By Matt Derrick, Chiefs beat writer for Sports Radio 810 WHB and ChiefsDigest.com
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — When Chiefs general manager Brett Veach pours over film and scouting reports for potential free agents and draft picks, there’s one thing he looks for that can’t be found in a box score or in a combine drill.
“I think that there’s one thing that you really can’t coach, and that’s the energy and temperament in which you play, and we put a focus on that,” Veach said at the team’s annual Kickoff Luncheon hosted by the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce.
The rebuild of the Kansas City defense this offseason epitomizes that philosophy. Bringing in free agents Frank Clark and Tyrann Mathieu and drafting Juan Thornhill is part of a plan that was born the day Veach took over the the job in the summer of 2017.
“Our guys know, our college guys know and our pro guys know when we’re going through free agency, we really have to focus on guys that are wired the right way,” Veach said. “They really have to truly love the game and love the process.”
The Chiefs defense encountered a death spiral after the 2015 season. They allowed 568 points over the course of the 2014-15 regular seasons. Only the Seattle Seahawks (531) allowed fewer points in that 32-game stretch. But the Chiefs tumbled to No. 24 int points allowed in 2018 and allowed the second-most yards in the league.
A lion’s share of the blame fell on former defensive coordinator Bob Sutton. Some argued personnel, not scheme, that spelled the downfall. Veach and head coach Andy Reid saw it differently. What the Chiefs defense needed more than anything was a culture change.
Reid jump started the cultural revolution with the hiring of Steve Spagnuolo as defensive coordinator.
“When you get Steve, you get a lot of energy,” Reid said. “Then the players, his staff, they’re the same way.”
But the addition of Clark and Mathieu also play significantly in changing the culture of the Kansas City locker room. Mathieu believes his role as a leader is to take the vision Reid and Spagnuolo set and then translate that message to his teammates.
“I think defensively, if you can have a group of guys with a certain identity, swagger, attitude, how they approach each and every day,” Mathieu said, “whether or not they’re willing to die on their feet, I think that’s the kind of guys that you want to play defense with, and that’s the kind of group we want to have.”
In Mathieu and Clark, the Chiefs found exactly the players Veach wanted to reinforce the message from the coaching staff.
“There’s no one more detail oriented than coach (Reid),” Veach explained, “and if you get guys that just want to play for a contract or just want to play because they want their pictures on social media, it’s not going to work.”
Perhaps no new addition to the team fits that description better than Clark. The fifth-year veteran takes meticulous notes from every game he plays and watches. To Clark having consistency in his actions and approach to the game are the foundation of his success for far.
“You’ve got to stay true to yourself,” Clark said. “You come into practice, it’s a long year, it’s a journey, it’s a marathon. You’ve got to stay to your script, you’ve got to keep doing what you do every day, your routine.”
Clark stresses that message to his younger teammates. At age 26 and five years into the league, Clark stands as a grizzled veteran in the Chiefs locker room. Only Alex Okafor has more experience among the team’s defensive linemen than Clark.
“Stay in your routine because you come in there, you find a lot of young players, they don’t have this routine and they get lost in the sauce, lost in the mix until year two or three comes around,” Clark said. “The faster you get in that routine, you understand how long the season is, how long of a grind it is, you start to understand that.”
The fact that Clark and Mathieu stress the need for focusing on the details and establishing a routine isn’t a coincidence, Veach says.
“We certainly have a group of guys here today, they’re not here by chance or by luck, these were guys that we targeted and identified,” Veach said. “They trust the coaches, they trust the process, but more importantly they trust each other.”
Mathieu and Clark weren’t in Kansas City last year, yet they know the story and learned the lessons of the 2018 Chiefs. The team ranked 31st in yards allowed – “that doesn’t make anyone proud,” Clark said. Mathieu also knows the defense ended the season seemingly helpless to stop New England in overtime of the AFC Championship Game, failing to give Patrick Mahomes and the offense a chance to win.
“We would like Pat to have the ball at the end of the game, but we want a defense that don’t mind going out there at the end of the game to win a game,” Mathieu said. “That’s what we’re trying to build.”
Veach believes the Chiefs have put together a collection of coaches and players to get that done.
“It’s been a seven-year process to get this locker room and this team to where we are now, and we’re excited about it,” Veach said.