Bob Sutton long ago learned the vagaries of a football coach’s life. Two days after the AFC Championship Game he was reminded once again of just how one random act can change not only the outcome of a game but the course of a career.
With 54 seconds to play last Sunday night, the defense Sutton coordinated the past six years in Kansas City had risen to the occasion. In the biggest game of the season a defense that had finished 31st in yards surrendered and 24th in points allowed had intercepted Tom Brady for the third time to seal an apparent 28-24 victory over the New England Patriots, insuring the Chiefs the AFC championship and their first trip to the Super Bowl in 50 years.
Sutton’s defense had beaten the GOAT, or so it appeared after a hurried pass bounced off the fingers of Rob Gronkowski and into the hands of Chiefs’ cornerback Charvarius Ward. And then a flag fluttered to the ground, and Bob Sutton was on his way to being fired because instead of stopping the GOAT he’d been victimized by the goat.
That goat was one of his outside linebackers, Dee Ford, who had lined up offside. The flag went into the air the instant the ball was snapped, nullifying anything that happened thereafter.
That flag also nullified poor Bob Sutton.
That’s because instead of forcing Brady into three turnovers and preserving a trip to the Super Bowl despite being burdened with a defense that could rush the passer but not do much else, Sutton now had to come up with another stop of Brady and the Patriots.
His defense wasn't up to it.
Instead, it allowed an immediate third-down conversion and eventually a go-ahead touchdown. Kansas City’s offense bailed Sutton’s boys out with a last-second field goal that forced overtime, but his dottering defenders collapsed again after New England won the toss and elected to receive.
It took nearly five minutes and three third-and-10 conversions but, in the end, the GOAT beat Bob Sutton’s defense, driving 75 yards for the score that sent the Patriots to the Super Bowl and Sutton to the unemployment office 48 hours later.
Under Sutton’s direction the Chiefs’ defense had finished in the Top Seven in the league in the only defensive metric that matters – points allowed – for the first four years he ran it. But in 2017 it sunk to 15th, and a year later fell to 24th in points allowed and 31st in both run defense and total defense.
In other words, his wasn’t very good. Frankly, if you can’t even line up onside, how good can you be?
These recent failures weren’t a result of Sutton suddenly losing his notebooks and forgetting how to coordinate a stout defense. It was because his players weren’t as good in 2018 as they were when he first arrived. But coaches live in a cruel, bottom-line business. What have you done for me lately, Bob?
Had he had the GOAT … and not the goat … on his side, today Sutton would be planning ways to stop the Los Angeles Rams in Super Bowl LIII. He’d be widely praised for his strategic acumen after devising a plan that forced perhaps the greatest quarterback in NFL history into throwing three interceptions in the conference championship game. He’d be, at least for the next two weeks, a defensive mastermind.
Instead he’s unemployed because a guy lined up on the wrong side of the line of scrimmage at the most important moment in the most important game of the year for the Chiefs.
Such is the coach’s life.
The day following the game, Chiefs’ head coach Andy Reid was grilled on Sutton’s future after the defense had allowed 524 yards, including 176 rushing, and an incredible 36 first downs. No one asked how Sutton had lured Brady into three interceptions because, well, it turned out to be only two due to Dee Ford’s head and hand jutting across pro football’s DMZ before the ball was snapped.
Instead, Reid was questioned about what the 67-year-old Sutton could have done to improve a defense tied for first in the league in sacks and quarterback pressures but next to last in yards allowed (405.5 per game) and subpar in points allowed. His response makes me think Reid wasn’t as keen to lay the blame on Sutton, whom he hired when he arrived himself in 2013, as the rest of the football world.
“We led the National Football League in sacks, and hurries on the quarterback, all these things,’’ Reid said. “We tightened up on the back end a little bit and got better there. That’s not an easy thing to do. It’s not easy to be in the (conference) championship game. Remember that. As you ask all these questions, remember that.’’
The next day Reid fired Bob Sutton.
The truth is: Someone had to walk the plank for those three third-and-10 conversions in overtime. Somebody had to pay for those 36 first downs and 37 points allowed. Somebody had to be held responsible for not only this crucial loss but the one two months earlier on Thursday night when the Rams beat up Sutton’s defense, 54-51, winning on a last-minute 75-yard drive eerily similar to the one Brady led on Sunday night.
How many times can a defensive coordinator get away with that? Apparently, not twice.
"Bob is a good football coach and a great person," Reid said in a statement after firing this good coach and great person. "He played an integral role in the success of our team over the last six seasons. I've said before that change can be a good thing, for both parties, and I believe that is the case here for the Chiefs and Bob. This was not an easy decision, but one I feel is in the best interest of the Kansas City Chiefs moving forward."
The whispers have already begun that some inside the Chiefs’ building had grown unhappy with Sutton’s lack of defensive adjustments. Perhaps. But the truth is: It wasn’t the absence of adjustments that was the problem this season. It was the absence of enough talented run stoppers and pass defenders.
There was also talk after the game that Sutton’s players, who once called him “Brainiac,’’ had stopped listening to him. Perhaps,. But it's unlikely Bob Sutton told Dee Ford to line up onside and Ford stopped listening. It’s just what they say when one guy’s mistake changes the narrative of a game and his coach’s place of employment.