Back when I was in the fourth grade, a teacher called me to her desk during reading time.
Apparently, a classmate who sat next to me had $20 stolen from his book bag that morning. Another boy—let’s call him Richard—and I were sitting next to them in the cafeteria, so we were the ones who had to be punished.
I did not steal the money, but for an entire week, Richard and I had to sweep the cafeteria while our classmates were at recess. That’s pretty rough stuff for a fourth-grader.
Years later I asked Richard if he took the money, and he admitted he did.
It’s probably because of this childhood experience that I grew to be very, very against scapegoating. I hate it with a passion. And through my eyes, I believe Bob Sutton has been scapegoated for the Chiefs’ failures in 2017.
I’m here to offer a counter-opinion on Bob Sutton, one that is a little more nuanced than blaming everything on the Chiefs defensive coordinator.
The Chiefs Defense Talent Mirage
One thing I’d like to immediately address is Chiefs fans opinions on the team’s defensive talent. Chiefs fans see great players like Eric Berry, Justin Houston, Chris Jones, Marcus Peters, and they think the talent level on defense is stacked... I mean, look at those four awesome players!
Truth be told, the Chiefs defense is not that talented.
Chiefs Defensive Snaps and PFF Grades
|Chris Jones||62%||High Quality|
|Jarvis Jenkins||20%||Below Average|
|Cam Thomas||1%||Below Average|
|Bennie Logan||52%||Below Average|
|Justin Houston||86%||High Quality|
|Marcus Peters||88%||High Quality|
|Steven Terrell||6%||Above Average|
These numbers come from PFF, and while there are complaints about the website’s work, it’s the best talent evaluation tool I have at my disposal (Feel free to pick PFF apart in the comments).
On average, the Chiefs had four poor players, one below average player, three average players and three high-quality players on the field.
Ask any defensive coordinator if they’d rather have six great players and five poor players on the field, or 11 average players and the DC will tell you they would rather have 11 average players every single time.
Scheming around poor defensive players is such a challenge because offenses are looking to specifically exploit a defense’s weaknesses. The number of snaps the Chiefs defense had using poor players was just absurd.
... We’ll talk about this information a little later.
Without looking at a handful of other teams, we’ll never be able to see how Bob Sutton did with so little talent. We need to make some comparisons if we’re going to evaluate Mr. Sutton.
Comparing Sutton vs Other DCs
I chose the following teams (and simple reasons why I chose them) to compare with Bob Sutton’s defense in 2017. There were eight other teams in total.
Eagles - because Doug Pederson
Giants - because Spagnuolo
Cardinals - because Bettcher
Broncos - because division
Chargers - because division
Patriots - because Patriots
Browns - because Browns
Titans - because LeBeau
For starters, let’s see if it’s normal for a team to play so many poor players according to PFF’s metrics.
Note: Y/P = yards per play allowed, and P/D = points per drive allowed.
Poor Players and Defensive Production
Some Chiefs fans were calling for Steve Spagnuolo to replace Sutton. According to this table, Bob Sutton allowed the same yards per play as Spagnuolo with significantly more poor players on the field.
Some fans were also calling for Dick LeBeau to replace Sutton, but the same story as above applies to Sutton and LeBeau. Sutton did just as well as LeBeau in terms of points per drive, but with many more poor snaps.
To paint a complete picture, let’s take a look at this graph:
Sutton’s Chiefs had over 75 percent of their defensive snaps by players who were average or worse. The only teams I checked who were even close to that feat in 2017 are the Browns and Giants.
The Browns and Giants were bottom five in the NFL in points per game allowed. The Chiefs were the 15th best defense in points per game. Suddenly, Sutton’s not looking so bad given the circumstances. He’s at least not the ugliest one at the dance, amirite?
Granted, Alex Smith did a lot to help Bob Sutton’s defense in terms of allowing points. The Chiefs nearly had the fewest turnovers in NFL history, and that greatly helped Sutton in 2017.
Without going too far into the weeds ... If Mahomes brings more turnovers than Smith, which he will, it will put extra pressure on the defense. If the defense is not massively overhauled, the Chiefs’ defensive production could fall off a cliff in 2018. Sutton, Andy Reid, and Brett Veach all have to be planning for this if they want 2018 to be successful.
What Came First, the Chicken or the Egg?
If you’ve read up to this point and have been disagreeing, the likely position you’d take is good defensive coordinators get more out of their players.
I don’t disagree with this at all.
The true question is: Are players great on their own merit, or does the defensive coordinator put the players in a situation to be great? Like many complex issues in life, the answer is likely a mixture of the two.
So many Chiefs players had poor seasons because Sutton could have put them in better positions to succeed, but at the same time, the players weren’t performing at a high level either.
How much of that guilt should fall on Bob Sutton, and how much of that guilt should fall on the players? I’ll say the blame should be split 50/50.
The 80/20 Rule
Here are some common (and justified) criticisms of Bob Sutton’s defenses:
- He gives up way too many yards
- He has been soft against the run
- Why aren’t you rushing with Houston 99 percent of the time?
- I’m sick of the bend-don’t-break style of defense
Often what gets lost within all of these criticisms is that Bob Sutton’s defenses have done a great job limiting points while in Kansas City. The Chiefs have finished 3rd, 2nd, 5th, 7th, and 15th in points per game allowed since Sutton has joined the Chiefs.
I understand people’s complaints regarding Sutton, but wanting to move on from him reminds me of the 80-20 relationship rule:
Say you’re in a relationship and your partner gives you 80 percent of what you want. There’s another 20 percent which you aren’t getting, and you’re pretty intent on getting that other 20 percent.
So you find someone else who has that 20 percent, you focus on that 20 percent, fall in love with that 20 percent .... only to find out the 80 percent you were getting before was so much better than the 20 percent you traded it in for.
I am worried Chiefs fans may fall victim to this if the Chiefs were to move on from Sutton too quickly. I am also sure many of you feel like Sutton is giving you 50 percent of what you want from a DC. In fact, I’d say the majority feel that way.
Essentially, what I am trying to say is that Sutton’s defenses have done a good job limiting points in KC. If the Chiefs move on and find a guy who isn’t soft against the run, who doesn’t run a bend-don’t-break style, and always rushes with Houston — we may get everything we were looking for ... but also give up more points.
I’ll start with this little tidbit about Sutton’s five years in KC...
Over the past 5 seasons Sutton's defenses have given up the 3rd fewest points in the NFL and have forced the 3rd most turnovers.— Gary McKenzie (@Super_G_Chiefs) January 16, 2018
His defenses also rank 18th in total yards allowed during that time.
Truth is, that's the one of the best DC resumes for the past 5 years.
With so many problems in Kansas City regarding defensive talent and Sutton’s very good five-year stretch, I think Sutton deserves a pass for what happened in 2017.
This doesn’t mean I am a huge fan of Bob Sutton’s. In fact, I wanted the Chiefs to acquire Gus Bradley when he was fired from Jacksonville last year. I view Sutton as an above average defensive coordinator who, when given decent talent, can field a top-10 defense.
If the Chiefs actively pursue defensive talent, and the Chiefs D still struggles in 2018, then it is time for the Chiefs to move on from Sutton. If that does happen, the Chiefs’ patience may pay off when a top-tier defensive coordinator candidate comes available. Of course, the DC field may be weak after 2018, and the Chiefs will regret moving on sooner. Only time will tell.
After looking more closely at the entire picture, I don’t believe Bob Sutton should have been scapegoated for what happened in 2017. Sutton is a part of the problem, not the entire problem.