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Twenty-four minutes after the Kansas City Chiefs announced the firing of beleaguered defensive coordinator Bob Sutton on Tuesday, cornerback Steven Nelson — who has played all four of his NFL seasons under Sutton — hilariously tweeted the famous Kermit the Frog “sipping tea” meme.
It’s possible that Nelson’s tweet had nothing to do with Sutton’s dismissal, which came less than 48 hours after the Chiefs’ defense failed them in a 37-31 overtime loss to the New England Patriots in the AFC championship game on Sunday. We must allow room for that possibility since Nelson has not addressed Sutton’s firing directly.
But man, the timing of it was, um … interesting, and nevertheless, potentially indicative of one indisputable truth: After six seasons, it was time for Sutton to go.
A good case can be made that Sutton should have gotten the ax after last season, when his defense ranked 28th in total yards, 30th in DVOA and blew an 18-point lead in the second half of the Chiefs’ 22-21 wild-card loss to the Tennessee Titans.
Head coach Andy Reid opted to hold onto his defensive coordinator then, even though some — including mercurial cornerback Marcus Peters — had issues with Sutton, whose scheme and ability to make adjustments on the fly has consistently been second-guessed for the better part of two seasons.
And now, with one of the league’s leakiest defenses standing between the Chiefs and the legacy-validating Super Bowl title he desperately needs, one could make a great case that the 60-year-old Reid — whose expansive coaching tree and overall contributions to the offensive evolution of pro football are notches in his Hall of Fame case — faces the biggest hire of his career.
It’s a looming hire that could be the difference between Reid holding the Lombardi Trophy (and eventually earning a shiny, smiling bronze bust), and him retiring in the coming years as one of the greatest head coaches to never win a title.
Where to go from here
Reid is now hunting for a new defensive coordinator, and it needs to be a smart hire. The Chiefs will likely get only one more season with quarterback Patrick Mahomes — the league’s presumed MVP and the undisputed Best Value In Football — before he is eligible for an extension that could easily top $200 million, something the Chiefs have known for months and have already made preparations for.
Once Mahomes gets the massive contract, the deal will eat up salary-cap space, essentially making the 2019 season the last chance for the Chiefs to execute the same game plan the Seattle Seahawks did with Russell Wilson in 2014, when they used the cap space that would eventually go to Wilson (who was on a rookie contract) to sign free agents and build a loaded team that would go on to win the Super Bowl.
The Chiefs will almost certainly use their bevy of draft picks — which includes four top-100 selections — and whatever cap space they have left (once they sign receiver Tyreek Hill and/or Chris Jones to big-money extensions) to add free agents. Hiring a coordinator who can get all these guys up to speed quickly enough to improve the league’s 31st-ranked defense should be a priority.
Several players would also welcome a more aggressive scheme, which is one of the reasons Rex Ryan — someone ESPN’s Adam Schefter mentioned as a candidate to keep an eye on — would be a good hire, at least on the surface.
Ryan also runs a 3-4 scheme, which would probably shorten the learning curve for those holdovers, and his bluster would be a nice contradiction to Sutton’s calm, professorial tone. This is less a judgment about Sutton’s method than it is an understanding of the need to give defensive holdovers (and fans) a different voice, one that doesn’t remind them of the past.
If Reid passes on Ryan or declines to hire from outside the organization, perhaps an internal candidate could provide the differing schematic and attitudinal shift the defense desperately needs to become passable.
Here’s why Sutton was allowed to return in 2018
Many in Kansas City were surprised at Reid’s decision to retain Sutton last January, a choice that led to the position he currently finds himself in.
While Sutton was coming off the brutal collapse to Tennessee and had even coordinated another defense that underwent an epic free fall in the playoffs (the 2013 team that blew 38-10 second-half lead to the Indianapolis Colts in the wild-card round), his unit was not the reason for the Chiefs’ playoff collapse in 2016, when Reid’s offense sputtered in an 18-16 divisional-round home loss to Pittsburgh.
Plus, Reid hoped that with a few changes to an increasingly aging defense, Sutton could get the unit back to its 2015 form, when it ranked seventh in the NFL with some of the same cast of characters.
So the Chiefs shipped out Peters, who grew weary of the scheme, for a pair of draft picks and made a handful of defensive free-agent additions, highlighted by the signing of inside linebacker Anthony Hitchens to a huge $45 million deal. They also used five of their six draft picks on defense in an effort to give Sutton more talent.
It did not work. At least, not enough. The Chiefs were among the league leaders in sacks and pressures, but ranked second-to-last in both total yards and average rush yards per attempt (marks all lower than last year), and 26th in DVOA.
But it was the defense’s overall ineptitude against Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels and his old-school, run-oriented game plan on Sunday that did Sutton in. The Chiefs were gashed for 176 rush yards by an offense that featured a fullback — in 2019! — on a stunning 42 percent of the snaps, and they never sacked 41-year-old Tom Brady and hit him only once.
On the game-winning drive in overtime, Brady converted three consecutive third-and-10s by exploiting single coverages against Rob Gronkowski and Julian Edelman, the Patriots’ two best receiving targets. This was McDaniels’ final exclamation point, the Mike Tyson-like uppercut to the Chiefs defense, and less than 48 hours later, Sutton was fired.
Here’s the good news for the Chiefs
Whoever Reid hires, the good news is this: He doesn’t have to perform a miracle. The bar for the unit isn’t terribly high, not with the brilliant Mahomes at quarterback. Average will likely be good enough.
If the Chiefs’ run defense could have stopped a nosebleed or if Sutton could have ratcheted up the pressure on Brady just a tad more Sunday that might have led to a stop, that would have made all the difference in the world between a win and a loss in an epic contest.
Sutton is by all accounts a good man whose overall contributions were recognized by a team that went 65-31 in the regular season the past six years. But Reid has to now look at his current situation — where, instead of beating Brady and Belichick and preparing for the Super Bowl, he was forced to spend his Tuesday making a coaching staff move that resulted in one of his cornerbacks “sipping tea” less than an hour after it was announced — to see the importance of having a more balanced team next January, when playoff football decides champions and staffing decisions can sometimes define legacies.
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