Kansas City Chiefs

Chiefs coach Brendan Daly bleeds for football. Now his blood boils for KC’s defense

Brendan Daly is in the middle of the mosh pit, seconds away from running onto the field at Villanova Stadium on this Saturday in 2005.

Tempers flared during pregame warmups, and the now-43-year-old Chiefs defensive line coach and the rest of the Villanova assistants used that trash talk to whip the Wildcats into a frenzy.

They spilled out of the locker room and into the tunnel, the energy building to a crescendo as the players bounced up and down mere feet from the field.

And then there was blood. Spilling from Daly’s head.

“I was looking at him like, ’You just sliced your head wide open,’” said Sean Spencer, then Villanova’s linebackers coach. “I don’t know if he headbutted a helmet or what, but he did something.”

Daly didn’t pay it any mind, sprinting out on the field with the rest of his team, busted head and all.

A decade and change later, Daly is primed to run out of a new tunnel with a new team when the Chiefs open their NFL season in less than 100 days. He’ll work with the likes of Chris Jones, Frank Clark, Derrick Nnadi and rookie Khalen Saunders to mold the KC defensive unit into a reflection of himself: aggressive, fundamentally sound and lively.

And he’ll show his new team he hasn’t lost the edge that’s made him one of the premier defensive line coaches in the NFL.

“The guy is crazy, now,” Spencer said with a chuckle. “I’m crazy, so I can call him crazy.

“Crazy knows crazy.”

Wired differently

Like Spencer, Chris Ash has plenty of his own Brendan Daly stories.

And, like Spencer, few of them can be divulged on the record.

“I got a lot of them,” the now-Rutgers head coach said with a chuckle. “They weren’t all centered around football. I wouldn’t call them displays or acts of energy, probably more of stupidity. You can tell him I said that. I probably can’t share — or should not — share some of them, but yeah, I have seen a lot of things that would show Brendan’s wired a little bit differently.”

What Ash can say, though, is that he’s known Daly for more than two decades, starting out first as teammates at Drake and then as co-workers, beginning their coaching careers as graduate assistants within a year of each other at their alma mater.

As teammates, Ash, a cornerback, saw Daly, an undersized tight end, make up for what he lacked in measurables with meticulous attention to details and fundamentals — traits Daly carried over into his coaching career.

“He understands how important fundamentals are at all positions,” Ash said. “He takes it from his own playing experience. He became a better player because of the fundamentals. As he became a coach, he applied that same training to his players.”

As Daly’s roommate for a year, Ash had a front row seat to Daly’s evolution from player to coach. The two shared a small, bare off-campus apartment together in Des Moines, and what their abode lacked in furnishings, it made up for in utility.

Ash and Daly borrowed a VCR and a projector from the coaches’ office and used the white walls as a makeshift screen to watch tape until late in the night.

“We would watch film and talk ball, and that was what we would do,” Ash said. “We wouldn’t do anything else. All week long, we would go to the office, work, we’d watch film and bounce ideas off of each other.”

As Daly made the permanent transition from an offensive coach to a defensive one during the 2005 season at Villanova, he still maintained the habits that drove him during his years as a player and a younger assistant.

He continued to devour film, particularly studying anything he could on renowned defensive line coach Pete Jenkins, who spent most of his career in the SEC, with other stints coaching at the high school and NFL levels.

“Whether he’s an offensive coach or a defensive coach,” Ash said, “he’s just wired in a way to always learn and grow and study. And when he sunk his teeth into a new position, being D-line, he just worked relentlessly to try and learn it and study it.”

Though he was an offensive assistant and assistant strength and conditioning at Oklahoma State from 2001-03, Daly connected with defensive line coach Karl Dunbar in Stillwater, forming a valuable friendship that eventually helped lead him to the NFL.

When Dunbar, now coaching the Steelers’ defensive line, joined the Minnesota Vikings’ staff in 2006 in the same position, Daly went along to be his assistant.

“I’m a person that enjoys challenges, to be quite honest, and I think that’s how you grow,” Daly said. “If you stay in your comfort zone as an individual in anything that you’re doing, I think it becomes stagnant.”

Daly’s first NFL training camp at Minnesota’s Mankato State is also the scene of the only story Ash could divulge about his friend.

Early on in the camp, Ash made the easy drive from his job in Ames, Iowa, to Mankato to visit Daly. When he got there, he saw that Daly was all scraped up, from his face to his arms to his legs.

Turns out, Daly had an accident on the bike the coaches used to take from the dorm to the practice field.

“I’m like, ‘What happened to you?’” Ash said, remembering that day. “He hit a fire hydrant on his bike and fell off and was a wreck for a while during his first training camp.”

‘He treats men like men’

Cowboys defensive end Robert Quinn remembers working with Daly during his rookie season 2011.

Then the Rams’ defensive line coach, Daly was part of the team that selected Quinn with the No. 14 overall pick in 2011. Also in on that decision: then-Rams head coach and new Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo.

“He treats men like men,” Quinn said of Daly. “That’s the best way to put it. Understanding that even though it’s a serious business and game, you’ve still got to respect people. That was one of the biggest things, especially as a rookie coming in, you’ve heard all these crazy stories about coaches and stuff, and he’s very welcoming coming in as a rookie. He made it an easy transition for me.”

While the team finished 2-14 and both Spagnuolo and the general manager were fired at the end of the season, Quinn put together a solid campaign off the bench. Third on the team with five sacks, Quinn earned the team’s rookie of the year honors.

The rest of the defensive line had moderate success that season, too. Chris Long had 13 sacks and 21 quarterback hits while James Hall had six sacks and a safety.

“He was allowing guys to play and have fun,” Quinn said of Daly. “He kept the room kind of lively.”

Daly, who describes himself as a people person, also took time to build relationships with his players off the field, talking to his guys about things other than football and inviting them over to his house for dinner with him and his wife, Keely, a native of the Kansas City area.

“He was aggressive, but he was very fair,” Spencer said. “That makes a really good coach when you’re able to relate to them outside of football. I think sometimes in this profession you get so caught up in making them do what’s right and what’s required that you also can’t forget or lose sight that they’re human beings too, no matter what level.”

And Daly didn’t just form bonds with his players — he also had similar relationships with his fellow coaches.

Spencer, who coached with Daly for a season at Villanova, remembers some competitive battles in the coaches’ offices.

“We’d push chairs and try to wrestle each other in chairs,” Spencer said, “which would scare the secretary.”

But when it was time to work, Daly got down to business.

A laid-back guy most of the time, Daly has a knack for cranking up his intensity on the field. In balancing those two sides of his personality, Daly commands respect from his players. And those personality traits are a big part of what makes him such a difference-making coach.

“Brendan keeps it real,” Ash said. “He’s open, he’s honest, he’s caring. He’s situational. He can adjust and adapt to different situations, different personalities. He’s going to keep it professional, but he’s also going to have opportunities and moments where he’s going to keep it lighthearted and fun.

“I think that’s really what a player wants. They want a guy that cares about them, can make them better, keep it real and can have some opportunities to make it fun.”

The next challenge

As a member of three Super Bowl-winning staffs during his five-year stint with the Patriots, Daly commands attention when he walks in a meeting room.

With a roster of former players that includes the likes of Chris Long, Vince Wilfork and Trey Flowers, Daly’s methods are proven — and his players recognize it.

“I can speak about his Super Bowl rings, and I get lost in counting,” Chiefs defensive end Clark said. “But he’s a coach who definitely knows what he’s talking about and knows what he’s doing. The last month I’ve been here, he’s just been helping me and trying to teach me the certain things I need to do to develop myself. I’m open and willing.”

Daly’s been developing his voice as a coach since his days at Drake, fine-tuning them with each step up through the collegiate and NFL ranks. He’s long been a rising star in the league, hired away from Minnesota to join Spagnuolo’s staff with the Rams in 2009 after just a phone interview.

After a three-season stint with the Rams, Daly went back to the Vikings for two seasons before joining the Patriots’ staff. He spent a year as an assistant before taking over the defensive line.

The Patriots were a powerhouse before Daly’s arrival, and they’ll likely continue their winning ways without him, but folks around the league took notice of Daly’s ability to elevate the play of New England’s defensive line.

“I’ve got a real close friend in the business that’s a real good football mind, in my opinion,” said Spagnuolo, who kept the friend’s identity a secret. “He said this a couple years ago that he felt like he saw a complete difference in the way they played defense in New England. He felt Brendan had a lot to do with that. I thought it was a great observation.”

Now, Daly is tasked with renovating another defensive line ... in Kansas City.

If Spagnuolo is the architect of the Chiefs’ new defensive model, Daly is one of the chief foremen of the project, assembling the pieces of raw material to make Spagnuolo’s vision come to life.

“I think with Spags’ knowledge and coach Daly’s personality, I think that’s a recipe for excellence,” Quinn said. “But everyone’s still got to go out there and work and improve themselves.

“I think they’ve got a clear understanding of what they want and what they want to accomplish. You hope that they players they have there are buying into what they’re preaching. Make the most out of it.”

Daly learned from defensive masterminds like New England’s Bill Belichick, and now he’s bringing his knowledge and charisma to Kansas City to get the most out of another defensive line unit.

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Brooke Pryor covers the Kansas City Chiefs for the Kansas City Star, where she works to give readers a deeper understanding of the franchise and the NFL through daily stories, game coverage, and player profiles. She attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and grew up in Winston-Salem, N.C.
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