By Michael Hurley, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — Not long ago — call it, say, seven or eight weeks in the past — the future was bright for the Kansas City Chiefs. And, in fact, the future remains bright for the Kansas City Chiefs.
Well, at least on one side of the ball.
In terms of the defense, the Chiefs appear to be in a complete teardown. That was a movement that began shortly after their overtime loss at home in the AFC Championship Game, when the team fired defensive coordinator Bob Sutton. That move made sense, as the Chiefs ranked 31st in yards allowed and 24th in points allowed. That came a year after the Chiefs finished 28th in yards allowed and 15th in points allowed. Their defense was trending in the wrong direction, and the defensive performance against Tom Brady and Co. was downright dreadful — especially in overtime.
So, the move was made to fire the defensive coordinator of six years.
Turns out, that was only the beginning.
The Chiefs traded defensive end Dee Ford, the man who was kind of sort of responsible for the Chiefs’ loss in that fateful AFC title game. (Whoopsies.) After a 13-sack season, the Chiefs sent him packing to San Francisco in exchange for a second-round pick. (Upon learning that he was traded, Ford may have asked, “Was I?!”)
The Chiefs also released veteran linebacker Justin Houston. A third-round pick of the Chiefs in 2011, Houston played in over 100 regular-season games for K.C., recording 78.5 sacks — fourth all-time in Chiefs history. But because he was due over $15 million in 2019, the Chiefs abruptly terminated Houston’s employment.
And then came yet another huge move, just after the league year officially began on Wednesday: The Chiefs released safety Eric Berry. The 30-year-old has been a heart-and-soul player for the Chiefs since the team drafted him fifth overall in 2010, and he earned Comeback Player of the Year honors after returning from cancer in 2015. But injuries limited him to just three total games over the past two regular seasons.
And so, just two years after signing Berry to a six-year, $78 million contract (with $40 million guaranteed), the Chiefs unceremoniously ended his Kansas City career.
In his place will be Tyrann Mathieu, who agreed to a three-year, $42 million contract with the Chiefs this week.
Such is the way of life in the NFL, where loyalty can only last as long as a player can be healthy and productive. And to be sure, Houston and Berry made their money from the Chiefs. Ford, who had the franchise tag placed on him this year to lock in a hefty payday, has plenty more money to make.
But for the Chiefs, the plan heading into the offseason was clearly one that involved a complete destruction and reconstruction of the defense.
And that’s entirely due to Tom Brady, Josh McDaniels, Julian Edelman, Rob Gronkowski, Rex Burkhead, Sony Michel, Chris Hogan, Phillip Dorsett, and of course, Bill Belichick.
Had Dee Ford not lined up with his hand across the neutral zone on that one snap, then Charvarius Ward’s interception off a Gronkowski drop would have counted, and the Chiefs almost certainly would have advanced to the Super Bowl.
Had Eric Berry turned around to defend a third-and-5 jump ball to Gronkowski up the left sideline on the very next play, then perhaps the Chiefs would have been playing against the Rams in Atlanta two weeks later.
Had Berry been able to better defend a third-and-10 pass to Gronkowski in overtime, then maybe the Chiefs would have found a way to win the game.
Alas, Berry didn’t get the job done.
And that’s not said to disparage Berry. Hardly. The man is a legend, and he had experienced success in shutting down Gronkowski in the past.
It was, though, an immediately peculiar decision from the Chiefs coaching staff to employ a player who had partaken in three games over two seasons in one-on-one coverage with arguably the most dominant tight end in NFL history in the biggest game of the year.
And likewise, had Justin Houston been able to make a bigger impact than his two solo tackles (one of which came on a rushing play on a third-and-17) with no sacks in his 95 snaps, then the Chiefs might have found themselves fulfilling the destiny many imagined they would when they played that humdinger of a shootout earlier in the season against the Rams.
Alas, the Chiefs defense didn’t come through. Despite having a deafening home crowd to support them, the unit allowed 37 points and 524 yards to the Patriots. And now, as evidenced by the departures of the three highest-paid members of the defense, it’s time for a major overhaul. (And maybe a rule change or two. Just in case. You never can be too safe.)
Had the Chiefs not gotten Brady’d so badly, then perhaps not all of these moves would have been made. Had the Chiefs gone on to actually win the Super Bowl — albeit while likely not holding the Rams to just three points — then it’s possible that Sutton and Ford would have returned.
But that did not happen, and the Chiefs defense is now in a major state of flux. They’re not the first team to undergo massive changes in the wake of a disheartening loss to the Patriots, but they are the latest.
With rising star Patrick Mahomes slinging the ball this way and that, and with Andy Reid continuing to innovate his offensive approach as he enters his 60, the future is still glistening for the Chiefs in a league where offense still reigns supreme.
But defensively? Defensively, the Chiefs are trying to reinvent themselves on the fly in order to remain a real contender in the AFC. And, who knows? It just might work … just so long as they manage to avoid getting Brady’d once more.