MIAMI — It’s not easy to invoke the wrath of Andy Reid, pro football’s most grandfatherly coach. But it is possible, especially during the course of the game.
From 2008-2013, Louis Riddick worked in the Philadelphia Eagles’ front office in multiple roles. His favorite task came Sundays, when he’d sit in a coaches box high above the field, scanning the action and calling out who the opponent would bring into the game on both sides of the ball. The duty was a blessing and a curse.
“Games for me were not always fun, bro,” Riddick, now an analyst at ESPN, told Yahoo Sports. “I didn’t watch it and eat hot dogs. My wife used to say, ‘You’re as tight as the coaches!’
“I remember one time we were playing the Packers, and I’d f—d up a couple of groupings, and it was cold, and they would all have on those big, long overcoats on the sideline, and they would keep them on to the very last minute and then run on the field at the very last minute. It was messing me up.
“And I just remember Andy one time getting on the phone, and he was just like,‘Louis, get your head out of your ass and get the f—g calls in!’ And I was just like, ‘Oooh, boy. OK. OK.’
“That will shake you up a bit.”
Riddick got a front-row seat to Reid’s coaching genius, which was a hell of a learning experience.
“I knew every call that went in … and I know the kind of things he was looking for, as far as schematic weaknesses and individual player weaknesses,” Riddick said. “Some guys just seem like they’re calling plays for the hell of it … he doesn’t do that.”
Getting to this level of mastery is a laborious process, one that begins with Reid’s legendary play scripts mapping out his first 15 offensive play calls.
And as the Chiefs prepare to face San Francisco in Super Bowl LIV on Sunday, multiple former assistants — including Chicago Bears coach Matt Nagy, Eagles coach Doug Pederson and former Minnesota Vikings head coach Brad Childress — took time with Yahoo Sports this week to explain the importance of Reid’s first 15, how it gets crafted and what they anticipate seeing in Sunday’s Super Bowl.
“In some ways, on the offensive side, he’s kinda like Bill [Belichick] in this way — you better know what your weaknesses are, as much as you know what his strengths are, because he’s gonna find them,” Riddick said. “Otherwise, I promise you at the end of the game, you’ll go ‘Man, he hit every one of our weaknesses.’”
Why the opening play script is important
To a man, all the coaches interviewed for this story agree that the first goal of Reid’s first 15 plays script — which applies to first and second down, and excludes third downs and red-zone plays — is to move the ball down the field and score, all while setting a tone for the rest of the game.
“The game has so many ebbs and flows,” Childress said. “Obviously, it’s important to get your quarterback some easy completions to start with, if there is such a thing. Maybe you’re wanting to get over the top and send a message. Or maybe, because of nerves, you’re just wanting to let your offensive line screw their heels in the ground, and be able to fire off on somebody and run the ball.”
The second purpose is the critical gathering of intel. Even when the Chiefs’ early play-calling goes nowhere (as it has in their past two playoff games), the amount of thought Reid has put into it means that every play Kansas City runs gives it a chance to pick up a defensive tell that can pay off later in the game.
This happens the moment the play clock begins, starting with who defenses put on the field. That’s why Reid needs his assistants to identify them correctly.
“For instance, let’s say it’s a two-tight end, two-wide set,” Childress said. “Are you gonna play nickel against that? People have done that before because they look at [Travis] Kelce like a wide receiver. If they do that, you want to be sure you have some ideas about how to counter that.”
Additionally, Reid’s army of assistants — many of whom are seated high above the field in the coaches box — are also tasked with noting how defenses adjust to his concepts post-snap, which can also lead to a big play later on.
“Let’s say in the rare instance he started the game with a run, we’d see what the backside [of the play] looks like, [whether] there’s a naked [bootleg] possibility,” Childress said. “Or let’s say we were starting it with a Tyreek Hill ghost motion — you know, where he’s faking the reverse. You’ve seen it a hundred times. We’d see what the reverse looks like on the backside.”
The point: Everything the defense does to counter the Chiefs’ offense can, in turn, be countered. It’s the job of Reid and his assistants to quickly pick up these tendencies.
“Let’s say we’ve got a nosy safety, a guy running downhill, trying to get involved in the run game,” Childress said. “Well, that gives you an opportunity to hit a downfield shot later in the game. Yeah, I’ve seen that happen many times off of motions we run and we say, ‘Hey, we’re gonna have a chance for this thing to hit later in the game.’”
He is maniacal about his preparation leading up to the game, a process that is far more collaborative than you might think.
How the play script comes together
Prior to becoming the head coach of the Bears, Nagy was the Chiefs’ offensive coordinator. During the season, he’d enjoy Friday dinner with his wife and kids. Eventually, without fail, family time would get interrupted by a text from Reid.
The message: a photo of a 3 x 5 index card, with 15 plays on them, all scribbled in red pen — and only one word from his boss.
“He’ll know there’s a handful of plays that everybody really likes, and those are the ones that end up in the first 15,” Nagy said. “He’s real friendly that way, and he listens to a lot of people.
“He takes all the ingredients, mixes it all together and comes up with a great meal.”
Nagy’s predecessor, Pederson, remembers those texts fondly and loved coming back into the office on Saturday morning so he and Reid could talk through it. From there, they’d also visit with the quarterbacks and see how they felt about it, and if they needed to change anything, they would — with a caveat.
“If we needed to change something, listen, he wasn’t opposed to changing it … but you better be right, and you better have a strong conviction about it,” Pederson said with a chuckle. “I’ll tell ya, there weren’t many times when I was gonna poke the bear and stir up the hornet’s nest.”
Pederson was deferential, largely because he knew how much thought Reid put into the script. Plays are curated based on how the players executed them in practice that week, not to mention hours of Reid’s individual film study.
For the upcoming Super Bowl, for example, Nagy, Childress and Pederson all agreed that it’s likely that Reid watched every snap of every game the 49ers played this season, a task that Pederson estimates takes at least an hour a pop.
“You’re going back and slowing things down, and you’re looking at down and distance, the tendencies a team might have, the type of coverages, the fronts, where are the blitz areas of the field,” Pederson said. “You get out your lab coat and stethoscope out and start diving into the defense a little bit, and that’s what he’s really good at.”
It’s why Reid rarely deviates from his script, even when things go poorly.
“He can abort off of that,” Nagy said, “but he stays pretty consistent with that bad boy because he puts a lot of time and effort into designing them.”
For all the work that Reid puts in, there’s one person who often has a de facto veto power of sorts during game week preparation. He also happens to be the man whose presence has taken Reid to a new level.
“If there’s a play the quarterback [doesn’t] like, Coach Reid gets rid of it — it’s not even in the gameplan,” Nagy said.
The power of Mahomes, plus a Super Bowl preview
At age 24, Patrick Mahomes might be the NFL’s best player, let alone its best quarterback. Considering his burgeoning juice as a bonafide superstar, he has a degree of veto power with the gameplan.
But Mahomes rarely, if ever, takes advantage of that, largely out of respect for Reid.
“I think some of that comes down to [him being] great at calling plays,” Mahomes told Yahoo Sports. “Most times, the plays that he calls are ones I like already and [ones] I was looking at. I think it just kinda comes with being on the same wavelength [with him], it helps out a ton having a coach like that that’s really thinking the same way I am.”
Riddick recalled a conversation he had with Reid about the coach’s relationship with Mahomes and how that plays out in the first 15 script.
“[Reid] told me, this guy is not high-maintenance,” Riddick said. “He’ll try anything — he’ll do anything because he believes he can make anything work. And even if it doesn’t work at first when it happens in a game, he’s the kind of kid who says, ‘Call it again, I’ll get it this time.’ And that allows you, as a play-caller, to pretty much be as innovative and as creative as you want throughout the course of the entire game.”
Hence the Chiefs’ offensive surge the past two seasons, as the combination of Reid and Mahomes — and the surplus of weapons Mahomes gets to throw to — has led to K.C. earning a reputation as the last decade’s Golden State Warriors of the NFL.
“When they get up on you fast, it’s just like a tidal wave,” Riddick said. “Whereas on the flip side, if you stop them, your confidence grows.”
Case in point: the AFC championship game last year, when the Patriots silenced Mahomes for the first two quarters before he erupted in the second half. No one has done that to him since, but San Francisco will try on Sunday — and all his former assistants are confident Reid will be ready.
“He’s so good at playing to the strength of his team, playing to the strength of his quarterback,” Pederson said. “I trust he’s not gonna be cautious in this game. He’s gonna do the things that got him to this game and what has made him successful in this game.”
Namely, a collaborative gameplan — with the first 15 being a key — and a dash of boldness. In Reid’s first game as Chiefs coach in 2013, for instance, he called a tight end trick play against the Jaguars, a throwback to Anthony Fasano that went for a big gain on the Chiefs’ first play from scrimmage. The play brings a smile to Nagy’s face to this day.
“He’s gonna try to rip your heart out — that’s him, that’s who he is,” Nagy said. “He’s aggressive.”
Which is why, to hear Riddick tell it, whichever Chiefs assistants join Reid on the headset Sunday better bring their “A” game — or else.
“It’s an art form, man — it really is — to watch those guys go at it, because there’s not much time in between [plays],” Riddick said. “People are always screaming, ‘Make some adjustments, make some adjustments!’ but you know, it isn’t that easy. The best ones who master that stuff, they truly are grand masters … because if you think you could do it, if you think that’s as easy as calling ‘Madden’ plays, you’re out of your frickin’ mind. It’s a whole different world.”
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