I could hear a crinkle of paper through the phone. “Let me pull my roster out,” Brett Veach, the Chiefs’ general manager, told me. He’s trying to answer a big question: What is different about scouting players for the Chiefs compared to other teams? The question—and its answer—cut to the heart of why the Chiefs have won 25 of their past 27 games and are attempting on Sunday to win their second consecutive Super Bowl. Veach scanned the roster in an attempt to paint me a picture of what happens when one of the best front offices in football finds players for Andy Reid, one of the best coaches in football history.
“What Andy does, when you find a skill set, you don’t have to worry about if he’s a true-this, or a true-that. He will find ways to get creative to put them in great positions,” Veach said. “So guys come in from certain ‘systems.’ You’ll hear, ‘Oh, well, Patrick Mahomes is an Air Raid offense guy. Won’t work in the NFL.’ No, we’ll make it the NFL version of an Air Raid offense. We’ll move Sammy Watkins around, so he’s not just an outside player and can be more of a slot receiver. Mecole Hardman—we’ll find ways for him to get involved in the game with reverses and all these types of things. With Clyde Edwards-Helaire, we’ll do a lot more in the passing game with him. [Reid’s] going to find ways to highlight their skill set. From a GM standpoint, you don’t have to get pigeonholed into wondering if this guy is a good fit for what we do. If we like the guy, and we like the skill set, Coach will figure out a way to highlight it.”
Mahomes, the best quarterback in football, is the best example of Reid’s ingenuity, Veach said. “Look at how Andy expands his offense and adapts with the players. He is not one of these guys who will say, ‘This is my system, this is what we’re going to run.’” Veach said this extends to the entire coaching staff, including offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy and defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. Veach mentions L’Jarius Sneed, a fourth-round selection in last year’s draft out of Louisiana Tech and the 16th cornerback taken overall. Sneed was the highest-graded rookie defensive back this season, according to Pro Football Focus. “The kid was a safety his last year in college, an outside corner the year before, but you know what? Steve says we’re going get him on the field, we’re gonna highlight his ability, and we’re gonna throw him at nickel. Now he’s one of the better nickels. You have that confidence that knowing the staff is going to find ways to get your best players on the field. A lot of times players get drafted and you say, ‘This guy is talented, but he’s behind this player or this player.’ Our staff says they’ll find a way to get him on the field. Whether that’s playing Sneed at nickel or let’s find a way to get Tershawn Wharton in [packages] because we like the way he pass rushes. Or we’re going to reinvent the offense to tailor it to Pat’s needs. Whatever these players can do, if they come in with the right approach and have a skill set, we’re going to make it valuable.”
Failure in the NFL can often be traced back to teams trying to fit square pegs in round holes. Kansas City has completely removed this trap. Everyone fits the system because the system is built to include everyone. It is heaven for talented football players. All of the pieces fit. The 2020 Chiefs, top 10 in both points scored and points allowed, are basically good at everything. This is the result of a near-perfect marriage between every facet of the organization—front office, coaches, ownership, and, of course, the players themselves. Since Reid became head coach eight years ago, the Chiefs have pushed the boundaries of scheme innovation every year and built an organization that made such a thing possible. I talked to Veach, one of the best general managers in the sport, and team owner Clark Hunt in the past few days to see how the best roster in the sport was built, how it’s coached, and how everything fits neatly together. The Chiefs win because they have Mahomes, Travis Kelce, Tyreek Hill, Tyrann Mathieu, and many more talented players. Assembling a stacked roster is hard; keeping it together is just as hard.
The story starts in 2013, when Reid had his first conversation with Hunt about taking the Chiefs’ head-coaching job. Reid, who’d spent the previous 14 years as head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles, told Hunt there was talent on the Chiefs roster. “That 2012 team had six Pro Bowl players on the roster, an astounding number for a team that won two games. When I interviewed Andy he mentioned that the team has talent and we needed to bring a quarterback to pull it all together,” Hunt told me. That led to the acquisition of Alex Smith, a move that started Kansas City on the road toward becoming one of the best offenses in football. Reid also told Hunt he preferred to be paired with a general manager—he’d done both jobs in Philadelphia—so he could focus on coaching and developing the quarterbacks. “It really freed Andy up to do what he wanted to do,” Hunt said, noting Reid’s mentorship of Mahomes, who arrived in 2017. “Having a talented general manager, first we had John Dorsey, and over the past four years we’ve had Brett Veach, that’s allowed Andy to focus on the football side and has really let us build one of the best personnel departments in the league. If you look at the job Brett has done with drafting players, signing free agents, re-signing our own players and keeping them in Kansas City, it’s a great partnership. The relationship is really, really important. I’ve seen it many times where there’s not a good relationship between the coach and general manager and it usually ends in failure.”
Veach finds the players, Reid coaches them up as well as anyone in the sport, and then Veach finds a way to keep the roster together. This strategy culminated in 2020, not just with the Chiefs’ Super Bowl win, but with Mahomes’s 10-year contract extension, worth up to $503 million, which he signed in July. That was followed by re-signing Chris Jones and Kelce—more on that in a bit. Veach once told me that he started planning for Mahomes’s extension before he even became the starter, because he knew how much money Mahomes would command once he became a star. So, knowing Veach plans for everything, I asked him how he viewed the next 10 years, knowing Mahomes is in the fold for a decade and that it’s his job to put a team around him.
“I view it, having Coach Reid and Pat here, as the cornerstone for success every year. We have a Hall of Fame head coach and the best player in the game in place. Basically, the two most important factors are in place. I view it as the ultimate stability,” Veach said. “The beauty of this game is that that alone isn’t enough. It’s truly a team game. It’s comforting to know you have that. The pressure is always on to fill out depth on both sides of the football.”
In the beginning, there was Gary Brown. When Veach was a child, he read about a legendary Pennsylvania high school running back in the local newspaper. That was the only way to follow high school players at the time. Veach’s father, a high school coach, took him to see Brown’s Williamsport team play Berwick in the state playoffs. “There’s always this one moment in time when it hits you how amazing it is,” Veach said of football. “I remember going to this game and I think I was maybe 8 years old, and I thought ‘This is the biggest thing in the world.’ I hadn’t been to a pro football game. There’s 15,000 people at a high school game. I just said, ‘I want to be like that.’ That, to me, was bigger than the Super Bowl.”
This was the game that shaped Veach’s idea of what a football player should be. The key, he said, is bottling everything he felt in that moment, about the enormity of football, and carrying it with him into everything he did. “So you take that mindset as an 8-year-old, thinking football is the most important thing and it slowly transforms your approach to your craft,” he said. “To say ‘I’m not just good at something, this is more of who I am.’ When you look for players like that, you see the resemblance [to that attitude]. Pat Mahomes, this is who he is. Tyrann Mathieu, this is who he is. They embrace the whole process; they embrace coming into the building; they embrace meeting new people; they embrace the grind, all the dedication it takes. So when you see players pop up on our roster like Patrick or an Anthony Hitchens, or a Tyrann Mathieu, that probably starts from that.”
Watching Brown during that game, Veach said, he realized that at some point, all good players face a choice in their development to become as good as Brown (who eventually went to Penn State and then the NFL). He said while playing football in high school and college, he noticed how certain players approached the sport. “It starts at that whole evolution. When this game became something different to you, and you decided everything you do respects everything in that process,” he said. “You can’t have 53 guys that eat, sleep, and breathe football. That’s impossible. But the more guys you get like that, the more trickle-down effect there is. Pat will have a trickle-down effect. Kelce will. Tyrann will. If there are guys who aren’t quite wired like that, they become entrenched in their operational mindset and become more like that.”
Reid credits Veach with discovering Mahomes and then pushing for him in the draft. When Reid and Veach worked together in Philadelphia, Veach also pounded the table for former Eagles star Fletcher Cox and was instrumental in scouting DeSean Jackson and LeSean McCoy. He has built the bulk of the Chiefs roster since taking over from John Dorsey in 2017. Dorsey drafted Kelce, Jones, and Hill, and he made the trade to move up to get Mahomes once the organization was sold on him. He was fired in 2017, and Veach was promoted.
When I asked Hunt which front office move in Veach’s tenure impressed him most, he pointed to the 2019 acquisitions of Mathieu and Frank Clark, who were instrumental in the change in the “talent and attitude” of the defense in the 2019 season. Hunt noted the Mahomes contract was in a separate category of achievement.
The salary cap can be massaged, especially by deferring money to future seasons, but the fact is the Chiefs had $177 in cap space—barely enough money to buy AirPods—heading into last offseason. The COVID-19 pandemic led to significant uncertainty about the salary cap last spring—a season with no fans seemed possible and there were estimates that the salary cap could decrease by tens of millions of dollars. The salary cap had been steadily rising for a decade, and now the possibility of an ice age loomed.
“It was a very unnerving time, not only for the Kansas City Chiefs, but everybody in professional sports. In the spring I don’t think we really knew whether we were going to play a football season,” Hunt said. “We had these important decisions, starting with signing Patrick Mahomes to an extension that we wanted to be able to address at that time. But we had such tremendous uncertainty. So a lot of credit goes to Brett for working with the player’s agents to come up with contract structures that not only rewarded the players appropriately, but also protected the club and let us keep the group together for a few more years.”
After Mahomes signed that extension, he texted Jones, who had been given the franchise tag by the team, and told him he left money on the table. Jones eventually signed a four-year, $85 million deal over the summer. Kelce signed a four-year, $57 million deal just before training camp.
“We knew at the very start that even though we were going to have some unknown in the cap decrease, and the next season was going to be a hurdle, I think we knew we would find a way to get Pat done no matter what,” Veach said. “Because his deal would be long enough that we would allow flexibility and maneuverability to work for a decreased cap the following season and maybe even a stagnant cap the year after. But we knew we would have length in that contract to spread that out.”
Veach used the structure of Mahomes’s record-setting deal as a pathway to make other deals possible. He said he felt good that the Chiefs could keep their core together because of how the deal was structured—Mahomes’s cap hit next season is the 16th highest, behind Jared Goff, Jimmy Garoppolo, and DeMarcus Lawrence. In 2022, his $31 million cap number is just seventh, roughly the same as Carson Wentz and $14 million less than Kirk Cousins. Two years ago, I visited Chiefs training camp and Veach told me that when it comes to the cap, nothing was ever what it seems. He appears to live by that and he’s right to do so.
Said Hunt: “The contract we did with Patrick is different in a lot of ways. What stands out to most people, obviously, is the size at a half-billion dollars. But the really unique thing about it is the 10-year commitment. That was something Patrick had to be comfortable with and something we had to be comfortable with. There was a lot of creativity that went into making that work for both sides.”
The more you talk to people in the Chiefs’ organization, the more you realize there’s just, well, I guess the scientific term is good vibes. Hunt said that stretches back to the unanimous buy-in to the plan Reid put in place when he arrived in 2013. Veach arrived with Reid as a personnel analyst. He’s worked with Reid since 2007 and said “there’s a level of trust and accountability” that leads to every person at every layer of the organization being empowered to do what they feel is right. There is, he said, no micromanaging. “Andy just allows us to get creative and think outside the box. It’s a cool setup now, how we operate, where Coach lets us do our thing. There will be times Coach wants to watch a player or two but it’s pretty much us coming up with a plan and letting Coach know ‘Here’s who we’re going to draft’ or ‘Here’s who we’re going to sign’ and it’s ‘OK, cool, we’ll make it work.’ That trust level is certainly a motivating factor for us and my staff. Again, there’s a cohesiveness where we know what type of player Coach is looking for. We know the type of players that succeed with him. It’s a cool process now for Andy at this stage in his career where he just has to worry about drawing up plays and doesn’t have to worry about watching receivers in the fourth round and the undrafted free agent market. It’s a good system.”
I asked Veach how his approach has changed, if at all, in recent years. He said from a player-evaluation standpoint, incorporating all avenues as they become available—analytics, technology or otherwise—is the way to innovate. This includes—and this might surprise remote office workers—using Zoom meetings to find new ways to become efficient. He said in past years, predraft meetings were more spread out and more siloed. “Prior to COVID-19, scouts would grab a few minutes, I’d have some time with them, coaches would grab the player at a pro day,” he said. Things are far more streamlined and collaborative on Zoom. “We all didn’t want to do those Zoom conferences, but we left them with a better understanding of who this player is, and both how the personnel staff and the coaches feel about him at the same time.” He mentioned Mike Danna, a fifth-round pick last April from Michigan, as a player whose stock rose in a Zoom meeting and in subsequent conversations among decision-makers, in part because all of them were on the Zoom together instead of holding separate meetings with Danna.
Part of these meetings involve analytics, and strong communication between departments on how to use the numbers and explain them, Veach said. He said educating all coaches on why they are looking at certain numbers has become key as the data points become a bigger part of the game. Veach, for instance, is a fan of athletic testing numbers and body composition. “If we are going to get analytics and going to use them, we are going to show the coaches a guy they didn’t watch as much [tape] on and explain to them why we are bringing them to their attention and say, ‘Here’s what years of data analytics suggests.’ It’s about educating them so we can have more substantial and beneficial conversations. So it’s not just ‘Watch this guy. Analytics say he’s good.’ We will say, ‘His lean body mass, over the years, suggests this. Here’s why certain performance numbers indicate this.’ It’s us educating coaches and coaches educating us in their vision and their plan.
“I’m not looking at a number and I’m the only one who knows what it means. No, you know what it means too. I want to explain why we’re watching. A lot of times you have people who use analytics and they’ve got a theory and they keep it to themselves.”
The topic returned to the big picture. Veach sort of chuckled talking about how often he gets asked about building a dynasty. He said he never thinks about it. “You know what’s great about the NFL?” Veach asked me. “It’s really the parity.” The 49ers, he said, picked second in the draft in 2019, made the Super Bowl that season, and then battled injuries this past season. He mentioned Cleveland’s “meteoric” rise this year. Every year is so different, he said.
“We’re going to have a huge challenge Sunday,” he said. “It’s going to be a great game. Hopefully, we win the game. But what we did two years ago, what we did last year, it doesn’t matter. You start from scratch. Now, we start from scratch knowing that we have the coach and quarterback in place, and we’ll have that for a long time. It’s a marathon. Our approach is, it’s very comforting to know we have the best at the quarterback position and the best in the coaching position. There’s going to be pressure and stress to protect Pat, give him weapons and provide both of them a defense that can compliment the offense. There’s always a challenge.”