KANSAS CITY -- He is the first thing they talk about. You walk around the Kansas City Chiefs’ locker room on Oakland Raiders week, and you ask different players the same question, the question people around the country ask a thousand different ways but, at its core, is simply this: “What the (bleep) is going on here anyway?”
And the first thing that they talk about is Andy Reid.
Then, you go around Kansas City and talk to people walking at the famous jazz corner of 18th and Vine, people standing in front of the old Muehlebach Hotel where Harry Truman predicted he would pull the all-time political upset and win the 1948 Presidential election, people shopping at the Country Club Plaza (the first outdoor shopping mall in America), people munching on America’s best barbecue at Arthur Bryant’s or Oklahoma Joe’s (which is inside a gas station) or Jackstack or Gates and you ask THEM the same question: What the (bleep) is going on with the Chiefs anyway?
And the first thing they talk about is Andy Reid.
He is the constant. He is the difference. Nobody seems able to explain exactly WHY Andy Reid has turned the Chiefs into sudden winners. Nobody seems to be able to explain why the Kansas City Chiefs, the worst team in professional football last year, are now 5-0 and have allowed the fewest points in the NFL and have forced the most turnovers in the NFL and have revived a great American football city that has not won a playoff game in almost 20 years or a Super Bowl in more than 40.
Then again, nobody seems especially interested in why. It’s too good in Kansas City right now to worry about why. The Chiefs are 5-0. They are playing the Raiders at home to go 6-0. Hey, that Andy Reid: There’s something about the guy.
“Andy just has a presence,” Chiefs new general manager John Dorsey says. “I don’t know, it’s something all the great coaches have. They have this presence. You believe in them. You can’t help it.”
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Where it was. Gunther Cunningham, when he became coach of the Kansas City Chiefs in 1999, had this idea of running more plays during practice than any other team in the NFL. The idea had something to do with repetition and muscle memory, or something like that, and so what happened was his players would run maniacally all over the field, from one huddle to another, just so they could run the next play as fast as possible. Gunther lasted two seasons.
Dick Vermeil came out of his second retirement to take over. Vermeil loved offense. Sometimes after losses he would still talk about how many yards his offense piled up. He did love those yards and those points, and he built an offensive machine in Kansas City. His Chiefs scored more points and piled up more yards from 2002 through 2005 than any team in the NFL. But, wow, was their defense bad. The defense was so bad that the Chiefs only made the playoffs once in the Vermeil years and they lost a home playoff game where neither team punted.
Enter Herm Edwards. He lasted three years. In the first, he had his quarterbacks hand the ball to running back Larry Johnson 416 times. That’s an NFL record, one that will probably never be broken. Johnson never even carried the ball 200 times in a season after that and is reportedly now a guest DJ at a Miami strip club. Kansas City won just six games the next two years and Edwards was sent to ESPN.
Then came Todd Haley. He was young and edgy and the son of legendary Pittsburgh football man Dick Haley, but his athletic background was as a golfer, not a football player. He seemed a hothead. When Larry Johnson tweeted about Haley’s golfing background, he got himself suspended. Players grumbled about him, first quietly and then less so. He fired his offensive coordinator after the preseason and decided to run the team himself. He clashed with just about everybody. His second year, the Chiefs went to the playoffs but got smashed by the Baltimore Ravens. His third year, Haley was fired before the season even ended. He’s now in Pittsburgh, spending his days trying to figure out how to score any points with a dreadful Steelers offense and getting sued.
And finally it was Romeo Crennel. Good ol’ Romeo. He was like your favorite grandfather. The players loved him -- they BEGGED for him to become coach. Well, everybody liked him. Heck, his name was Romeo. But he never seemed quite sure what was happening on the field. “We just don’t do enough of the things we need to do to win,” he said, more or less summing up everything, and after the Chiefs went 2-14 he was fired.
This has represented the last 15 or so seasons of Kansas City Chiefs football. It’s really no wonder that steady Andy Reid has been exactly what Kansas City needed.
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Who he is. Andy Reid was the head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles for 14 years. He won more games than any Eagles coach before him. He took the team to five conference championships, one Super Bowl. His round face and oval glasses and stony looks and iconic mustache made him, perhaps, the most familiar face in Philadelphia since, I don’t know, Ben Franklin?
But did Philadelphia ever really know him? Many will say no. He spent 14 years trying to make sure they did not. He grew up in Los Angeles, in a house where Bing Crosby’s first wife Dixie Lee once lived. She was a nightclub singer herself. In a rare moment of letting his guard down, Reid told the Philadelphia Inquirer that years before he lived there as a child, legend had it that Bing Crosby used to stand outside that house and serenade Dixie. He had been the Eagles coach for THIRTEEN YEARS before he dropped that seemingly harmless bit of personal information.
Then, Reid has never seen much value in opening up to the public. His life is his life -- nothing to do with coaching football. He grew up in Los Angeles -- his mother a radiologist, his father painted movie backgrounds -- and he was always the biggest kid around. There is surviving video of an appearance he made as a 13-year-old in the Punt, Pass and Kick competition at halftime of a Monday Night Game -- and the striking thing about it is that he looks to be at least twice as big as the other competitors. He eventually made his way to junior college and then Brigham Young as an offensive and defensive lineman.
Football enraptured him, of course. He coached in college for about a decade, finishing with three years as offensive line coach at Missouri. Everybody seemed to like him there. He had this knack, as John Dorsey and countless others would say through the years, of getting players to trust him, to respect him, to play for him. The weird part was that he didn’t do it in the usual way. He didn’t gain that trust or respect through fear, and he didn’t exactly do it through humor, and he didn’t exactly do it through tactical genius. It was more like this: He was straight with them. He expected them to be straight with him.
He went to Green Bay to be an offensive line coach. He seemed to be settling into that kind of life, the assistant coach’s life, someone who travels from team to team as needed and coaches up the offensive line until the head coach gets fired and then he starts all over again. Only it all changed for him in a flurry. After five excellent years as offensive line coach, he was suddenly promoted to be Brett Favre’s quarterbacks coach and Mike Holmgren’s assistant head coach. And everyone started noticing him.
After two years of that the Philadelphia Eagles hired him as their head coach. He had never been a head coach at any level. He had never been an offensive or defensive coordinator at any level. Philadelphia, which thrives on being on of America’s most skeptical cities, had absolutely no idea what they were getting.
Three months later, they found out. Those fans booed the heck out of him for drafting a quarterback with the second pick rather than Heisman Trophy running back Ricky Williams.
That quarterback turned out to be Donovan McNabb, and together McNabb and Reid would make the Eagles one of the best teams in football year after year. Together they would dominate the NFC East division, together they would fall short of a Super Bowl victory. Reid would gain a reputation as a strong leader and a questionable clock manager, as a private man and as a constant presence, as a coach who privately preached consistency and togetherness and publicly preached clichés as the man who gave Michael Vick a second chance and as a man who quietly endured the death of his oldest son, Garrett, of a drug overdose.
And 14 years later, with McNabb retired and the Eagles struggling to find a new identity, Andy Reid was fired. The time just seemed to run out -- everybody was sick of each other. But in many ways, people in Philadelphia didn’t know him any better than they did at the start. I asked a Philadelphia Eagles fan who is a good friend to describe Andy Reid. After fumbling around he said, “Stern?”
Reid started the interview process the next day. He was hired by Kansas City less than a week later.
“Was there any thought in your mind of taking a year off?” he was asked during the introductory press conference. Reid offered his famous look of disbelief.
“I’m ready to go now,” he said.
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What he means. In many ways, the Chiefs were not a typical start-up project. Yes, they went 2-14 in 2012 and were disastrous in numerous ways. But, behind the obvious ghastliness -- lowest scoring team in the NFL, quarterbacks who combined for eight touchdown passes and 20 interceptions, tied with Reid’s Eagles for worst plus-minus in the game -- there was something unexpected: Talent.
Six Chiefs were selected for the 2013 Pro Bowl, four of them (Derrick Johnson, Tamba Hali, Eric Berry and Justin Houston) on defense. That’s unheard for a 2-14 team -- the Chiefs were obviously overwhelming underachievers. And it wasn’t just the Pro Bowlers. They had a 1,500-yard rusher in Jamaal Charles. They had a young nose tackle, Dontari Poe, who very often could not be blocked. They had a potential shutdown corner in Brandon Flowers. The Chiefs had some cap room, and they had the first pick in the draft.
“I think you have to give Scott (Pioli) credit,” Dorsey says. “And the group before him too. There were good top end football players here. What we needed to do was build the depth. … And build a family.”
Building depth -- it’s easy to follow the process there. The Chiefs brought in 49ers quarterback Alex Smith to start and former Missouri star Chase Daniel to back him up. They drafted Central Michigan’s Eric Fisher with the first pick, and he has been the team’s right tackle from Day 1. They made numerous moves throughout the offseason. And then, at the end of the preseason, they did something unusual. They acquired SEVEN new players who had been cut one week before the season started.
Those seven new players, in fact, give a little insight into how Andy Reid does his job. The Chiefs player personnel people, after countless hours of film study, felt like these seven new players (three from Seattle, two from San Francisco) one each from the Browns and Packers) were clear improvements over what the Chiefs had. Reid fully trusted the decision, made the hard call of cutting his own players who had been there throughout the preseason. Then he gathered around his players.
“Look,” he told them according to several sources. “I know this is hard. I know we let go of some of your friends, some players who went to battle with us all summer, and we’re bringing in these new players. But we as a group believe these players will make us better. And if we’re going to be successful as a team, we have to do it together. We need for you to help get them ready to play.”
All seven were active Week 1. One of the pickups, tight end Sean McGrath, has started four games and has 15 catches, one for a touchdown. Another, defensive back Marcus Cooper, has started a game, has an interception and is second on the team in passes defended.
It’s just one example. When you ask Derrick Johnson why the Chiefs are so much better this year, he immediately says, “Coach Reid has brought us together,” and he talks about the team’s confidence. Tamba Hali says, “He treats us like men.” Alex Smith marvels at how the Chiefs have played so well in all phases of the game. The defense has dominated. The offense has controlled games and not turned over the ball. The special teams have been dynamic -- it was Dexter McCluster’s electrifying punt return against the New York Giants that broke that team’s spirit, maybe for the entire season. “He understands how all those parts work together,” Smith says.
“Here’s one difference, I think,” Tamba Hali says, “I think in years past we worried too much about the other team. We were always adjusting to what they did. We still watch all the film and all that, but now it’s different. With Coach Reid we do what WE do. And it is like they have to adjust to us now.”
Those Chiefs -- just like the Eagles and their fans for all their years -- can’t quite get to the heart of how Andy Reid does it. They do say he’s funnier than he usually gets credit for. They say he shoots straight with them and they appreciate that. They say that there’s just this instinct: They want to play for him.
“I think we’re beginning to believe,” Dorsey says. “I think we’re beginning to believe that we’re a good football team. That’s Andy.”
* * *
What he says. Nothing. Well, that’s not exactly true. Before Andy Reid speaks to the media, a couple of Kansas City reporters run down what he will say. He will say that this week’s opponent, Oakland, is a good football team. He will say that the Raiders are well coached. He will say that the Raiders have good football players. He will say that the Chiefs are a good football team, and the fans are as good as any in the NFL, and it should be a good football game.
Then Andy Reid shows up -- the only unfamiliar part is that he’s wearing Chiefs red instead of Eagles green -- and he promptly says that Oakland is a good football team with good football players and good coaches. He says that the Chiefs are becoming a good football team and they have good football players. He is asked about the Chiefs fans efforts, this week, to set a decibel record for cheering. He says that the Chiefs have good fans.
* * *
What will happen. Nobody -- not even anyone in Kansas City -- claims to know just how good this Chiefs team really is. Their five wins are all against fairly suspect teams -- they are a combined 7-18 and three are in the spectacularly awful NFC East. The Raiders have beaten the Chiefs six straight times at Arrowhead Stadium, and everybody’s nervous about that. Nobody feels overconfident about a Chiefs team that is one of only three undefeated teams left in football.
And yet, there’s a thrilling excitement building in Kansas City, not only because the Chiefs are winning for the first time in a long time, but because everyone identifies with the guy coaching the team. He might be from LA but he seems a Midwestern guy. He might be associated with Philadelphia but he looks right in Kansas City red. He might not say much publicly, but privately he’s got those guys playing good football.
There were certainly mixed reviews for Andy Reid in Philadelphia as there are for all coaches who win a lot but never quite win it all. When he came back to Philadelphia this year as Chiefs coach, there was a conflict in town about how he should be treated. Some thought he deserved a standing ovation for all the good things. Others came ready to boo.
But in Kansas City, after an array of coaches that were young and old, bland and supercharged, experienced and naïve, there’s just a sense that Andy Reid knows what he’s doing. “He’s a pro,” people said repeatedly as I toured the city, and it’s clear now how much people in Kansas City hungered for a pro.
“Are we a good football team?” Dorsey asks. And he answers: “I think we are a good team. I think we are playing like a good team. And I think we can get better. … We all know this is just starting. We’re just starting the beginning of the second quarter. But, yes, I think we’re a good football team.”
And Andy Reid’s thoughts?
“I think we are developing into a good football team,” he says with his Chiefs cap lowered to his eyes, and all the reporters roll their eyes because they knew he was going to say that. Meanwhile everyone in Kansas City wears red and is fired up for the Raiders game because they also knew he was going to say that.