregorian

Until Chiefs fill void, defensive purge begs question if cure worse than disease

Chiefs release former Pro Bowler and nine-year NFL veteran safety Eric Berry

The Kansas City Chiefs continued with their defensive overhaul by releasing safety Eric Berry on March 13, 2019.
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The Kansas City Chiefs continued with their defensive overhaul by releasing safety Eric Berry on March 13, 2019.

Providing succinct and blunt testimony that sure seems to speak for plenty of others, the Rev. Sam Mann, my dear friend and a passionate Chiefs fan, texted me on Sunday evening:

“What the hell is going on(?) Releasing Houston? Am I missing something?”

Sorry if the H-word offends, but it seemed to carry a little more currency and oomph coming from a man of the cloth.

When I responded that the economics of the NFL leave me “dizzy and baffled,” he suggested that sounded like a good title for a book. As it happens, it’s a page-turner that was only beginning.

“FORD????? What the Hell is this organization doing?” he wrote me early Wednesday.

Be nice to understand the end-game, wouldn’t it? Especially when as of Wednesday afternoon safety Eric Berry — once regarded as the heart and soul of this team — was the latest to be cast off.

Eric. Berry. Gone.

“An incredibly difficult decision,” Chiefs general manager Brett Veach said in a news release from the Chiefs.

“He’s a special person,” coach Andy Reid said in the same statement before, like Veach, wishing him all the best.

Presto, that was that when it came to explanations of all this from the Chiefs brass, which understandably enough doesn’t want to trumpet its strategy in the middle of this gut-check gut rehab on defense but in turn has to understand how odd this is to fans.

It’s hard to think of a precedent for this momentous sort of disruption in a team that was so close to a Super Bowl.

This radical reform started logically enough in January with the firing of defensive coordinator Bob Sutton, the hiring of replacement Steve Spagnuolo and the extreme makeover of the defensive staff.

Somehow, it’s only gained momentum since, and who knows where it will end now?

You could make a case that that’s as it should be when it comes to eradicating this team’s Kryptonite the last few years. Out of chaos comes order, and all that.

But even if you fully trust those making the decision, ultimately Reid and Veach, blind faith is a tough sell in the limbo of this frenetic shuffle.

Only seeing is believing. Until then, you might wonder if this cure isn’t worse than the disease for a franchise that hadn’t been as close to a Super Bowl in 49 years.

About all that is clear in the moment is that a team that essentially fell a measly, wrenching offside penalty away from that Super Bowl berth has diminished its defense by purging two of its most dynamic players, linebackers Justin Houston and Dee Ford, and a spiritual leader even when hurt in Berry. Also gone, albeit less impactfully, is starting defensive back Steven Nelson.

All for a combined return of … a second-round draft pick in 2020 for Ford, who, yes, was the perpetrator of that offsides gaffe in a game lost to New England for many other reasons, but none that better encapsulated how narrow the difference was in what became a 37-31 overtime loss.

That “deal” with the 49ers came after the Chiefs simply cut Houston, a pragmatic but disillusioning ending for a man who one day figures to be in their Ring of Honor.

Ditto when it came to Berry, whose experience as a cancer survivor will always resonate with Chiefs fans.

No room for sentimentality here, though, especially given the injuries that waylaid Berry most of the last two seasons and the obvious disconnect between Berry and the team over his status last season.

On the surface, anyway, this was all to save money on Berry (a post June 1-designation that will save $9.55 million in salary cap space, while dealing with $6.95 million in dead money), Houston ($14 million in cap space, even while stuck with $7.1 million in dead money) and Ford ($15.4 million in cap space).

While Berry and Houston each are over 30 and reasonably appear to be on the downsides of their careers, Ford had been emerging but was considered an awkward fit in the 4-3 defense Spagnuolo is expected to emphasize.

Then again, he provided a pass-rushing game that no one else on the team possesses and would seem a useful presence in a sport increasingly dominated by … the pass.

So as much as this simply reflects reality of the business, which for the Chiefs includes marshaling the money for key extensions to Chris Jones and Tyreek Hill, it’s hard to reconcile the financial mumbo-jumbo in the immediate scheme of things.

Rationalize it as you might, if the goal is to seize the moment and win a Super Bowl, you have to squint pretty hard to see how these last few days have helped the cause. And then you have to believe that what you see on the horizon isn’t just a mirage.

Now, assuming that found money is intended to be repurposed and that more key acquisitions are ahead beyond the worthy signing of defensive back Tyrann Mathieu and potentially a starting linebacker in Damien Williams, chances are we’ll come to at least understand the method to this madness in the months to come.

And it’s useful to remember that none of this is happening in a vacuum and that we are at the beginning of a long haul: the free-agency and trading period officially began Wednesday and the draft isn’t until late April.

While we wait for clarity, say this for the Chiefs: Once they decide something is awry, delayed as the recognition might have been, they certainly aren’t tentative about change.

In this case, they almost seem to be destroying the defense in order to save it.

Not to mention slaying the beast with what might as well be a stake through the chest and a silver bullet dipped in garlic paste while still standing over it with a crucifix.

It was past time for the Chiefs to move on from Sutton, though in Reid’s way of thinking he needed more evidence to make it incontrovertible. Yes, Reid is loyal to a fault, but that trait has inspired the same in return and has had a lot to do with his success.

And the hiring of Spagnuolo, whom Reid has known for decades and hired in Philadelphia, figures to make a positive impact with his fresh energy, new voice and different schemes.

But when it comes to personnel?

The trouble with dismantling an entire operation is that you can’t know how it’s going to be put back together until you see the finished product.

Until then, the scenario is well-stated by my ever-astute counterpart, Sam Mellinger: “Are the Chiefs expecting this much of a bump from Breeland Speaks in a new system? Did they find some confidence in Tanoh Kpassagnon hidden away somewhere? Do they think they can fill the hole in the draft, even without picking until 29th overall?”

What’s going on, indeed? Unfortunately, only time will tell.

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Vahe Gregorian has been a sports columnist for The Kansas City Star since 2013 after 25 years at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He has covered a wide spectrum of sports, including 10 Olympics. Vahe was an English major at the University of Pennsylvania and earned his master’s degree at Mizzou.


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