Let’s start with this: I love Derrick Johnson.
The former Chiefs linebacker is clearly one of the best we’ve ever had in Kansas City — and not just because he’s the all-time leading tackler in franchise history. In his best years, he was an absolute rock — a player on which every other defensive player could depend. He’s very smart and extremely articulate. He’s a leader.
And on a personal level, I like Derrick Johnson. He’s friendly and engaging. In the years I reported from the locker room after the games, he was respectful and attentive to questions from reporters and did his best to answer them honestly.
The Chiefs really couldn’t have asked for more from their investment in the man. He more than justified his selection in the first round of the 2005 NFL Draft and earned every single dollar the Chiefs ever paid him.
But now that the Oakland Raiders have released him six games into the 2018 season, Johnson — now 35 and in his 14th NFL season — is being seen as the Messiah that can save the Chiefs defense.
I’m sorry to say this, my Chiefs brothers and sisters, but he isn’t. He just... isn’t.
I realize, of course, that there are many Chiefs fans who will think I’m an absolute fool for saying so — and they’re entitled to their opinion, of course. So go ahead. Tell me that I’m wrong.
But it isn’t my job to tell you what you want to hear. My job is telling you the truth as I see it.
We can all see the problems with the Chiefs defense. Tackling is poor at every level. We see the hesitation in the linebackers. Nobody seems to know what their assignments are. The team is giving up an enormous number of yards — which might be acceptable if the team was also consistently limiting the points scored by opposing offenses — but they aren’t doing that, either. Bend-but-don’t-break only works if you don’t... you know... break.
Many fans think that Johnson’s presence will immediately solve all of these problems. And based on what I’ve already said, they have a point. He’s smart. He knows Bob Sutton’s system by heart. He’s a leader that could bring swagger and attitude to the Chiefs defense. And even at the age of 35, he might be a better player than some of the guys currently on the field.
Let’s go back to the first three problems I mentioned: tackling, hesitation and assignments. They might seem like three different things, but they’re not. They’re all part of the same problem.
Every one of these is largely because the Chiefs have so many new faces on the defensive side of the ball in 2018 — and Bob Sutton’s defense is hard to master. Players must know not only their own assignments, but also those of their teammates, too. It requires players to be able to communicate with each other, so they can pass assignments off to each other as the situation demands.
If you’re unsure about what you’re supposed to be doing, it naturally leads to hesitation — am I doing the right thing here? If you hesitate, you are more likely to be in the wrong position at the critical moment. And if you’re in the wrong position in that critical moment, it will be harder for you to make the tackle.
Certainly, we’ve all seen plays where Chiefs players were in position to make tackles, and just... didn’t. Well... guess what? Even good tacklers who are exactly where they are supposed to be sometimes get trucked. As Marty Schottenheimer used to say, the other guy is on scholarship, too.
We’d just notice those missed tackles a lot less if there weren’t so many plays in which Chiefs players aren’t in position — and all of that leads back to how little time this unit has played together.
It’s not as if people didn’t see this as a problem going into the season — and it’s not as if people haven’t been pointing it out recently, too.
I myself predicted that the Chiefs would have four losses in the first eight games of the season, because the schedule looked a lot harder in the first half, and the defense would need time to gel. I didn’t anticipate that Patrick Mahomes would be so amazing to start the season — and I am deliriously happy with being wrong about that — but I hold to what I said before the first regular season game: the defense will need time to gel.
But it’s not just me. The AP Nerd Squad’s Craig Stout makes exactly the same point in his analysis of the Chiefs defense against the Patriots:
This defense has had six weeks to play together — and this week, they leaned on three safeties that weren’t on the roster when the preseason began.
The inside linebackers look slow to diagnose and react — something we should probably expect from two players who haven’t played together before this year, and one who is being asked to handle a completely different set of gap responsibilities than he has in prior seasons.
The secondary is still practically learning each other’s names — let alone the full array of responsibilities that have to flow between them.
Chiefs head coach Andy Reid has told you the same thing — week in and week out — since the season began. Here’s how he said it this week:
“The more you’re together and the more you play together, the better you understand each other, and you become battle-tested,” he explained. “You feel like, ‘Listen... if we just take of a few of the issues there early, we have a chance to be a pretty good team.’ That’s what you learn from something like this. And every week you learn something new. When you come out of this game, that’s what you’re saying. You’re kicking yourself in the tail a little bit for the things that happened early, but on the other hand, you’re going, ‘You know what? We fix a couple of those things, and we’re going to be OK.’”
So here’s the question: If Derrick Johnson were suddenly playing linebacker for the Chiefs, would this problem suddenly go away? We know Johnson wouldn’t be hesitant. He knows the system, and it likely wouldn’t take him long to be fully immersed in it again. And it’s likely that Johnson could help the players alongside him better understand their roles in the Chiefs defense.
Here’s the problem: there’s no practical difference between a player who is late getting to where he is supposed to be because he is hesitant, and one who is late getting to where he’s supposed to be because he’s a step slower.
If this were a situation where the Chiefs had let Johnson go in his prime strictly on the basis of salary cap issues — say, because he was he was going into his sixth year and the Chiefs simply couldn’t afford to keep him — and he simply hadn’t meshed with another team that had given him a one-year deal, then bringing Johnson back would truly be a no-brainer.
But we all know that isn’t the situation we’re in. We all know Derrick Johnson isn’t the player he once was. Father Time is the NFL’s only player who always wins, and as much as we care about our beloved DJ, we must accept the truth about him.
And bringing Johnson back has an additional cost: taking snaps away from younger, developmental players who need them. The Chiefs have completely remade their defense in 2018, and a lot of them are young players. In case you’ve forgotten, the Chiefs used five of their six draft picks on defensive players.
If you want, you can look at what’s happening on the field and criticize Brett Veach for being unable to identify good defensive players — of any age — but I actually think something else is going on here.
The Chiefs KNEW they had a defensive cushion with which to work in 2018. They didn’t just THINK Patrick Mahomes was going to light up opposing defenses right away — they KNEW he would. And that gave them a unique opportunity: to remake the defense, knowing that they were going to have the luxury of an incredible offense to offset the young defense’s growing pains.
I know there are many Chiefs fans who were certain that Mahomes was going to be incredible immediately. But let’s be honest: none of us were in a position to know the things Reid knew about Mahomes.
We had hints, of course — such as his Week 17 performance against the Denver Broncos last season — but that performance didn’t impress too many people outside of Chiefs Kingdom, which should be our best indicator that we might have been a bit more optimistic about Mahomes than we had any right to be. But Reid — who was really the only person truly in a position to know — knew better.
And now, he’s using that situation to his advantage. He’s not building a defense to win now. He’s building a defense to win for years to come. He’s just found himself in a position this season — for the first time since he arrived here — where his team could afford a defense that is finding its way.
And whether you want to believe it or not, that is a reasonable description of the Chiefs defense in 2018.
We’re in the sixth year of Reid’s stewardship of the Chiefs. If there’s one thing we should be able to do, it’s to know whether Reid is capable of taking the long view with this franchise — and I think we have to say that Reid has consistently done so.
In 2013, he knew that EJ Manuel, Geno Smith and Mike Glennon weren’t the long-term answer he was looking for. He knew there was enough talent on the Chiefs defense that given a couple of changes and a new coordinator — one who looked at the game the same way he does — they could be the strong side of the team.
Reid knew they could be a defense that would complement Alex Smith — the best quarterback option available to him. Say what you will about Smith, but over the next five years, his steady play allowed Reid to build an amazing offense — one that was perfect for the young man who is now the Chiefs quarterback.
Reid was right about all of that. Who is willing to stand up and say that Reid is wrong now — that in the long-term view, it’s the defense’s turn to grow?
I can’t blame anybody for being frustrated and impatient about what we’re seeing from the Chiefs defense so far this season, but I think we should give them time to figure it out. Reid has proven — to me, at least — that he knows how to do what is best for the Chiefs franchise over the long haul.
In my view, he’s earned some patience from us.