KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The losses were piling up early in the season for the Kansas City Chiefs in a way they shouldn’t for a two-time defending AFC champion with a reasonable preseason goal of playing in a third straight Super Bowl.
The Chiefs lost to the Baltimore Ravens in Week 2 after leading by 11 points in the fourth quarter. They lost to the Los Angeles Chargers the next week after committing four turnovers. They lost to the Buffalo Bills by 18 points in Week 5. They lost to the Tennessee Titans in Week 7 after scoring three points, their lowest total since Patrick Mahomes became their starting quarterback in 2018.
If there was ever a time for panic, for serious intervention by the head coach, for change for change’s sake, this was it. The Chiefs were 3-4 and merely making the playoffs — much less winning a few games once there — looked unlikely.
But every day at the Chiefs’ practice facility was much like the one before it, much like the ones from years past. They gather to practice and meet and work out solutions to their many on-field issues.
There was no yelling, screaming or drama of any kind coming from the office of coach Andy Reid. He didn’t cut any of the Chiefs’ several underperforming players. He didn’t even threaten it. He didn’t order the Chiefs to put on the pads and hit at practice.
The decisions he made weren’t ones of emotion or filled with drama. They were executed after some thought, because win or lose, that is Reid’s way.
Reid’s steady approach seems vindicated. After that 3-4 start, the Chiefs rallied to win eight straight games and claim their sixth consecutive AFC West championship. They finished the regular season at 12-5 and will open the playoffs as the AFC’s No. 2 seed on Sunday against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Arrowhead Stadium (8:15 p.m. ET, NBC).
“He knows exactly what he wants to do and where he wants to go and how he wants to get there,” said Chiefs defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, an assistant to Reid for 11 years. “He’s known that from the beginning. He’s rock solid. That’s the best term I can use. Rock solid. Always has been, remarkably so.
“Andy never stopped trusting in us: myself, the other assistant coaches, the scheme. Did he come in with suggestions? Sure. Always. That’s what a head coach does. But he’s not forcing anything on you. He believes in the people he has around him and then he lets us do our job, players and coaches.”
Reid doesn’t scream
It’s not the first time Reid’s patient approach has helped the Chiefs turn a season in the right direction. In 2015, the Chiefs were 1-5 and seemingly headed nowhere.
They won their final 10 games to make the postseason and then added an 11th straight victory as the Chiefs won in the playoffs for the first time in 22 years.
Reid coached the Eagles for 14 seasons and his calming approach in Philadelphia was one reason Chiefs chairman Clark Hunt brought him to Kansas City nine years ago. When Reid arrived, the Chiefs had a recent history of volatile head coaches, including one, Todd Haley, who fired an offensive coordinator during the preseason.
“Andy, regardless of how the prior week has gone, is always the same coach,” Hunt said recently. “I think that consistency is very important to the team, particularly when you’re going through a difficult period. As I reflected on it, I thought about the long career that Andy’s had and he’s certainly had seasons where his teams had struggled early in the season and then been able to turn it around.
“It reminded me how lucky we are to have Andy and his experience in a situation like that.”
Reid said that in 23 seasons as an NFL head coach, he must have made an emotional decision during a down time at some point. But he couldn’t recall a specific instance, not even this year. He said he couldn’t remember so much as yelling at an underachieving team or player.
“Human nature says if you keep yelling at somebody, [he’s] going to turn you off,” Reid said. “I believe in discipline. There are certain things you just need in this sport. … But at the same time, I believe you treat people like they’re people. I’ve done that since I’ve been in the business. That part hasn’t changed.
“I’ve tried to be real, as honest with the guys as best I can. If you’re not consistent with how you go about it, players aren’t going to trust you. … I’m not going to be all over the place with them.”
Many players, including former offensive lineman Jeff Allen, said they couldn’t remember Reid ever raising his voice.
“He’d make faces, groan, maybe bite his lip, say, ‘Gosh darn it,'” Allen said. “That’s when you knew he wasn’t happy. But that’s about as far as he would go and it took a lot for him to get to that edge.”
‘Coach has gone through some really hard times’
Reid began this season bearing the strain of how the previous one ended and perhaps his steadiness has never been more important. Three days before the Chiefs were to play the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Super Bowl LV last year, Reid’s son, Britt — then-Chiefs linebackers coach — was involved in a car crash that critically injured a young girl not far from the team’s facility.
Britt Reid was later charged with driving while intoxicated, a felony. The Jackson County, Missouri, prosecutor’s office said the younger Reid “operated a motor vehicle while under the influence of alcohol, and acted with criminal negligence by driving at an excessive rate of speed.”
The Chiefs lost the Super Bowl 31-9, the 22-point margin their largest with Mahomes as their quarterback at the time.
Chiefs general manager Brett Veach said since then he’s had hours-long conversations with Reid in which the subjects of football, the Chiefs or their roster never surfaced.
“He’s human, too,” Veach said. “It’s not like he’s this cartoon character who never flinches. There are days when you’ll know that he needs a phone call, when he wants to talk about stuff other than football.
“He’s had his good days and his bad days, but he’s super-resilient. He never changed who he is and what he’s about to appease anybody. He’s always been real and authentic. He is who he is every day.”
Reid has faced family tragedy before. In 2012, Reid’s last season with the Eagles, his son Garrett died of an accidental drug overdose. He was 29.
“Let’s face it, Coach has gone through some really hard times going back to when he was in Philly,” Spagnuolo said. “Yet you can’t see that in him. I don’t know how he does it. But it’s a calming and reinforcing and encouraging aspect to players and coaches because you can always bank on that. It’s hard to do this job when you’re dealing with moody people, when you don’t know what you’re going to get every day. That’s not Andy.”
‘It’s the way he interacts with players’
If Reid had been looking early in the season to make an example of a player, he had the perfect target in safety Daniel Sorensen. Sorensen began the season as a starter but was hurting the Chiefs by missing tackles and allowing big pass plays.
Reid stuck with Sorensen as a starter until Week 6, when he was replaced by Juan Thornhill. But Sorensen kept a lot of playing time in passing situations and eventually made several big plays that helped the Chiefs turn their season around.
BACK TO BACK TO BACK TO BACK TO BACK TO BACK 🏆 pic.twitter.com/I5kA1KcOcO
— Kansas City Chiefs (@Chiefs) December 27, 2021
Since becoming a part-timer, Sorensen has a pair of interceptions, returning one for a touchdown. He broke up a pass at the goal line at the end of the first half to prevent a touchdown during a Week 14 overtime win over the Chargers, a victory that gave the Chiefs a big advantage in the AFC West race.
“He’s a good player and he has a role on that defense,” Reid said on why he wouldn’t give up on Sorensen earlier in the season. “Everything’s not going to go perfect. We understand that.
“He trusted himself. He trusted the coaches. He trusted the scheme and the guys around him. That’s not always the case.”
Spagnuolo wouldn’t go into detail on his discussions with Reid about Sorensen other than to say that the coach never pressured him to bench any player.
“If you make a decision about which players to put in the lineup, you can’t panic at the first sign of trouble,” Spagnuolo said. “If you believe in who you have and what you’re doing, you’ve got to let it play itself out. Now there comes a point where you’ve got to do something different if things don’t change. But I don’t think it comes after game one or game two or mistake one or mistake two, and Andy is in agreement on that.
“You don’t hear Andy ever say, ‘We’ve got to make some changes because what we’re doing isn’t working.’ What does he say? Usually it comes back to fundamentals. Even when we had the tough stretch here this season it was all about the fundamentals and taking care of the little things. Once we do that, the big things would follow.”
Reid’s steady approach has taken some by surprise. Katie Sowers worked as an assistant coach for the Chiefs last summer at training camp through an NFL diversity program after working for the Atlanta Falcons and San Francisco 49ers.
Sowers tweeted shortly before her time with the Chiefs ended that she was “learning from the best to ever do it.”
Learning from the best to ever do it 🐐 pic.twitter.com/gMKCYCmpsq
— Katie Sowers (@KatieSowers) August 7, 2021
“There’s not one thing he does specifically,” Sowers said later in an interview. “It’s the way he interacts with players on a daily basis and the consistency you see in the way he communicates with all of his players. It’s in the everyday things, the small things. It’s the tone of his voice. It’s the way he looks at you. It’s just those things that let you know this is a true leader that knows how to lead people.
“I always got the idea that he felt that there’s more to life than just a score at the end of a game, the win and the loss. Obviously, winning is extremely important but you can tell the way he coaches he puts purpose behind these young men. One day, their careers are going to end and he knows how valuable their life is after the NFL.”
Wide receiver Josh Gordon‘s first game with the Chiefs was the 18-point loss to the Bills, a defeat that dropped them to 2-3. The Chiefs are Gordon’s fourth NFL team and he said he was surprised by the relaxed atmosphere when things weren’t going well.
“I’ve noticed Coach Reid has allowed the players to act in ways that are very genuine,” said Gordon, who has gotten a chance with the Chiefs after serving eight suspensions for offenses related to drugs and alcohol. “He always talks about us showing our character. [In] other places, that’s not always the case. So I definitely appreciate him for that because it allows players to be their best selves.”
Reid has always been that way, win or lose. Nothing changes regardless of his team’s record, and while disappointed, he didn’t appear discouraged by the Chiefs’ unexpectedly slow start to the season.
In fact, during his weekly meetings with Hunt, he predicted the Chiefs would turn their season around.
“He kept reminding me that we were not that far off, whether it was the offensive side of the ball or the defensive side of the ball and that the team was working really hard during the week, which he was encouraged by,” Hunt said. “He saw the guys wanting to get better, wanting to get it turned around and felt that they would.”