New Kansas City Chiefs defensive line coach Joe Cullen may be entering his 33rd year of coaching, but he still retains the enthusiasm of the 22-year-old who began his coaching career at the University of Massachusetts in 1990.
"What a day for football out here at Chiefs training camp!" he exclaimed to reporters following Tuesday's training camp session at Missouri Western University in St. Joseph.
"What a competitive practice! If you witnessed that thing, it was competitive on both sides — and that's what's always great about a Coach Reid training camp practice: the grind and the reps.
"But the competition is what really separates us [from other teams]."
Cullen would know. Now 54, he has coached at Richmond, LSU, Memphis, Indiana, Illinois and Idaho State — and the NFL's Detroit Lions, Jacksonville Jaguars, Cleveland Browns, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Baltimore Ravens. Ever since 1991 — when he took over the Massachusetts defensive line — he's served defensive units as either the line coach or coordinator.
And he couldn't be happier for the hand he's been dealt in Kansas City.
"It's a really good group — and they're working really hard from top to bottom, starting with Chris Jones [and] Frank Clark," he said. "They've come back in great shape and they're working through every rep. Frank lost some weight; he's really quick off the snap. Mike Danna's consistent every snap. I really like the way the group's going.
"Rookie George Karlaftis is doing a great job; he brings a lot of energy. He's like a sponge out there; he just loves football. And he's powerful: you don't want to take a play off on him. We're really getting some good push from our interior guys — and I like where we're at right now."
His players are just as enthusiastic about the coaching Cullen is giving them.
"Me and Joe see eye-to-eye on a lot of things," noted defensive tackle Chris Jones on Monday, adding that he and the coach had immediately connected during their first meeting. "I don't think we've had a disagreement yet. But we definitely see eye-to-eye on a lot of different things: the mechanics, how we view pass rushing, the aspect of pass rushing, what type of expectations we should have as a group.
"I love Joe, man. That's my guy."
"He did say that?" Cullen asked incredulously after reporters repeated Jones' comment to him — drawing a laugh.
"No, I'm just kidding," he said — and then returned the compliment.
"I'll tell you what: I've always liked Chris from afar," said Cullen. "I really tried to get him — but obviously, he went earlier, and I couldn't get him.
"But I loved the way he has always played — and he's really buying into this working the best that he can every day. And he's done that out here. He's done a great job — consistently getting better every day. I love working with him. He's smart, but he tries to do exactly what you teach him to do."
Player after player has raved about Cullen's coaching.
"He challenges me," said defensive tackle Derrick Nnadi. "He really does. He expects a lot out of me — and challenges me every day. Every day, it's a mission — like, 'What are we doing today? How do we get better? How fast, how hard can we play? So I'm always up for the challenge."
"He makes us work hard," offered defensive end Michael Danna. "He asks us how hard we can play. So that brings a lot of effort. He brings a lot of grit to us — and it's a lot of attitude. [A] lot of dudes are playing with a lot more intensity and a lot more physicality. As a d-line, that's what we need."
"I think Coach Cullen wants me to use my speed, letting me get upfield," noted defensive tackle Tershawn Wharton. "[We're] watching Chris a lot, so he wants us to go. [It's] kind of making me play faster than [being] more of a read-and-react [player]."
We don't yet have a read on how new Kansas City defensive end Carlos Dunlap feels about Cullen — but it might be best not to ask him until a few days have passed since Dunlap lost his concentration and sacked backup quarterback Chad Henne during Tuesday's practice.
"I loved the rush," said Cullen of the play, "but stay away from our quarterbacks; do not go near them."
Still, Cullen liked what he saw on the play — right up to the moment Henne went to the ground. He said that he loves having Dunlap — another player he's watched "from afar" — on the team.
"He brings a lot to the table." observed Cullen — including an ability to coach young rookies like Karlaftis. "You know, those older guys — Frank Clark and Carlos and Chris and the Mike Dannas that have been around a little bit — they're really helping George out, but they're also helping out the younger guys."
Cullen said that particularly with Clark and Karlaftis, that started right away.
"Really, Frank knows the defense," said Cullen. "He's been around. He's doing a great job — not only in the classroom, but also out here. You see him on the side, talking to George when he comes off the field. 'Hey, this is what you could have done better' [or] 'Hey, work on your get-off' [or] 'You missed with your hands.' [He's] doing a great job mentoring.
"And it's not always like that. I'll be honest with you: I've been around a lot of guys where it is like that — I've had Terrell Suggs before, you know, Cory Redding and Shaun Rogers where they did that — but some guys, you get a first-round pick, they don't want to tell them anything. Our guys are doing a phenomenal job with that."
But will that be enough to turn the defensive line into a top-flight unit? Cullen said that much of that will depend on his biggest star: Jones.
"Well, our first goal always here is to hoist that Lombardi Trophy," he noted. "And for us to get there — to get the opportunity to do that — he has to have a career year. That means not only in the stats of sacking the quarterback, but knocking the run out. That's something that we've stressed — him having his best year. And not only him, but all of us in the room and myself as a coach and us as coaches. That's what we're trying to get with Chris — and he's really working towards that."