As the only remaining unbeaten team in the NFL, the Chiefs reach the halfway point of their season today as the talk of the league.
Surely, Chiefs chairman Clark Hunt could not envision his team starting 7-0 even after the organization made moves at head coach, general manager and quarterback that changed the face of the franchise:
The Chiefs, who were an unsightly 2-14 last year, weren’t alone in making substantial changes after finishing at the bottom of their division in 2012.
The Cleveland Browns, who visit Arrowhead Stadium today, and the Buffalo Bills, whom the Chiefs visit next week, faced the same decisions at head coach, general manager and at quarterback.
Starting with firing their head coaches last New Year’s Eve, these three teams took different routes in making changes at the three most important jobs in a football franchise.
• The Browns, 5-11 a year ago, hired a former offensive coordinator in Bob Chudzinski as head coach; selected Mike Lombardi, a former personnel man who had been in the news media as general manager and retained the quarterback drafted in the first round by the previous regime, the since-benched Brandon Weeden.
• The Bills, 6-10 in 2012, hired a former college head coach in Doug Marrone; promoted Doug Whaley from assistant general manager to general manager; signed veteran free-agent quarterback Kevin Kolb; and selected quarterback E.J. Manuel with the 16th overall pick in the NFL Draft.
Neither the Browns nor the Bills, both 3-4, have enjoyed the immediate success of the Chiefs, but it’s still too early to tell which approach will prove to be the better one over time.
“In three years, I’ll tell you which one was the way to go,” said Charley Casserly, a former NFL general manager and NFL Network analyst. “All of them had logic to it.”
After getting burned by hiring the hot assistant in Todd Haley in 2009 and promoting Romeo Crennel for 2012, Hunt turned to Reid, who had coached Philadelphia for 14 years, taking the Eagles to five NFC championship games and one Super Bowl before going 8-8 and 4-12 in his last two seasons.
“With Andy, it was the experience,” Hunt said. “He’s somebody who had success in the National Football League at a very, very high level. Even though his last couple of years with the Eagles weren’t what he had hoped, I could tell he had the passion, had the understanding, had the intelligence, had the knowledge how to build a winning program. I just felt very comfortable in that now-famous eight-to-nine hour interview we had…
“We were fortunate that a guy like Andy Reid was available. That doesn’t happen all the time. We were even more fortunate he was interested in coming to the Kansas City Chiefs.”
There were risks in hiring a 55-year-old coach who had been with one club for such a long tenure.
“The key when you hire a coach like Andy Reid, is does he still have the fire in the belly?” Casserly said. “Does he still have that burning desire to win, or is he looking for another payday? Does he have something to prove? When the Giants hired Tom Coughlin … he had success at Jacksonville and got fired …”
Coughlin won two Super Bowls with the Giants, and an NFL title is all that is missing from Reid’s resume.
“Sometimes you can stay too long in a place,” Casserly said. “Maybe that happened to Andy. It’s not a fluke what’s happening in Kansas City. He’s a good football coach.”
While Reid brought several staff members from Philadelphia, he went outside his Eagles family by hiring Bob Sutton from the New York Jets as defensive coordinator and Dave Toub from Chicago as special-teams coach, and their respective units have been arguably the best in the NFL this season.
“He kind of started fresh with his staff,” Casserly said. “Maybe that rejuvenated him some.”
Cleveland’s Chudzinski worked his way up the ladder, spending 2004 as the Browns’ tight--nds coach and 2007-08 as offensive coordinator before moving on to San Diego and Carolina, where he was the Panthers’ offensive coordinator in 2011-12.
“Cleveland interviewed a lot of people,” Casserly said. “I don’t know if they got their first choice or not. Chud came with a very good background. He did a great job in Carolina developing Cam Newton, came in with a solid plan and staff.”
Chudzinski, as a nod to his in experience as a first-time head coach at any level, hired the two highest-paid coordinators in the league: former San Diego coach Norv Turner to run the offense and Ray Horton, considered by many a head coach-in-waiting, for the defense.
Though many former college coaches have failed in the NFL, Marrone came to Buffalo with a pro background. He played two years as an offensive lineman in the league and was an offensive-line coach for the Jets (2002-05) and offensive coordinator at New Orleans (2006-08) before rebuilding the program at his alma mater, Syracuse.
“When we embarked on finding a new coach, we had an open mind,” Buffalo president Russ Brandon said. “We wanted a coach that had NFL experience and preferably head-coaching experience, and we found the right combination in coach Marrone.
“He had the experience of running a program, albeit the collegiate route, at Syracuse. He took a program that had fallen to the lower depths of college football and turned it back to beyond respectability with winning two bowl games, and getting the program back on track. Marrone’s pedigree is more NFL-based than collegiate based. … He fit all the criteria we were hoping to achieve with a new coach in Buffalo.”
The general managers
Once he decided to make changes, Hunt re-structured the Chiefs’ organizational chart. Both the new head coach and general manager would report to him instead of the head coach reporting to the general manager.
Dorsey, a 15-year personnel man with the Green Bay Packers, had also worked with Reid when he was an assistant coach at Green Bay during 1992-98, and the two have similar ideas about putting together a team.
Dorsey and Reid turned over more than half the Chiefs’ roster, bringing in 30 new players, but kept the core of existing talent from a team that had six Pro Bowlers despite its 2-14 record.
“John had a great knowledge of the personnel side, which is what I was looking for in the position,” Hunt said. “He came up through a great organization, the Green Bay Packers. They do a very fine job of picking football players, and John was a part of that. I knew the two of them were experts in their respective areas and felt they would work well together.
“The relationship (Reid) and I have and the relationship that John Dorsey and I have — and the way the two of them work together — has me feeling good about the direction the Chiefs are headed.”
Cleveland chief executive officer Joe Banner, who was the Eagles’ president during Reid’s 14 years in Philadelphia, joined the Browns last Oct. 16 after Jimmy Haslam bought the franchise. Banner hired Chudzinski on Jan. 10 and a week later hired Lombardi, who was working for NFL.com and NFL Network at the time. Before that, Lombardi had worked in the personnel departments in Cleveland (1989-93) and Philadelphia (1997-98) under Banner and in Oakland (1999-2007).
Banner and Lombardi, aided by new assistant general manager Ray Farmer, who joined the Browns after spending 2006-12 in the Chiefs’ front office, have overhauled the team in Cleveland. Only 27 players on the current roster were with the club last season.
Buffalo, meanwhile, stayed in house for the new general manager. When Buddy Nix stepped away from the general manager’s job last May, the Bills promoted Whaley, who was the assistant general manager after serving 11 years in the personnel department of the Pittsburgh Steelers, where he helped in the drafting of players who won two Super Bowls.
“He’s a good, young, dynamic talent evaluator,” Brandon said of Whaley, one of five black general managers in the NFL. “When Buddy decided to step into a different role, it was an easy, natural progression to move Doug into that role.”
The Chiefs had the benefit of the first overall pick in the NFL Draft but determined there was not a quarterback worthy of that choice.
So after a season in which Matt Cassel and Brady Quinn combined to throw 20 interceptions — second most in the NFL — they sent second-round picks in the 2013 and 2014 drafts to San Francisco for Smith, who threw just 10 interceptions in 26 starts for the 49ers in 2011-12.
Smith has been efficient if not overly productive with the Chiefs. He has completed just 58 percent of his passes, is averaging just 6.3 yards per attempt and hasn’t thrown a touchdown pass in three weeks. But he has thrown just four interceptions this season, and no quarterback has a better winning percentage than Smith’s 82.8 percent (26-5-1) since 2011. He is also the club’s second-leading rusher and has converted key first downs by running.
“When you can make a deal for Alex Smith, that’s a slam dunk,” former Dallas Cowboys personnel man Gil Brandt said. “He’s also one of the best scramblers in the league.”
Because there wasn’t a top-10 quarterback in the draft, the Browns opted to stick with Weeden and selected outside linebacker Barkevious Mingo with the sixth overall pick. They’re already preparing for a 2014 draft that is expected to be flush with quarterback talent.
During the 2013 draft, the Browns acquired some future picks to help move up in the 2014 draft, and they also traded running back Trent Richardson to Indianapolis this season for the Colts’ first-round pick in 2014.
“They figured they were better off holding onto Brandon Weeden and seeing what he could do,” said Browns senior editor and Sirius XM NFL Radio host Vic Carucci. “They had little support for him going in. Without that support, he was going to fly without a net and have to show he had the ability to deliver. He obviously didn’t do that. Even if he comes back to play, he’s done with the Browns.”
The Bills took two paths toward replacing quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, whom they elected not to retain after the 2012 season.
First, Buffalo signed the oft-injured Kolb off Arizona’s scrap heap, but he suffered a concussion in preseason and was placed on injured reserve. Manuel showed promise as the Bills’ opening-day starter, but he suffered a knee injury on Oct. 3 against Cleveland, and the Bills have since used rookie free agent Jeff Tuel and journeyman Thad Lewis.
“Coach Marrone said it was going to be an open competition,” Brandon said, “and it never panned out due to Kevin’s injury. E.J. assumed the mantle, progressed very well until his unfortunate injury. Now we’re working with our fourth quarterback of the year in Thad Lewis.”