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What the Chargers can learn from the Chiefs’ plan to build a Super Bowl team

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NFL: Los Angeles Chargers at Kansas City Chiefs Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Arthur’s Note: You’re about to read something that almost certainly feels like it belongs on Arrowhead Pride and not a Chargers website. It is simply a breakdown of how Kansas City flipped their fortunes immediately in 2013, then refused to accept “good” to be “good enough” a few years later. The reason it’s here is simple: I wrote too many words, it got too long, and now my setup for what I wanted to write about the Chargers is enough for it to be its own post so consider this as a precursor to Part II, which is all about LA and I’ll post it shortly after.

It started at 2-14.

After the Kansas City Chiefs were deemed the worst team in the NFL in 2012, losing 14 games and finishing dead last in DVOA, including 31st on offense and 30th on defense, and ESPN deemed it the worst season in franchise history for Kansas City. “Terrible” was no longer good enough for the Chiefs.

They fired their rather strange coaching hire of Romeo Crennel, who kept the job after going 2-1 as the interim head coach in place of Todd Haley in 2011. They hired Andy Reid, who was let go by the Philadelphia Eagles less than a week earlier. Nine days later, they announced the hiring of GM John Dorsey. They cut Matt Cassel, who went 1-7 as a starter, and also parted ways with Brady Quinn, who also went 1-7. They traded two second round picks for Alex Smith, both of which just happened to turn into bad receivers.

(Justin Hunter and Cody Latimer.)

NFL: Tennessee Titans at Kansas City Chiefs Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

They drafted left tackle Eric Fisher with the first overall pick in one of the worst drafts of all-time. Fisher has been solid, if not great. It was maybe the best they could do in those circumstances and they avoided a bigger issue by not taking Luke Joeckel, though Lane Johnson has been superior if we’re not talking about the fact that he’s playing right tackle in Philly. Either way, Fisher was Kansas City’s first pick that year.

Travis Kelce was their second.

With Reid, Smith, and Fisher joining Jamaal Charles, Justin Houston, Tamba Hali, Dontari Poe, Branden Albert, Eric Berry, Rodney Hudson, Dwayne Bowe, Derrick Johnson, and others, the Chiefs improved by nine wins and made the playoffs as an 11-5 wildcard. They held a 38-10 lead early in the third quarter against the Indianapolis Colts, but ultimately lost the game 45-44. Still, you can see just how much talent was on the worst team in the league, it was just a matter of managing it better.

The next season, the Chiefs got Kelce back after he missed his rookie campaign and went 9-7, missing the playoffs. Albert signed a big contract with the Miami Dolphins, but Fisher was primed from the previous draft to step into his spot on the left side.

Eric Fisher intro news conference David Eulitt/Kansas City Star/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

In 2015, the first since 2011 in which they didn’t have Charles for most of it, the Chiefs went 11-5 again. Without Charles, they actually improved from fifth in rushing DVOA to first, and from 10th in rushing yards to sixth. Split between Charles, Alex Smith, Charcandrick West, and Spencer Ware, Kansas City was an elite rushing team without elite weapons there.

Jeremy Maclin, a big free agent signing who was drafted by Reid in Philadelphia, had 1,088 yards and eight touchdowns. He also cost them a 2016 third round pick and 2017 sixth for tampering. Kelce made the Pro Bowl for the first time. Marcus Peters was drafted with the 18th overall pick and led the NFL in interceptions. Dee Ford was in his second season and still getting a feel for things behind some very good outside linebackers. Eric Berry returned from beating cancer to be an All-Pro for the second time.

The Chiefs beat the Houston Texans 30-0 in the wild card (over Brian Hoyer) then got beat fairly easily by the New England Patriots.

In 2016, offensive coordinator Doug Pederson left to be the head coach of the Eagles, further cementing the strange marriage between the two organizations. He was replaced by Brad Childress. The team made a controversial fifth round selection with receiver Tyreek Hill, who made the Pro Bowl and All-Pro rosters as a rookie for his special teams achievements. He was also a very good offensive weapon, scoring nine touchdowns. Less controversially, they took defensive tackle Chris Jones with their first pick, which was 37th overall.

Philadelphia Eagles v Kansas City Chief Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Smith made his second Pro Bowl ... while throwing 15 touchdowns. They went 12-4, Kansas City’s best record since 13-3 in 2003. They won the division for the first time since 2010, and they haven’t finished lower than first since. But they lost in the wild card round to the Pittsburgh Steelers, 18-16. The Chiefs scored the only two touchdowns of the entire game, and lost.

Kansas City converted a necessary two-point conversion in the final minutes, but holding on Fisher called it back and the re-try from 12 was no good. After Smith went 20-of-34 for 172 yards, one touchdown, and one interception, the Chiefs knew that after terrible was no longer good enough ...

Good was no longer good enough.

In 2017, the Chiefs parted ways with Dorsey and promoted director of player personnel Brett Veach, who obviously came from the front offices of Philadelphia. (Bruce Springsteen goes: “bah bah bah bah bah”) After sharing offensive coordinator duties with Matt Nagy, Childress stepped aside. And they picked 27th overall in the draft.

Or at least, they were supposed to.

Under Reid’s management, the Chiefs have been one of the happier trade partners in the NFL. Most of those deals involved role players coming and going (Anthony Sherman, Marcus Cooper, Knile Davis, Rod Streater, Kevin Pierre-Louis, Cam Erving) or draft pick moves that disappointed someone (Roberto Aguayo, Joshua Garnett), but when Reid strikes, he seems to strike big.

NFL: MAY 07 Chiefs Rookie Camp Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Moving two second round picks for Smith turned out to be one of the best deals of the decade. While Smith couldn’t lead them past the divisional round and was limited, he’s way better than two second round picks. Remember: 2-14. But that wouldn’t be enough.

The next QB deal would be even better.

Picking 27th overall because KC was always good but not quite good enough, Veach and Reid moved up an incredible 17 spots in a draft where there were two quarterbacks who seemed to have no business going outside the top-9. I mean, depending on your perspective at the time because obviously there were a lot of teams who felt it was acceptable, but the Chiefs didn’t perceive Patrick Mahomes as anything other than an elite prospect.

Despite having a 32-year-old QB with two Pro Bowls in the last four years, the Chiefs moved pick 27, pick 91, and a 2018 first rounder for pick 10 to the Buffalo Bills. The Bills did pretty good, coming away with Tre’Davious White that year. Kansas City did better.

With Nagy as offensive coordinator, third round pick Kareem Hunt at running back, Hill at receiver, Smith at quarterback, Kelce at tight end, and a solid offensive line that included Fisher, Mitchell Schwartz, and Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, the Chiefs were first in yards per carry and had the fewest turnovers. They were fourth in offensive DVOA. Smith made his third Pro Bowl and was joined there by Hunt, Kelce, and Hill, who broke out as a receiver with 1,183 yards. But Bob Sutton’s defense featured no Pro Bowl players and were 30th in DVOA.

Wild Card Round - Tennessee Titans v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

They held a 21-3 halftime lead over the Tennessee Titans in the wild card round. They didn’t score in the second half, losing 22-21.

Mahomes started in Week 17 against the Denver Broncos, a top-10 defense. He went 22-of-35 for 284 yards, no touchdowns, and one interception. In 34 games since, Mahomes has posted a lower passer rating than his 76.4 that day only twice; his lowest passer rating in any career game, including playoffs, is 62.7.

By having Mahomes ready to step in by 2018, much like the situation with Albert and Fisher in 2014, the Chiefs traded Smith to Washington for Kendall Fuller and a third round pick. That same March 14, they traded Peters and a sixth to the LA Rams for a fourth and a future second. They used the second on safety Juan Thornill, a standout on the defense in 2019 before tearing his ACL. Fuller will play a prominent role in the Super Bowl.

In 2018, Nagy also left for a head coaching position and was replaced by Eric Bieniemy. Sammy Watkins was signed to a three-year, $48 million contract. The Chiefs finished first in scoring at 35.3 points per game, their highest ranking on offense since 2003. Hill, Kelce, and Schwartz were first-team All-Pro. Eric Fisher and Dee Ford made the Pro Bowl. Mahomes was first-team All-Pro and MVP, throwing 50 touchdown passes.

NFL Pro Bowl Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

Kansas City went 12-4, winning the AFC West in a tiebreak over the LA Chargers, and earning the 1 seed over the 11-5 Patriots. They beat the Colts easily in the divisional round, 31-13, but fell at home to New England 37-31 in overtime; Sutton’s defense was 26th in DVOA, including 32nd against the run.

The Patriots ran the ball 48 times for 176 yard and four touchdowns. In OT, Tom Brady converted first downs on 3rd and 10 three times, until finally Rex Burkhead used three straight runs to punch in the game-winning touchdown. The Chiefs never got the ball.

“Great on offense” was no longer great enough.

Two days after the AFC Championship, Sutton was fired. He was replaced by Steve Spagnuolo, who in addition to being the head coach of the St. Louis Rams from 2009-2011, was DC for the Super Bowl champion Giants in 2007, the Saints in 2012, and was also a defensive assistant under Reid in ... Philadelphia. (bah bah bah bah)

Bob’s Birthday Bash Light Of Day Concert Photo by Debra L Rothenberg/Getty Images

This also meant a switch from a base 3-4 alignment to a 4-3, meaning that the team parted ways with Justin Houston after a nine-sack season and traded Dee Ford after a season with 13. Kansas City acquired a second round pick from the 49ers in the deal, which they used (along with a 2019 first) to acquire Frank Clark from the Seattle Seahawks, whom they signed to a $104 million deal. They took advantage of Tyrann Mathieu’s constantly shifting market to sign him to a $42 million contract over three.

With Clark, Mathieu, and Thornhill added to a defense that had Chris Jones, Fuller, Alex Okafor, Emmanuel Ogbah, Anthony Hitchens, and so forth, Kansas City improved from 24th in points allowed to seventh, from 31st in yards allowed to 17th, and from 26th in DVOA to 14th. They also jumped from 12th in pass defense to sixth. Clark and Jones made the Pro Bowl, Ogbah and Tanoh Kpassagnon showed life, and the Chiefs’ offense finally had a complementary defense.

They also finished second in special teams DVOA in each of the last two years, and they’ve been top-4 in each of the last five. The Chargers finished 31st on special teams in 2015, 29th in 2016, 31st in 2017, 25th in 2018, and they were 32nd in 2019.

AFC Championship - Tennessee Titans v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images

Reid’s kicker since 2017 has been Harrison Butker, a seventh round pick of the Carolina Panthers who led the NFL in field goals made last season. Butker’s missed 11 field goals in three years, and six of those are from 50+. Their punter since 2005 has been Dustin Colquitt. They acquired Hill in the 2016 draft, repping the AFC in the Pro Bowl as a returner in 2017. In 2019, the AFC’s rep there was Mecole Hardman, Kansas City’s first pick (59th overall) in the draft last year.

Offensively, KC didn’t have to change much. Bienemy, Mahomes, Hill, Kelce, Watkins, Fisher, Schwartz were all still in the house. Hunt was replaced by LeSean McCoy but not really, so the Chiefs didn’t run the ball as well. They also didn’t technically throw it as efficiently, but Mahomes was still an All-World player and probably the best quarterback in the NFL. Kansas City took a 6-4 start after one score losses to the Colts, Texans, Packers, and Titans, but has reeled off eight consecutive wins since.

They are now one win away from their first championship since 1969. And that is how they built it from 2-14.

In Part II, I will cover the lessons learned here and what Tom Telesco could take from it in order to put the LA Chargers on the right path.