No defensive positional coach survived the abomination that was the 2018 Chiefs defense.
Without exception, every single position coach on the defensive side of the ball was axed or moved less than a month after the Chiefs lost the AFC Championship in overtime to the New England Patriots.
Defensive coordinator Bob Sutton wasn’t the only coach to shoulder the blame for the 26th-ranked DVOA defense in the league — a defense that arguably cost the Chiefs the right to represent the AFC in the Super Bowl this past season.
Mike Smith, Mark DeLeone, Emmitt Thomas and Al Harris are no longer coaching the Chiefs. Even Britt Reid, who we all assumed would stay, moved to linebackers/outside linebackers coach under Matt House from his previous position as defensive line coach. Reid’s own son felt the consequences of an underperforming 2018 defense.
Quite simply, Brett Veach and Andy Reid pinned the blame on the defensive coaching staff and cleaned house.
While the hiring of new defensive coordinator Steve Spagunolo necessitated some turnover on the staff, gutting the entire defensive positional coaching staff and replacing with all new coaches is something we haven’t seen in the previous few defensive coordinator changes for Reid.
In Philadelphia, it was linebackers coaches Sean McDermott, Bill Shuey, and Mike Caldwell, as well as defensive backs coaches Dick Jauron and Mike Zordich that transitioned through multiple coordinators and worked their way up the ranks. Even when Reid arrived in Kansas City and hired Sutton, he kept Gary Gibbs and Emmitt Thomas on the roster from the previous regime. A full and complete coaching change on the defensive side of the ball is just not common for Reid-led teams.
So what forced this drastic of a change for the Chiefs defense? Surely the team doesn’t want to “waste” any more years of wunderkind Patrick Mahomes’ rookie contract. Spagnuolo certainly wants a coaching staff that is “his own” and moves in lock-step with his vision for the defense. And Reid isn’t getting any younger, chasing the ring that has eluded him thus far in his coaching career — and seeing a chance to strike while the iron is hot on the other side of the ball.
But I don’t think we can overlook Veach’s outlook and mindset for this defense as a primary reason for the overhaul.
Last offseason, the new Chiefs general manager wanted everybody to know that he was out to change the defense’s mentality. After signing inside linebacker Anthony Hitchens in free agency, Veach made sure to stress the mindset he brought to the defense.
“When we look at the defense and we are trying to get different pieces here right in place – I don’t think you get better until you develop and get a mindset, how you are going to play...So when you turn on the tape and watch Anthony Hitchens plays, he plays with that toughness and that mindset. So when you take the field, that opposing offense knows they are going to be in for a dogfight for four quarters. That is one of the things that we talked about as a staff. Yeah, we can get good players, but we have to develop that mindset.”
After an almost-entirely-defensive draft, Veach once again stressed the mindset he was trying to instill.
“Let’s get younger. Let’s get deeper. Let’s get guys that have that mindset that they’re going to come to work every day and they’re going to bring a toughness. They’re going to bring that work ethic every day. That’s going to carry over to Sunday.”
Veach went all-in last offseason on trying to create a tough, hard-as-nails defense with his personnel acquisitions. He preached playing hard for four quarters and not having another letdown like the Tennessee Titans game the year before. He wanted younger, faster, more athletic defenders that were willing to step up and stop the bleeding in the situations they’d been in the previous two playoff appearances.
Fast-forward one year, and this team is in an eerily similar spot. The Chiefs defense allowed the Patriots offense to move the ball at will early in the game — jumping out to a lead — and gave up a long, game-winning drive in overtime without Mahomes and the offense getting to see the ball.
The defense had the league’s worst DVOA against the run and was 26th in scoring defense — despite having the league’s best pass rush.
Veach’s statements about “changing the mindset” on defense didn’t come to fruition in 2018. In two offseasons, he tried to add tempo-setters and toughness to that side of the ball. In the two seasons following it, the defense looked worse.
There will be many reasons cited why such a sweeping set of changes was made, and good ones I’m sure.
For me, this is Veach executing the stance that he’s taken since he got here. Adding players with proven toughness and the mindset he wanted didn’t get the job done last season. He’ll certainly be doing the same thing this season as part of a continuing rebuild, but it became obvious in a hurry that the entire coaching staff couldn’t be trusted to develop the players adequately. Bringing in Brendan Daly (a three-time-Super Bowl champion defensive line coach), House (a hot defensive coordinator name from the college ranks), and Dave Merritt (a coach that’s gotten the most out of his safeties wherever he’s gone) is not just a start to turning this around — it’s a rocket-powered boost out of the gates for 2019.
You may argue it was still a season too late, argue about the additions made or whatever the case may be. On Tuesday, Reid and Veach showed that they aren’t screwing around in trying to fix this defense by constructing an all-star group of positional coaches.
I’m eagerly anticipating this round of results.