How coach Andy Reid saved the Kansas City Chiefs
THE CELEBRATION IN the visitors locker room at Houston’s NRG Stadium after the Kansas City Chiefs clinched the AFC West in Week 15 had at least some of the trappings of a party, including caps and T-shirts to commemorate the moment.
But this was their seventh straight division championship, and the mood carried so much of a been-there, done-that vibe. Quarterback Patrick Mahomes told his teammates they should enjoy their accomplishment for a short time, but once the team charter landed back in Kansas City, it would be time to move on to other things.
“We’ve got bigger goals in mind,” Mahomes said.
The Chiefs are favored to win their second Super Bowl in four years, according to Caesars Sportsbook. As the AFC’s top seed, they are fresh off a first-round bye as they prepare to host the Jacksonville Jaguars in the divisional round Saturday (4:30 p.m. ET, NBC).
Drafting Mahomes — who is the favorite to win his second MVP award this season — in 2017 is one of the two biggest reasons the Chiefs have set their sights on Super Bowls, rather than playoff berths or division titles. The other is a coaching move made 10 years ago.
The Chiefs hired Andy Reid on Jan. 4, 2013, and things in Kansas City — and around the NFL — haven’t been the same since.
“It’s amazing to see what the Chiefs have become,” said four-time Pro Bowl linebacker Derrick Johnson, who played eight seasons in Kansas City before Reid’s arrival and five after. “From where we were when Andy came in to where they are now, you wouldn’t believe it if you didn’t see it for yourself.”
REID JOINED THE Chiefs when — in his own estimation — he needed a change. He had a highly successful 14-year run as head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles, one that featured appearances in four straight NFC Championship Games and a Super Bowl.
But tragedy struck the Reid family during training camp of the 2012 season when his son, Garrett, died of an accidental drug overdose. The Eagles finished 4-12 that season, the worst record of Reid’s career.
The Chiefs were even worse.
With Matt Cassel and Brady Quinn at quarterback, Kansas City finished with a league-worst 2-14 record in 2012, tied for the fewest wins in franchise history. The Chiefs lost nine games by at least 15 points and never had a lead during a game until the season’s 10th week.
They also experienced tragedy late that season when linebacker Jovan Belcher killed his girlfriend and then drove to the team’s practice facility and took his own life in front of his coach and general manager.
Coach Romeo Crennel was fired a month later on Dec. 31, 2012. He was the third straight coach to finish his stint in Kansas City with a losing record. 2012 marked the Chiefs’ second two-win season in a five-year stretch — they went 2-14 in 2008 — in addition to a pair of four-win seasons in 2007 and 2009.
In early 2012, the Chiefs were interested in signing Peyton Manning, then a free agent after being released by the Indianapolis Colts. But the organization was held in such low esteem that Manning ignored the Chiefs’ overtures, never returning their calls. Instead, Manning signed with one of their AFC West rivals, the Denver Broncos.
“I’m not sure — if I was in his shoes — I would have said the Chiefs were the best option, either,” team president Mark Donovan told ESPN.
The dysfunction wasn’t limited to the field. Before Reid’s arrival, there was often friction between the general manager and head coach, disagreements about trying to win now versus building something that could be sustained over the long term.
The situation was so toxic in 2011 that — despite having a shot at the playoffs — the Chiefs fired coach Todd Haley late in the season, in part because of a rift with general manager Scott Pioli.
“When you don’t have success, a lot of times it’s because people aren’t pulling in the same direction,” Chiefs chairman Clark Hunt said. “I think you can certainly look at the years that led up to the hiring of Andy that we had some different perspectives on the football side of the operation, and it was not helping us be successful on the field.”
Despite winning two games, the Chiefs sent six players to the Pro Bowl, reflecting a level of talent that belied their record.
“There was a period of time where all the players knew about the tension that existed between the front office and the coaching staff,” former linebacker Andy Studebaker said. “We didn’t know everything that was going on. It’s like you know that mom and dad just had an argument, but you aren’t really sure what happened. We just understood things were crumbling and deteriorating. You could feel the culture eroding because people were picking sides and nobody knew who was going to make it out alive. It became kind of political that way.
“You start wondering as a player, ‘Where does this put me?’ The sense of team starts to erode. Sadly, we had a lot of really good players. Because of the instability throughout we couldn’t win games. We went into games thinking we had a chance to win, but we were never surprised at the end to find out we lost.”
THE TENSION BETWEEN the front office and the head coach ended after Reid arrived. Those who work with Reid say his most underrated talent is his ability to get people around him to pull in the same direction.
Former Eagles president Joe Banner described draft meetings in Philadelphia where the debate about the players the Eagles should select was contentious. But when those meetings were finished, people emerged with collective support for the decisions made and then a collective effort was made to make sure the choices turned out to be the right ones.
“You’re not going to have division under Andy,” Banner said. “He’s not going to put up with that for a second. Even the important decisions, if he’s not sure about something and somebody else is really convinced on it, he will defer to people even when he has final say over things.”
Reid also quickly turned around the culture in the Chiefs’ locker room. Johnson said Reid made an immediate impact by focusing on “the little things,” like being on time to meetings, not wearing hoodies or hats to meetings and making sure uniforms are on properly.
“As soon as he walked in the facility, you could hear the confidence in his voice,” Johnson said. “We appreciated the way he conducted himself, the way he treated everyone like men. I remember the first team meeting we had, he jumped all-in and he never looked back. He never talked about what he did in his Eagles days. It was all about being a Chief and what we were going to do from that day forward.”
Reid wound up ridding the Chiefs of some players because they didn’t fit his culture. Most notable was Pro Bowl cornerback Marcus Peters, who led the NFL in interceptions as a rookie in 2015.
But Peters clashed with coaches and others in the organization and was suspended for a game in 2017 after throwing an official’s penalty flag into the stands and then leaving the field during a game against the New York Jets.
During another game, Peters was caught by TV cameras directing profanities to fans at Arrowhead Stadium. He eventually was traded to the Los Angeles Rams and would earn first-team All-Pro honors in 2019 while splitting the season between the Rams and Baltimore Ravens.
“Believe it or not, Andy was a fan of Marcus Peters, a big fan,” Johnson said. “Andy loved the way he played, the way he made plays. He loved him like a child. But Marcus had a few choice words with people in the organization, and he wasn’t going to have that.
“Andy wanted disciplined, smart guys who were buying into the system. He was old school, but in a good way. He had a proven way of winning and he wanted everyone to follow. If you didn’t, eventually you weeded yourself out. When you’re building a culture, you have to have everybody in.”
And just as Reid was willing to part with budding stars — Peters followed up his rookie campaign with an All-Pro nod in 2016 — he was willing to develop young players, mostly notably at quarterback.
REID WAS AN assistant coach with the Green Bay Packers in 1992 when they traded for a little-known backup named Brett Favre. Packers general manager Ron Wolf thought Favre could become a franchise quarterback.
Favre, of course, did become an eventual Hall of Famer for the Packers, as did Wolf, in part for his role in the trade. The effort to get a quarterback made an impression on Reid.
Banner said Reid never feared playing a young quarterback, noting that Reid’s first-round draft pick his first year in Philadelphia was quarterback Donovan McNabb. McNabb took over the Eagles’ starting job as a rookie and remained in their lineup for a decade.
The Chiefs, on the other hand, had not drafted a quarterback since they took Todd Blackledge in the first round of the 1983 draft. For 34 years, Reid’s predecessors had relied mostly on backups acquired from other teams. But Reid was not afraid to take a risk in pursuit of a franchise quarterback.
“We told Clark that within five years we’d get [Reid] a quarterback,” said John Dorsey, who joined the Chiefs as general manager shortly after they hired Reid. “It just had to be the right guy.”
So Reid was patient.
One of his first moves after joining the Chiefs was to acquire backup quarterback Alex Smith, who had lost his starting job with the San Francisco 49ers.
“I knew from our time together in Philly that he loved Alex Smith,” Banner said. “But I also recognized that the acquisition of somebody like that for him was a short-term answer. I knew that he would fairly quickly find somebody that he believed would be the long-term answer.”
Smith led the Chiefs to the playoffs in 2013, his first season in Kansas City, and again in 2015 and 2016. The Chiefs won the first of their seven straight division championships in 2016, but a two-point loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the divisional round left the Chiefs with a feeling they would need an upgrade at quarterback if they were to ever advance deep into the playoffs.
Dorsey and Brett Veach, then the Chiefs’ personnel director, identified a quarterback in the 2017 draft they thought would eventually be an upgrade over Smith and anyone else they might acquire. But they would need to trade up in the first round to get him.
They didn’t have to work hard to get Reid on board.
“Ron always told me that if you get a shot at a quarterback, you’d better take it,” Reid said. “He said, ‘If you believe in a guy and it’s a quarterback, take him. Get him on your team.'”
Mahomes became the Chiefs’ starter in 2018, after the team traded Smith to Washington. The Chiefs haven’t missed an AFC Championship Game since, and they won the franchise’s first Super Bowl in 50 years after the 2019 season. Mahomes was named the MVP in 2018 and is the favorite to win his second MVP this season.
“Andy always had a passion and a desire to perfect this offense that he’s learned over the years, and the only way to perfect it is to find a quarterback who could do everything his creative mind could throw out there,” said Veach, who replaced Dorsey as the Chiefs’ general manager shortly after Mahomes was drafted. “There is an element to this offense that requires a little bit of a gunslinger mentality from the quarterback, somebody who could threaten defenses by a willingness to push the ball down the field.
“If we were ever going to reach our maximum potential, we had to be able to put ourselves out there and make a move like trading for Pat. That’s always been the way Andy has operated, and it’s trickled down to how the rest of the organization operates.”
It might never have happened without Mahomes, but he said he saw the pieces for a championship in place when he arrived six years ago. He will kick off the fifth postseason run of his career Saturday, when the Chiefs host the Jaguars, hoping to reach the Super Bowl for the third time in four seasons.
“It’s the culture we’ve built here,” Mahomes said. “That started before I even got here with Coach Reid and the coaches they had. They built this culture of, ‘This is how we’re going to work, this is how we’re going to prepare and this is how we’re going to win.'”
Nobody described the Chiefs this way 10 years ago, but in some ways they are a model NFL franchise. They’re winning by playing an exciting brand of football. Their fan base is energized. Opposing teams have taken members of Reid’s staff (Doug Pederson and Matt Nagy) to be their head coaches and members of Veach’s staff (Chris Ballard and Ryan Poles) to be their general managers.
And, of course, Reid finally got the Chiefs a quarterback.
“If there was a Peyton Manning situation right now, I think that person would look at us differently,” Donovan said. “We are a model franchise now, and a huge part of that is due to Andy.”