Vahe Gregorian

Entering NFL draft, Chiefs’ offseason already defined by radical defensive changes

Chiefs GM Brett Veach on “drawing up more plays for Pat”

During a press conference on Thursday, April 18, Chiefs general manager Brett Veach talked about the club's roster, including quarterback Patrick Mahomes, and trying not to be too aggressive come draft day.
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During a press conference on Thursday, April 18, Chiefs general manager Brett Veach talked about the club's roster, including quarterback Patrick Mahomes, and trying not to be too aggressive come draft day.

As he chatted with coach Andy Reid the other day at the Chiefs’ training complex, general manager Brett Veach took notice of a thick stack of index cards that Reid called … “my new Pat plays.”

Veach shared that with a smile on Thursday, and why not? The diabolical prospects of what Reid is concocting for NFL MVP Patrick Mahomes in his second year as a starter should accelerate pulse rates for Chiefs fans and send shudders around the NFL.

But that’s hardly the only intriguing and energizing proposition the Chiefs are engaged in amid their offseason training program and preparation for the NFL draft next week.

Because all the “Pat plays” were only going to go so far if the Chiefs stood pat on defense.

And seldom has a team so tantalizingly close to the pinnacle made more profound changes in that pursuit.

With Mahomes now a known and infinitely promising commodity, the rejuvenating part of this offseason is how they went all-in on trying to maximize his potential. They purged defensive staff, with Steve Spagnuolo taking over for defensive coordinator Bob Sutton, churned out aging favorites Justin Houston and Eric Berry and ushered in a galvanizing force in safety Tyrann Mathieu.

The Chiefs will have at least five new defensive starters from season’s end and, in fact, just one (Chris Jones) who started the 2017 opener at New England.

Instead of tweaking or tinkering, Veach, in conjunction Reid and their staffs, absolutely is “daring greatly,” to borrow from Teddy Roosevelt’s “Man in the Arena” speech.

As in, “If he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.”

As it should be.

Yes, on the surface, they were so close to a Super Bowl with the 37-31 overtime loss to New England in the AFC Championship Game.

Yet they were so far away considering the defense too often was a slapstick act, a trap door ever-looming that sprung loose spectacularly in the moment of truth.

Especially given Reid’s reluctance to fire Sutton a year earlier, the Chiefs might easily have taken refuge in the superficial fool’s gold in how it ended: by inches (a Dee Ford offside that negated a late Charvarius Ward interception of Tom Brady that likely would have sealed a win) and a coin toss (the one that doomed the Chiefs to being dissected by Brady in the decisive overtime drive.)

But the loss ultimately was about this: a woefully porous defense of stale strategies and schemes that depended on too many players who were too old, too young, injured or seemingly misfits for the fundamental change.

My own sense of this has, uh, evolved since some early skepticism about the sweeping changes. That initial feeling hinged too much on the “so close” part without adequately accounting for the “so far” truth and before the method to the madness — beyond simply “everything must go!” — was apparent.

But to paraphrase my father, you can fool me once, you can fool me twice, but you can’t fool me indefinitely.

And this approach has been not just a renovation but a revelation.

Because yes, it would be almost impossible for it to be worse, and there is something almost tangibly revitalizing about the fresh voices and transformation of routine and new blood. “A lot of energy and a lot of juice,” as Veach puts it.

That stuff doesn’t assure dramatic improvement ahead but tends to help win the day along the way, which is all we have right now and the only way you get to tomorrow.

While many wanted Sutton fired a year earlier, or even during last season, the instant postseason timing resonated as plenty bold and decisive but not panic-driven.

Meanwhile, the broader sweep conveys the messages to fans and players alike to not settle for mere hope or linger on the insanity carousel of doing the same things over and over and expecting different results.

“We didn’t win the Super Bowl, so we can get better,” Veach said, later adding, “We’re not trying to build for the future; we’re trying to win now.”

While it’s unclear where Reid’s influence extends and where Veach’s reach ends in this process, the days leading up to the draft make for a moment to pause and say this with certainty and appreciation: Veach’s acumen, enthusiasm, influence and work ethic is essential to this commendable approach.

“Anything is possible with Brett,” Reid said. “He doesn’t put any limits on what he will do or where he will go.”

However that inclination plays out in the week ahead, with Veach suggesting he would be “shocked if we went all defense again,” the notion to blow up the defense already has defined this offseason.

All because the Mahomes phenomenon that defied the laws of logic also altered the equation for the Chiefs, who by landing closerthanthis to their first Super Bowl berth since beating Minnesota on Jan. 11, 1970, stepped into a new frontier of urgency.

That’s why tight end Travis Kelce said, “It still stings you when you think about it, but at the same time … a lot of momentum was built from that.”

It remains to be seen how any of that translates into next season, but at least some momentum from the season is undeniable: Because exhilarating as all the “Pat plays” in the world might be, even his revolutionary talents could be relegated to an asterisk or novelty act without a competent defense to supplement the cause.

With Mahomes, yes, the Chiefs will always have a chance. But they couldn’t risk squandering this potentially precious window in franchise history, a possible springboard from decades of anguish and futility.

So even as Reid’s circuits explode devising more for Mahomes, he also is refreshed by the reset with Spagnuolo, a man he trusts deeply. Their relationship goes back decades, Spagnuolo worked for Reid Philadelphia and is a disciple of the late, highly respected Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson.

“He knows how I roll, and I know how he operates. That part has been easy …,” Reid said. “I just think it has been a positive.”

You could say the same of the signing of safety Mathieu and cornerback Bashaud Breeland, who figure to bolster the suspect secondary that frequently undid the Chiefs last season, and the acquisition of defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah from Cleveland and others.

And even with more maneuvering likely ahead and plenty of questions remaining about who will emerge, certainly you could say that Veach is excited about room being made for, and room to grow in, the likes of Breeland Speaks, Derrick Nnadi, Dorian O’Daniel, Armani Watts and Jordan Lucas.

Not to mention Ward, whose interception could well have cast the Chiefs into the Super Bowl had it not been offset by the offside.

It was a miserable turn in the moment.

But at least it led to a dynamic pivot point in franchise history that may have been distorted or diluted otherwise: “Pat plays” deserve all the support they can get on the other side of the ball, and the Chiefs no longer harbored any delusions about what that would mean or were encumbered by the past.

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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.