I have been wrong so often in my life that hoping for one more feels a little like Wile E. Coyote hoping for an anvil, but here goes anyway:
I want to be wrong about believing Chiefs coach Andy Reid is making a major mistake in retaining Bob Sutton as defensive coordinator.
I want to be wrong about believing this is about much more than Sutton's inability to adjust, that it’s also the clearest sign possible that Reid was the perfect coach to restore credibility to the Chiefs but the wrong one to lead them to the Super Bowl.
I want to be wrong.
I want to be wrong for lots of reasons, starting with my belief that Sutton is a good man and continuing with a desire for Reid’s well-intentioned loyalty to be validated. I want to be wrong because I believe it’s been at least 15 years, and probably 20, since the Chiefs have been this well-positioned for success and being a sports columnist when the Chiefs finally stop Chiefs-ing would be a thrill.
Also, I want to be wrong because watching the Chiefs continue to Chiefs with the head coach making a difficult task unnecessarily more difficult will feel a little like banging my head into the keyboard.
We’ve had enough opportunities to see an organization plateau at better-than-average, refusing to make an aggressive change to improve, forced to continue pretending that parking-lot tailgates make up for a franchise postseason history that is much more Browns than Steelers.
But this has a bad feel, on so many levels.
First, let’s start with Sutton. He hasn’t done enough despite being given plenty. In five years, he’s coordinated blown leads of 18 and 28 points, two of the worst five playoff collapses in NFL history. In his fifth year on the job, his group was 28th in yards, 27th in yards per play, 24th in yards per pass, 24th in yards per rush, 23rd in third downs, and dead last in Football Outsiders’ DVOA.
Put another way: the Chiefs had their best offense since Dick Vermeil, while spending more than half their salary cap on defense, and still their season ended because the defense couldn’t stop a mediocre offense.
Put one more way: The Chiefs are all set to bring back a defensive coordinator who allowed a talented defense to crumble after Eric Berry’s injury in the season opener.
The defense’s failings were not all on Sutton, of course. Players should always get the bulk of credit or blame, and former general manager John Dorsey allowed some holes that were amplified by Berry’s absense. But Dorsey was fired last summer, and the thing about sports is you never know when the ball will find you, when the spotlight will shine, and this could have been the year Sutton rose to an unexpected challenge and helped push the Chiefs forward.
Instead, Sutton was exposed.
He allowed Daniel Sorensen to serve as a turnstile for far too long in Berry’s absence, a talented defensive line underperform, and the pass rush to be stuffed over and over and over again despite a full season from Justin Houston.
The Chiefs needed creativity, and Sutton provided none. The Chiefs tied for the NFL’s fifth-lowest blitz rate, and no team ran fewer stunts on pass plays according to Pro Football Focus, this despite athletic defensive linemen and safeties (including Sorensen) adept at the timing and subtleties required to succeed in blitzes.
The result was repeatable and became predictable: The Chiefs were 27th or worse in sack percentage, quarterback pressure percentage, and time required to create pressure, according to PFF.
In summation: A once promising season sunk in large part because the defense could not adjust, and did not even attempt to manufacture pass rush despite a desperate need for one in a scheme based largely on disrupting the quarterback, perhaps best illustrated by safety Eric Murray lined up as a 3-4 defensive end as Derrick Henry swooshed by for a 35-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter of the playoff collapse.
All of this, and Reid is bringing Sutton back, apparently convinced the best path forward for a regressing defense is a sixth year of a status quo that peaked with two division-round losses.
Which brings us to Reid.
He came here with a vow to learn from mistakes in Philadelphia, where he was consistently successful but made (and lost) just one Super Bowl in 14 years. He was convinced he took too much on, that being coach and holding final say on personnel was too much.
Whether you believe general manager Brett Veach controls personnel or not, here is Reid letting another past mistake limit his future.
Reid is famously loyal to his assistants, an admirable quality that has undoubtedly helped him succeed. He takes pride and ownership in their careers, which is part of why seven former assistants are now head coaches.
So you can understand why Reid doesn’t want to fire his friend, and can convince himself that this is the best path forward, but he talks constantly of doing what’s best for the Chiefs and it’s difficult to see how this is anything but noble loyalty.
More of the same defensive scheme with an aging core is a heck of a way to do what’s best for the team.
This is the part that becomes not just a defense problem, but a Chiefs problem, because by staying status quo after five years of plateau the club is essentially confirming the most common (and often justified) criticism.
Happy with good, unwilling to risk to be great.
One last time: I really want to be wrong about this.
Watching the Chiefs wipe away nearly half a century of just-good-enough-to-let-you-down would be one of the great sports stories in Kansas City history. Doing it with the head coach giving his defensive coordinator a chance most NFL assistants wouldn’t expect would only add to the good vibes.
But this is a gamble made more by heart than head, and Sutton’s success next season is now clearly dependent upon uncommon health and the uncommon versatility of Berry overcoming the coordinator’s weaknesses.
By extension, the same is true of the team, a pivotal season based too much on hope and not enough on reason, too much on wishing for the best and not enough on planning for reality.
This isn’t how it should be.
This isn’t how football teams signal ambition to their fans or players.
This isn’t how football teams get better.
This will be Reid’s 20th year in the NFL, and the Chiefs’ 50th season since their Super Bowl win. No coach has won his first Super Bowl this far into his career, and no franchise has won after going this long without.
In this significant way, both sides are trying to achieve new heights with the same strategy that’s left them short for so long.