Fanpost: A Eulogy

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A Fanpost by stjoechief:

Bob Sutton, the longest tenured defensive coordinator in the NFL, has been fired from the Kansas City Chiefs.  Most of the fan base, myself included, believe this is a good thing.  Some (looking at you, Tony) think Coach Sutton got the shaft and is being blamed for poor personnel decisions by Brett Veach.  Few assistant coaches have generated so much controversy.  Some see his defenses as woefully soft and unable to get off the field.  Others see them as stingy on points and strong on turnovers.  In a probably vain attempt to get everyone into a group hug, I’m here to tell you that all of you are right.  And here’s the really crazy part:  all of you are right for the same reason.

First of all, it’s not all Dee Ford’s fault.  Yes, he lined up offsides.  Yes, he generated a penalty that negated a game winning interception in the AFC Championship Game.  Yes, that play would have completely changed the history of the Kansas City Chiefs, sending them to their first Super Bowl in forty nine f****ing years.  

Ahem.  

Pardon me, I’m still a little emotional about this.  I’m sure you understand. 
On my way to the game I had 101.1 The Fox’s pregame show on, and heard Bob Sutton’s pregame interview.  In that segment, Sutton put out what seemed like a standard bit of coach speak.  I don’t have his exact words, but it was to the effect that every player has to give 100% on every play because you never know which is going to be the most important play.  And as the Joker said to Vicky Vale in the original Batman movie, “I was sitting in the bath the other day when I realized…”  All right.  He finished with “why I am destined for greatness,” and this is far less psychopathically delicious.  But it’s still a personal epiphany.  A Road to Damascus, scales falling from my eyes moment.  That random statement percolating with everything I’ve seen of Bob Sutton’s defenses and this game in particular produced a moment of clarity.  I think I finally see what Bob Sutton has been doing all this time and why the results have been, well, what they are.  I’ve been torn about this defense for years.  Sometimes it has looked  like the second coming of the Steel Curtain.  Other times it has looked like a high school team could shred it.  And just to make the picture more murky there are certain players who have thrived with Sutton but tanked with other teams.  The most obvious of these is Marcus Peters, but Jaye Howard and others come to mind as well.  So what can reconcile all of this?

Bob’s (Hey, Mr. Sutton, is it okay if I call you Bob?  Oh, sorry, didn’t mean to step on your grass–okay, how about now?  Yeah?  Cool!)

Now that that’s out of the way, Bob’s apologists point to his record of having very good scoring defenses in the past.  They also point to high rankings in quarterback sacks and pressures and turnovers.  These are all good things and are generally considered desirable qualities in a defense.  After all, the iconically pithy Bill Parcells responded to a reporter’s question about the most important defensive statistic with, “Points allowed.”  And all of us who have watched every snap of every Chiefs game for the last few decades can agree that Bob had some utterly dominant games.  Last Saturday against the Colts, for instance.  Or against the Bengals in Week 7.  Or the last time the Patriots visited Arrowhead.  And by the way, why the bloody hell do the Chiefs have to go to New England for the third year in a row next year?  Yeah, I know, it’s the formula, but it’s anomalies like this that feed the conspiracy theories.

Anyway…

His detractors point to consistently poor yardage rankings (top 10 in 2014 & 2015, otherwise not higher than 23rd), abysmal run defense, and general inability to get off the field.  And then, of course, there are the meltdowns.  Our buddy Bob owns two of the five biggest defensive collapses in NFL history withing a span of five years.  He is the only defensive coordinator to have been on the losing side when his team scored 50 or more points.  And this week he became the second defensive coordinator (out of 66 attempts) to lose a playoff game in which his team scored over 30 points and didn’t commit a turnover.  So yeah, Bob’s defenses look solid or putrid depending on your perspective.  But why?  How can a defensive scheme that really hasn’t changed much in the last six years generate so much controversy for the entire span of its existence?

Actually, it’s pretty simple.  Bob was a gambler who plays the percentages.  Football is hard, especially at this level.  Every successful offensive play requires multiple players executing their assignments in a maelstrom of flying 300 lb. bodies.  So the more plays are run, the greater the likelihood that at least one of those players will screw up.  A lineman doesn’t get his feet set properly and lets Chris Jones blow by him for a sack.  A quarterback gets distracted for a quarter second and lets Daniel Sorensen jump a route for an interception.  A receiver doesn’t get a firm enough grip on the ball and Marcus Peters (remember that guy?  He’s playing in the Super Bowl this year) snatches it out of his hands.  Make the opposition run enough plays and they will eventually make mistakes.  This is the core philosophy of the “Bend, Don’t Break” defensive style.  Many defensive coordinators have built successful careers (see Crennel, Romeo) on this principle.  But Bob the Gambler raised the ante on most of them.  The talking heads talk about the chess match between offense and defense.  But Bob was playing craps.

Bob Sutton’s defenses were all about the big play.  The game changing play.  Every snap was a roll of the dice.  Every snap was a chance to make that big play.  Any snap that didn’t result in a big play doesn’t matter.  Any drive that didn’t result in a big play doesn’t matter.  Because over time, Bob counted on making enough big plays to offset those pesky touchdowns he gave up on the other drives.  And here is the strength and terrible weakness of that strategy:  It works.  But only over time.  Craps is a streaky game.  There can be runs of incredible luck interspersed with long dry periods.  In the end you may come out ahead but you have to absorb some short term losses to get there.  And when playoff time comes, the short term and the long term become one.  The margin for error shrinks into the Quantum Realm.

The other point to make about this strategy is that it relies heavily on talent differential.  Many people say that Bob’s defense was only good with multiple Pro Bowlers; others say it was only bad when the talent level fell off.  Again, both of those statements are true.  On any given snap, the chance of a big play was greater with more defensive playmakers on the field.  Conversely, the odds got worse against better offensive players. Unfortunately, as you progress through the playoffs the opposing teams get better and the odds of getting big plays get worse.  

It’s hard to look at the Chiefs’ regular season results in the Reid/Sutton era and say the defense has been a complete failure. The team has had a winning record every year and has multiple playoff appearances, including two playoff victories.  Even in 2018, the worst defensive performance of Sutton’s tenure, the Chiefs led the league in sacks and pressures.  They had some timely turnovers and a few dominant performances.  But in an individual game this strategy became exponentially more risky. Because the dice are fickle, and sometimes the splash plays don’t make up for the eight minute touchdown drives, the coverage breakdowns, or the inopportune penalties.  Which brings us back to Dee Ford and Bob’s pregame remark about never knowing which play is the most important.  The Patriots’ last drive in regulation resulted in one of the big plays that were the foundation of Bob’s defenses.  Charvarius Ward, a rookie cornerback who has looked progressively more promising over the last four weeks, intercepted a pass from the NFL’s fair haired boy Tom Brady to crush the Patriots’ souls and send the Chiefs to the Super Bowl.  But football is hard, not just on offense but on defense.  Another player, Dee Ford, screwed up on what turned out to be the biggest play.  And it was the Chiefs’ souls who were crushed, because the remaining rolls of the dice on defense did not produce another big play.  And so here we are.  

Bob stuck to his philosophy for the entire game and it came within one penalty of being enough.  Instead it turned into another playoff loss that goes in the record books.  I said it above:  Teams that score thirty or more points in the playoffs without giving up a turnover were 64-1 before January 20, 2019.  Now they are 64-2.

I do not believe Bob Sutton was incompetent.  The man knows more about football than I ever will and has built a long and relatively successful NFL career.  I think finally, after six years, I see what he has been trying to do.  I see why it produced overall good results interspersed with some epic meltdowns.  I see why there are arguments over the talent level of the defense; the more high level players on the roster, the greater the chance of a big play happening.  If the defense had been stocked with enough talent it is possible that Bob’s unit could have put together a three game run of high level play in January and February, even against the best teams in the NFL.  Even with the holes we have all seen, they were THIS close.  But Bob Sutton’s defense is boom or bust.  The Chiefs are an offense first team.  And in the salary cap era I don’t know if enough wisely allocated dollars could have been put into the defense to put them over the top with Bob in place.  Obviously the Chiefs decided it wouldn’t work. 

Bob Sutton lived by the sword and he died by the sword.  He gave us some good years but the short term risks required by his defensive philosophy ultimately proved fatal.  R.I.P.  Flowers can be sent care of ta2tony21, One Arrowhead Guys Drive.