Vahe Gregorian

This Chiefs season, and Andy Reid’s legacy, hinges on Kansas City’s uncharted defense

Already secure in the assumption that quarterback Patrick Mahomes will make the Chiefs formidable for years to come, the franchise bolstered its future nucleus Friday with a three-year contract extension of human speed-blur Tyreek Hill.

“It’s a bright sign for the Chiefs,” said defensive end Frank Clark, adding, “For the opponents, good luck.”

Especially with coach Andy Reid showing no signs of slowing down as he stands on the cusp of moving into sixth place in NFL career victories, a rarefied stature that speaks to the organization’s stability and breathless anticipation locally over its direction.

But when Reid soon passes Chuck Noll’s 209 career NFL wins (he’s currently at 207), the feat also will amplify what Reid’s resume lacks in comparison to those peers he is among — an NFL championship, won multiple times by all ahead of him — four times by the man he is poised to overtake.

So for all the reasonable givens about the Chiefs’ offense, Reid’s ultimate legacy in many ways hinges on the transformation of a defense that has been a haunting form of Kryptonite for his teams in the postseason. That’s been particularly so in his six seasons in Kansas City, bookended by a 45-44 loss at Indianapolis (after leading 38-10) and the 37-31 overtime loss to New England last season that left Reid 12-14 in playoff games.

The greatest X-factor in the Chiefs’ quest for their first Super Bowl appearance in 50 years, and Reid’s first since his Eagles lost to the Patriots in 2005, lies in a defense that has infinite variables of its own.

The Chiefs’ radical makeover from a year ago includes a new coordinator in Steve Spagnuolo, his revamped staff, a shift in base scheme and philosophy and what is expected to be eight new starters for the opener Sunday at Jacksonville.

Oh, and the projected starting lineup played together for fewer than a handful of snaps in the preseason.

A lot of moving parts

As much as the Chiefs’ overall talent appears upgraded, particularly in the form of safety Tyrann Mathieu and Clark, it’s virtually impossible to know what to expect, especially early in the season.

“There are a lot of new, moving parts there,” said Reid, who when asked what he expects Sunday said he just wants to see his new defense play, and that he expects the unit to grow during the season.

But at least the changes are so profound that any relationship to last year’s defense, which ranked 31st among 32 teams in yards allowed, will be purely coincidental.

“You leave last year at last year; this year is a new year,” defensive tackle Chris Jones said. “So everyone starts with a clean slate.

Kansas City Chiefs defensive end Frank Clark (55) celebrates in the second quarter of the Chiefs preseason game against the San Francisco 49ers at Arrowhead Stadium Saturday, Aug. 24, 2019. Jill Toyoshiba The Kansas City Star

“So you can write your story for this year this year.”

There’s a fine line between the clean slate that Jones touts and the blank one that might be seen by others, including Spagnuolo, who acknowledged “you don’t really know (where you stand) until you get into the thick of things.”

But it’s also worth remembering that however this season starts, the final product will be the signature of the season.

“I think that it’s natural when you’re in something new, that if things go the right way early, confidence builds,” said Spagnuolo, who professes to so enjoys the building process that he says he might have been an architect if he weren’t a football coach. “Now, the flip side of the coin happens, too, and I think we need to protect against that.

“If it doesn’t go great out of the gate here, and I’m not just talking about one game, the challenge will be to trust what we’re doing, trust each other. I think it’s good to talk about that. I call it ‘managing the downside,’ because this league is ups and downs. There is no such thing as perfect, and it won’t be perfect. We just have to work out the kinks.”

That process — working out the kinks on defense — will fall on Spagnuolo, who earned Reid’s long-term trust as a member of his staff in Philadelphia and disciple of revered then-Eagles defensive coordinator Jim Johnson.

Spagnuolo seems revitalized by his year out of the game, and he appears to have won over his players with a hands-on style that makes them feel like he’s virtually on the field with them, a contrast to more subdued and professorial predecessor Bob Sutton.

“Positive energy, positive energy,” said linebacker Anthony Hitchens, adding, “He wants to be involved just as much as us.”

With the Chiefs’ new scheme, a 4-3, and so much new personnel that has played together so little, there will be an immediate premium on communication. Luckily, as Spagnuolo joked, his players finally understand his Boston accent.

But that’s only a baseline.

How often do you hear or see defensive breakdowns attributed to misunderstandings of roles?

Coaches like to say their teams need to play with one heartbeat, but speaking one language is crucial to that.

Managing that starts with not just with the familiar coaching notion of playing from the “snap to the whistle,” but “from whistle to snap,” Spagnuolo said. Also critical is how effectively everything is processed and relayed.

Mathieu will be a key part of that, and so will Hitchens as the Chiefs’ middle linebacker.

“It’s two parts to communication: giving and receiving,” said Hitchens, noting that he tends to repeat calls over and over and that the process has been streamlined under Spagnuolo.

Without saying it was different under Sutton, Hitchens added, it’s easier to convey “the door is red” than a “long paragraph that you can see getting twisted.”

In one sense, this defense is fresh and new and exciting, and it’s certainly easy to believe it can’t be worse than last year. And with the Chiefs braced to contend for years to come because of Mahomes, it’s not like this is a make-or-break season for winning the Super Bowl.

But coming off their closest grasp at a championship since Super Bowl IV, this also feels like it’s a moment and momentum to be seized, and that anything less would be a dud … leaving something yet missing in Reid’s otherwise glittering profile.

The future looks bright, yes, but the future also is now.

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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.