KANSAS CITY, Mo. – In his 11 NFL seasons with the 49ers and Chiefs, quarterback Alex Smith has played for a handful of head coaches, five to be exact: Mike Nolan, Mike Singletary, Jim Tomsula (1 game), Jim Harbaugh and Andy Reid.
Only one of those coaches told the team that he wanted them to play with emotion, to allow their personality to come forward on the field, to let the world know who they were and what they were about.
That was Andy Reid.
“I think very early on, you realize how much passion he has for the game and how much he wants guys to go out and cut loose and to play with emotion,” the Chiefs quarterback said. “For me, it definitely was a first, to have a head coach really make that a focus.”
In his first days as head coach of the Chiefs in 2013, Reid let his players know that he wanted smart performers that did not beat themselves with mistakes and played the game with obvious emotion and personality. He’s been repeating that ever since.
“Now, it’s a little bit of what we’re about, a little bit of our identity,” Smith said. “I think it’s going out there playing with that edge. It’s important to us.”
When the story of the 2015 NFL season is written, it will include a chapter about what happened with Reid and his Chiefs, going from 1-5 to winning seven straight games and heaven knows what’s ahead in the final three regular season games and potentially the playoffs. It’s been one of the virtuoso performances of Reid’s successful 17-season NFL head coaching career.
He’s done it by sticking to his philosophy of encouraging players to show their emotions. In a frequently militaristic atmosphere that surrounds the sport of football, few coaches are willing to open the door to individual personalities. That’s especially true when things are not going well, like the five-game losing streak and 1-5 record that was the first six weeks of the season for the Chiefs.
Reid admitted at that point he’d never been 1-5 as a player or coach and there was no history for him to use for guidance. So, he stayed true to his long-held belief that football is a game best played with emotion.
“You have to let your personality show to play this game,” Reid said. “You have to be able to do that, but within the framework of the scheme. Everybody does that differently so you never want to take that part away from them.
“There are certain things, like red lights; I don’t like red lights, but I stop at them. You have to do that. That’s two minutes of life that’s taken away, but if I don’t do that, I might kill myself and everybody that’s involved, so you have to do certain things.
“It’s important that players understand that, and everybody that’s playing the game understands. There are certain things you have to do, but at the same time you put your own flavor on it.”
Consider the task an NFL head coach faces every day during the season – his locker room holds 53 players on the active roster, another 10 on the practice squad and approximately a half-dozen others who are on various league lists because of injury. The top items on the coach’s to-do list every single day concern blending those 70 people together into a cohesive unit. The sheer numbers make it different than any other coaching job in professional sports.
In today’s NFL, players come from all four corners of the country. They are from the inner city and farms, big cities and one-stoplight villages, dirt poor and filthy rich. Alex Smith came out of the San Diego area in the southwest, Mike DeVito from Cape Cod in the northeast, Allen Bailey out of Sapelo Island, Georgia in the southeast and back out west with Josh Mauga from Nevada.
Between those four points are dozens of other pins in the map that produced the 2015 Chiefs.
This season Reid’s group also hails from St. Hilaire, Quebec, Canada, the hometown of Laurent Durvernay-Tardif. Some 3,900 miles south of there is the town of Dangriga, Belize on the Caribbean Sea in Central America where Rakeem Nunez-Roches spent his early years. Go 4,000 miles further south from Belize to the South American continent and the dot on the map lands in Limeira in the state of San Paulo, Brazil, hometown of Cairo Santos. Jump the southern Atlantic Ocean to Africa and Monrovia, Liberia where Tamba Hali was born and spent his early years surviving a civil war.
Different geography, different cultures, different educations and different motivations. There is no one way for a head coach to reach every player.
This is the era of rookie cornerback Marcus Peters, with his rants and raves at opponents and game officials. Tight end Travis Kelce is constantly involved in some sort of demonstration, never walking away from any chance to dance in the end zone. Cornerback Sean Smith always seems to be dancing to the stadium music during timeouts and pops up from the turf pointing everywhere after breaking up a pass.
Touchdown and sack celebrations are frequent and when push comes to shove, Reid would rather his guys have a fair share of the pushing and shoving rather than getting run over.
Sometimes these demonstrations of individuality cause problems and penalty flags. Reid gives his players a lot of rope when it comes to doing their own thing. When necessary, he also reminds them that the coach still holds the leash.
“I can pull them back if I need to pull them back,” said Reid. “I’ll do that … but I want the whole player.”
Reid said he did not remember when his approach to handling players began to take shape.
As a player and young coach, he grew up in a time where my way or the highway coaches were still roaming the football tundra.
The idea was in place when he got his first head coaching job in 1999 with the Eagles. One of the assistant coaches he inherited and retained was John Harbaugh, the current Baltimore Ravens head coach who spent nine years working on Reid’s staff (1999-2007.)
“Andy always used to say, ‘Let your personality show’,” Harbaugh said in a conference call with Chiefs beat writers. “I’ve said that a few times to our guys, too. You learn from a great coach like Andy and you certainly take all the great things that you learn and let your personality shine.”
Talk with any number of players in the Chiefs locker room that have experienced football life with other teams and head coaches and they tell you most do not encourage individuality. Some don’t address the issue until it becomes a controversy or public problem. Most don’t think about encouraging players to be themselves.
Defensive end Nick Williams came into the NFL with the Steelers and said there’s a very different approach in Pittsburgh from head coach Mike Tomlin.
“Coach Tomlin is all about doing it the Steelers Way,” Williams said. “When you go in there, he doesn’t want to see your personality so much as he wants to see you do it their way.”
Williams prefers the Reid approach.
“It makes me more comfortable, especially with the coaches,” he said. “When you are out there on the field, you aren’t all tied up worrying about making mistakes. It helps you build confidence.”
Offensive tackle Jah Reid spent his first years in the league with the Ravens playing for Harbaugh, joining the Chiefs earlier this season. He said both coaches demand excellence from their players, but the approach is not the same.
“Every coach is a little different and I don’t think he (Harbaugh) tries to hamper you or hold you back or anything, but it’s different than how things are done here,” Jah Reid said. “It’s different here. I think Coach Reid is a cool coach.”
Andy Reid’s approach to individuality helped pull the Chiefs out of an early season hole of their own creation. When the situation was at its 1-5 worst, the locker room was not a great place to show up for work each day. But the players did not shut down or begin pulling away.
“It was dark and gloomy; it was not a good place,” Smith said. “It was a hard place to be. It’s easy to point fingers, easy to deflect blame, hard to stay focused on football. But we focused on the details and stayed in a good frame of mind. Eventually, it turned. We came back after the London trip with a lot of momentum and played with a lot of emotion.”
The Chiefs have the chance to be an historic NFL turnaround story if they can grab victories in the last three games. From 1-5 to 11-5 would be a rare journey for the not-afraid to be themselves Kansas City Chiefs.
In the words of Andy Reid: “You have to let your personality show to play this game.”