After the disaster on Thursday night at Arrowhead Stadium against the Los Angeles Chargers, it is painfully clear that Bob Sutton must go.
This is not an overreaction to the close Thursday Night Football loss. This is an undeniable and statistically verifiable reality. Bob Sutton has failed to field a competent defense in Kansas City for the past two seasons.
No one has been talking too much about the Kansas City defense these days, given how the media and casual fans have been mesmerized by wunderkind Patrick Mahomes—and rightfully so. Mahomes has been nearly flawless as he’s shattered records and pulled incredible plays out of his back pocket. Mahomes has been so good that the Chiefs have been regularly mentioned as Super Bowl favorites. When you punch a postseason ticket in Week 14, you don’t focus too much on the bad side.
On Thursday night, Chiefs fans were sorely reminded of the reality they’ve been living inside for quite some time—a reality marred by the ghosts of games past that have haunted the franchise for decades. On the walls hang pictures of Joe Montana being leveled by a Buffalo Bills defender, an image of Andrew Luck vaulting over a pile of Chiefs defenders after fumbling a snap. Carved into the floorboards are the words “No punt game” and “Marcus Mariota catches own touchdown pass.”
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It is a dark, cold, and lonely place to reside for a Kansas City fan. Some would characterize the position as pessimism, but after so many catastrophic and downright bizarre losses, it’s simply become the reality. That’s what makes it impossible to look away from such a poor defense that Kansas City has trotted out shamelessly this season.
It is this reality that we live in. It’s one where, no matter how exciting the Chiefs may be, no matter how incredible Patrick Mahomes proves himself, there looms the impending storm, threatening to bring another lightning bolt of catastrophic disappointment to strike the Chiefs faithful.
If the minds at One Arrowhead Drive truly believe they have an opportunity to bring the Lombardi Trophy back to Kansas City for the first time since 1969, they will have to change—and change now.
Bob Sutton has to go. That’s not the only change that needs to happen on defense, either.
I am not a callous man. I struggle each time I type those words or tweet them. I do not find joy in pointing fingers and demanding that heads roll. The NFL is the pinnacle of football competition and strategy. There is no other platform like it in the world, so even making it into the ranks as a player or a coach is a feat that deserves recognition.
It isn’t enough though.
I have watched every single game this season, which is a fairly common practice for most of the Kansas City faithful. With the exception of the games against the Bengals, Jaguars, Cardinals, and maybe the Cardinals, the Chiefs defense has failed to hold down their end. Teams moved the ball at will and converted 3rd downs on the defensive unit with relative ease.
Here are the statistical realities of the Kansas City defense this year:
The Chiefs have surrendered an average of 409.6 yards per game, 282 through the air and 128 on the ground. Those numbers are good for 30th in the league currently. Over the course of Bob Sutton’s tenure, there have been some fans who insisted that the strategy was “bend but don’t break” defense, surrender yards but keep teams out of the end zone. This year, the mantra seems to have been changed to “bend and break” as the Chiefs have given up a total 351 points, 27 points per game, good for 28th in the league.
The four teams ranked worse than the Chiefs in this category (Atlanta, Cincinnati, Oakland, and Tampa Bay) are a collective 17-35. The win-loss records of the teams allowing more yards than the Chiefs are also grim. In fact, the Chiefs are the only team in the bottom 10 of yards allowed with a winning record.
Statistics without context do not tell the entire story, so let’s take a further look at the Chiefs’ defensive narrative.
The Chiefs brought in two big names on the defensive side of the ball in free agency. Cornerback Kendall Fuller was brought over in the Alex Smith trade, and the Chiefs elected to sign linebacker Anthony Hitchens to a hefty five-year deal worth $45 million. Fuller has had an up-and-down year, but has for the most part been a serviceable starter.
There are some legitimate concerns about Hitchens, however. I should clarify that I think Hitchens is a good player, I even think that he is a starting caliber NFL player. However, Hitchens has not been able to do the things the Chiefs have asked him to do. He is an aggressive, run and stick type player who excels when meeting running backs in the holes and flowing with traffic to the perimeter. The Chiefs seem determined to force Hitchens into coverage in the middle of the field and clog running lanes by taking on guards. The assignments Hitchens has had seem to be to the opposite of his strengths. Frustratingly, the Chiefs frequently have Daniel Sorensen plunging into offensive linemen while Reggie Ragland sits on the sideline and watches.
When Hitchens was signed, it made sense for the Chiefs on paper. The Chiefs had a big, strong, lane clogging linebacker in Reggie Ragland who earned a reputation for sticking his nose into the middle of an offense and taking on blockers, freeing up the other players to make a play. Ragland could function almost like a defensive fullback, with Hitchens following the way to meet the running back in the hole.
Instead, the most frustrating sight has been Daniel Sorensen being swallowed whole by an offensive guard much bigger than him, and Hitchens finding himself on the outside looking in on most plays.
This is a staple of Bob Sutton’s defenses. Sutton’s defensive units have routinely deployed nickel and dime packages more than nearly any other NFL team. The common observer could argue about the merits of this strategy for hours without having much of an actual understanding of the dynamics of each specific scheme. That said, it does not take someone with an extensively successful football resume to make the point that you should put the best players on the field, and if your weakest position is your secondary-you probably should not spend most of your time in a nickel or dime set.
This is a failure to adjust by Sutton. Successful coaches adjust their schemes and game plans to play to the strengths of their personnel, instead of demanding they play to their scheme. The most successful coaches are able to reinvent and adjust their systems to put players strengths on display. This is a glaring aspect of Bob Sutton’s tenure that has been lacking as the Chiefs defensive identity changes.
While we are discussing Sutton’s scheme, his refusal to bring help over to his cornerbacks has been a maddening endeavor. One needs to look no further than the half dozen passes that Phillip Rivers floated to Mike Williams in the end zone on Thursday.
The tallest Chiefs cornerback is Orlando Scandrick at 6’0, with Fuller and Nelson both being listed at around 5’11. The Chargers Mike Williams is a 6’4 jump ball specialist. There are a handful of corners who can match up with Williams in that situation 1-on-1. Watching Sutton hand the Chargers the matchup they wanted each and every time, especially down the stretch, was either ignorance or hubris on Sutton’s part. It’s as if no one informed him that he does not have a young Darrelle Revis on his roster.
Some of the blame falls on the Chiefs front office and their failure to procure adequate talent. Despite spending all but one of their draft picks on defense, none of those players have stood out. The Chiefs selected Breeland Speaks in the 2nd round and have made the bizarre commitment to playing Speaks as an outside linebacker, despite Speaks’ size and athleticism being more suited for a defensive end position. Dorian O’Daniel and Derrick Nnadi have been the only other draft picks to manage much game time on defense, both performing as you would expect from mid-round rookies.
Sutton also seems to commit to his preferred players even if they are not necessarily the most talented players on the roster. It took an injury to Terrance Smith, an undrafted player elevated from the practice squad, before O’Daniel saw any snaps as a sub package linebacker. Sorensen returned and no has seen Jordan Lucas since, despite the former Dolphins player flashing some ability as a single high safety which the Chiefs have desperately needed. Charvarius Ward and Tremon Smith have yet to see the field at corner.
The Chiefs secondary lead the league (by a fairly large margin) in defensive holding and defensive pass interference penalties, 29 in total when counting declined calls. The second most penalized team when combining these two categories? The New Orleans Saints with 19. The Chiefs also lead the league in defensive penalties overall.
All of this paints a painfully vivid picture of a woefully ineffective unit. Despite the stellar play of Chris Jones and Dee Ford along with the veteran presence of Justin Houston, the Chiefs defense has failed to hang with tougher competition.
Some may want to argue that Sutton does not have the talent on his side of the ball to compete, which may be fair. However, it is hard to believe that Sutton is entirely shut out of the process of assembling defensive talent.
Furthermore, that does not explain the penalties, the players out of position, and young players left on the bench in favor of inferior talents. It does not excuse the absolute refusal to adjust the scheme or game plan to not only fit the talents of your team but also to take away the opposing teams biggest weapons.
I gave Sutton a fair shake this year and even had optimism regarding the potential of the Chiefs new faces on defense. It became painfully clear early in this season that the Chiefs had dropped be the proverbial ball with their defensive unit. After Thursday’s loss, I get to unpin this tweet from late October after watching the Chiefs defense nearly give Denver a win:
I’m gonna pin this: Its a matter of when, not if, that the Chiefs D costs them an important game this year.
— ArrowheadTom (@ArrowheadTom) October 29, 2018
Andy Reid is known as being loyal to his staff, so letting go of Sutton will be a challenge. However, Sutton has to go, and there will likely be an exodus of defensive players that should follow as the defense changes. Luckily for the Chiefs, the 2019 NFL Draft is loaded with premier defensive talent, so there will be an opportunity to rebuild and change. That is, if the Chiefs can change, if the Chiefs can wrap their hands around their snakebitten legacy and decide that this time, things will be different.
Patrick Mahomes gives the Kansas City Chiefs a legitimate chance of being an NFL dynasty, but unless Reid can pair the young superstar with a defensive counterpart that can take some pressure off, his career may look more like Dan Marino than Tom Brady.