When looking at the year 2014, I am often compelled to remember the shattering events that began and are ongoing which tempt us to recoil in fear and revulsion. Each one has roots in historically deep divisions: political, economic, racial, religious, and theological. We must mourn these events, but also commit ourselves to live differently in the way we address the roots. Conversely, there have been other events that, while not as important as the other events, allow us a short escape from the divisions and help us to unite. Frankly, they can be a needed self-medication of fun! I think this is a good thing, if we don’t become so absorbed with them that they become lead us to ignore the important issues of our world. I call these stories: Cookies. They are the Cookie Jar of life, and sports is one of the most enjoyable for me. My last post was about the Kansas City Royals’ ride to the playoffs and World Series. I will next write about the Kansas City Chiefs.
The Kansas City Chiefs:
Andy Reid physically looks like a guy you would normally see sitting on a couch WATCHING football on TV rather than COACHING professional athletes. That is part of his effectiveness. At least publicly, Reid is a low key, fairly mild-mannered guy that handles inane questions with a great wit, delivered in a dead-pan style and just a hint of sarcasm sprinkled it. I LOVE him, and his players seem to as well. Although he may not look it, he also has a keen offensive mind that can brilliantly formulate game plans, and effectively communicate with his players. I don’t suspect he is a coach that yells, but instead uses biting sarcasm that criticizes performance rather than character. I think he probably treats players, coaches, and administrators with respect and personal humility. He is confident, too, and seems to have a thick skin but also an open mind to criticism. Reid takes his personal responsibility seriously, and is willing to admit when he made a mistake, then work to correct it.
Reid calls the plays on game day. While many teams that run the West Coast style of offense use an array of passes to wide receivers and running backs, with a scattering of throws going to tight ends; Reid has needed to play to the talent on the team which is stronger and deeper at the tight end position. They also make great use of their best offensive weapon, running back Jamal Charles. The offense became especially effective during the middle of the season when they started to use three tight end sets. Although teams would eventually jam players closer to the line in order to stop the running of Charles, the emergence of TE Travis Kelce as a receiver allowed them to open up the offense from any pre-snap set for effective play-action passes.
Offense isn’t the only way in which the Chiefs have scored since Reid and his staff got to KC, though. Both Dave Taub, special teams coach, and Bob Sutton, defensive coordinator, have done a spectacular job of developing game plans and teaching techniques that have resulted in scoring touchdowns. So much so, that they have drawn the attention of owners, general managers, and coaches around the league. The success of not only Taub and Sutton, but all the coaching staff bely what I think must be Reid’s philosophy as a head coach: hire great assistants, allow them to coach, and keep them onboard as long as possible. Coach Reid shows both his confidence and humility in sharing the spotlight. This tells you that Reid appreciates the giftedness of his staff, values their contribution, and is humble in sharing the public praise of their accomplishments. Maybe this is why so many of his coaches stay with him instead of seeking promotions elsewhere.
It is hard to step out of the shadows of a legend. Especially when that legend was your father, and a pioneer in the origination and development of the AFL. Since Clark Hunt took over as owner due to the declining health and subsequent death of his father, Lamar Hunt; he has shown decisiveness in making assessments about the progress the Chiefs were making, and then taking action to facilitate further growth. Clark has been willing to fire general managers when he felt their effectiveness was or fading. He fired long-time general manager and president of football operations, Carl Peterson, whom his father hired, shortly after taking the reins of the team. Hunt then restructured the front office, hired and eventually fired Scot Pioli as general manager when the succession of head coaches under his and Peterson’s watches were taking the team backward as a program. In these actions, Hunt showed the capability to risk on a young unproven person, and then go in a different direction when the experiment didn’t work.
When Clark Hunt first hired Andy Reid, I thought it was a great hire because of Reid’s perennial success in Philadelphia. What I didn’t know was of the criticism in Philadelphia that Reid had too much responsibility as both head coach and talent assessment and procurement. Hunt listened to the criticism, judged it to be valid, so he brought in John Dorsey to be general managers in charge of player personnel. The brilliance of the hire is two-fold: 1) Dorsey spent the majority of his career in Green Bay, where he and Reid worked together during the Packers successful 1990’s which was the Mike Holmgren program led on the field by Brett Favre. At the time, Dorsey was responsible for college scouting and Andy Reid worked as tight end/offensive line coach, and quarterback coach. 2) Hunt placed a distinct line of authority between player personnel-Dorsey’s job, and player performance-Reid’s job as coach. So… you have two guys that know each other well, have worked together successfully, and like each other. The way in which the collaborative relationship has worked so far, is a credit to Clark Hunt’s foresight.
While every team has injuries, the Chiefs lost two starters: Derrick Johnson, who was one of their captains, called the signals for the defense, and a formidable inside presence at linebacker. Johnson went to the Pro Bowl last year, but in the first game of the season he tore his Achilles tendon. The same injury happened in the same game to Mike DaVito, a veteran starter on defensive line. So at the beginning of the year, Bob Sutton was missing two defensive leaders from game 1 on. In week 2, Bob Sutton was hit with another injury to an important veteran leader when Eric Berry went down with a high ankle sprain which kept him out for the next five games….
So? This is football right? More to the point…this is the NFL, right? All teams have injuries. Next man up…Right?
Yes and no.
The three players were replace on the field and their influence could still be felt as they came in for treatment and for rehab. And…the defense picked up where it left off last year. Justin Houston still created havoc for offensive linemen and quarterbacks. Houston finished the year as the new vocal leader in the locker room, and broke Derrick Thomas’ single season record for sacks as Houston roled up 21 and one-half sacks, which is one-half sack less than the league record. Tomba Hali still played relentlessly, and Sutton and his defensive assistants created schemes that moved each player around to give the opponent’s offensive line even more trouble. Berry was replaced in the defensive backfield. The replacements played well, too, as the defense ended the year second in both net passing yards allowed and total points allowed per game. They also were fourth in YAC (yards after catch) for the season. (You can see the breakdown of how the defense compared to the league here: http://www.kcchiefs.com/news/article-2/Chiefs-Final-Defensive-NFL-Rankings/c43eee7d-569c-430d-a1da-92150c77bbc0 ) Obviously, the statistics compiled for these rankings included five games in which Berry started and contributed strongly in leadership and performance. But suffice it to say that the entire defensive backfield stepped up in a huge way after their leaders got hurt. Yet…
Derrick Johnson and Eric Berry have been through the ringer in Kansas City. They both were part of the team that experienced one of their own, starting linebacker Jevon Belcher, kill his girlfriend, and then go to the Chiefs practice facility where he shot himself to death in front of their former head coach and general manager. This incident alone was enough to mark these men as leaders that have experienced great tragedy, yet hold together the team as best they could. You don’t replace those kinds of leaders, and the lessons they learned through such unspeakable human crisis. Johnson was the unofficial media spokesman for the defense. His experience as a three-time Pro Bowler and All-Pro in 2011 was missed as well as adding to his 981 total tackles which are just 18 shy of the team record held by Gary Spani. Johnson is particularly strong against the run, and the defense had difficulty with strong rushing teams this year.
But Berry….Berry had become the spirit of the defense. And it would eventually be determined that he had Hodgkins lymphoma. The most comprehensive information I have found on both the process of discovering that Berry has cancer, as well as how his teammates and coaches respect him was written by ESPN reporter Ashley Fox: http://espn.go.com/nfl/story/_/page/hotread141224/kansas-city-chiefs-eric-berry-battles-cancer-strong-support . Another article that shows the impact of Berry in the community is here: http://www.kansascity.com/sports/spt-columns-blogs/sam-mellinger/article4178140.html .
Adversity… Everyone battles with adversity at some point in their life. In fact, it could be said that the fire of adversity, and how it is responded to, will tell the end of the story in the middle of the book. But not all stories, or books, are straight forward, nor are the presumed endings the actual endings. Although sports certainly belong in the Cookie Jar for fans, for the participants, sports have the capability to form character, and an approach to life that is transforming. There are always people that fail to understand the synergism that sometimes occurs within an athletic team, even members of the team itself. Every so often, a group of people come together in pursuit of a common goal, or a surface, perceived common goal which changes into something else. Something deeper, and richer, and humbling:
“There are lots of things in the world, but I’m not sure that comradeship is not the best of them all—to know that you can do something big for another chap.”[i]
Sir Earnest Shackleton
Famed Antarctic explorer and noted successful failure.
Shackleton is probably now most noted for a failed attempt to cross the continent of Antarctica. He is famous because in an expedition which was plagued by tragedy, he showed remarkable leadership qualities that allowed his team to survive despite repeated opportunities not to. Margot Morrell and Stephanie Capparell, in their book, Shackleton’s Way, tell the story in a way that shows how a group of people can share adversity in such a way that is life changing for all involved. Shackleton’s words above express the joy of effort spent on behalf of another. Another historic leader expresses the same passion of self-sacrifice and shared adversity:
“Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”[ii]
Justin Houston knows about shared adversity, too. When Eric Berry was diagnosed with cancer, the Chiefs lost their vocal leader. His absence left a void, and the team needed someone to fill in, if just until Berry returns. Houston has been the teams most dominant player this year, and he decided to step into the role…just until Berry puts on his number 29 jersey again. Houston’s role on the field is to rush the quarterback with abandon, and he has done that better this year than anyone in the NFL. Every time Justin Houston lined up in a passing down, I think his main thought is not about hitting the quarterback, but about the sack dance he will do after exploding off the ground following the play.
For those of you who don’t know what a sack dance is, I will explain. Every defensive player has prepared a celebration…a choreography of movement…to be done after tackling the quarterback. Each sack dance means something. It is symbolic and specific for each particular player. It is meant to set him apart from other players, to be seen on national TV, and hopefully on Sportscenter. Houston is no exception. But his sack dance isn’t about gaining personal notoriety; it is rather to express shared adversity with his comrade and teammate: Eric Berry. As Houston jumps off the ground, he immediately faces the direction of a camera and pulls up his jersey, so the white t-shirt underneath can be seen. On the t-shirt is the number 29 drawn with magic marker. Houston thumps the number twice, and then presses his hands together in the traditional symbol of prayer. By doing so, Houston is saying to Berry…
You are not alone, Eric…
You are not forgotten, Eric…
I am praying for you, Eric…
God and I are with you in this fight!
I think this was the reason he finished the season by recording 4 and a half sacks in his last game. Every down, he must have thought…”I gotta tell Eric. I gotta SHOW Eric. And the only way is through this huge offensive tackle… No problem.”
Jamal Charles is the most effective Chiefs’ player on the offensive side of the ball. Before the season began, Charles and the Chiefs were involved in working on a contract extension. He was already under contract, but both he and the Chiefs agreed that his compensation did not equal his value to the team, nor reward him for his excellent performance in the past. It was taking some time to work out the details, and the media publically wondered if Charles would hold out of training camp until the new contract was signed, even though he still was under contract with the team. Eventually, the day to report to training camp came, and the media recorded the players as they lugged their suitcases up to the dorms of the college campus where the Chiefs hold training camp. As the morning dragged on, there was no announcement of Charles’ contract being finished, and the question in all of Kansas City was… “Is Jamal Charles going to report to camp?” The day wore on, and the time to report was closing in, yet Charles had yet to report. Finally, about 30 minutes after the designated time for all veterans to report, the announcement was made that the contract was signed, and Charles arrived at camp. A hasty press conference was assembled, and Charles walked calmly in as it was getting organized. There was a lot of good natured banter going on between Charles and the media when one reporter asked:
Reporter: “Did you hold out for 30 minutes?”
Charles: “No, my car ran out of gas on the highway, so I had to walk.”
Reporter: “Wouldn’t anybody give YOU a ride?”
Charles: “No. I had a hoodie on….”
A GREAT line…
Charles broke the slight silence with, “Naw…I just walked.” And then he smiled.
When he made the statement, his eyes got serious, even though he had a slight smile on his face. The line and his facial features while delivering it spoke volumes to a particular audience: African-American males. The hoodie became a symbol of the tragedy of the deaths of so many black men, during the Zimmerman trial following the shooting death by the hand of Zimmerman of Trayvon Martin. Trayvon’s death preceded the events in Ferguson, Missouri surrounding the shooting death of a young black man by a white police officer, as well as several other highly publicized deaths of other black males. Jamal Charles’ message by the use of that line, spoke to the crisis of African-American men dying by violent means. In effect, Charles was saying to black men everywhere:
“I am one of you! Neither my fame nor my money matter… I am one of you!
I run out of gas, too.
They won’t pick ME up either.
They think I am dangerous.”
It was a subtle, effective message that Jamal Charles is about shared adversity not only with his professional teammates, but also with his community.
I gotta love that guy…
[i] Margot Morrell and Stephanie Capparell; Shackleton’s Way: Leadership Lessons from the Great Antarctic Explorer, Penguin Books, New York, NY; 2002; Pg.215.
[ii] John 15:13