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The Endless Evolution of Andy Reid and the Chiefs Team He’s Spent His Career Building

The 60-year-old has done everything as an NFL head coach except win a Super Bowl. Now he has his best chance, thanks to a system and roster that fit his vision—and a quarterback who ties it all together.

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Mitchell Schwartz has built his life on being patient. The Chiefs’ All-Pro right tackle gave up an NFL-low 11 pressures this season, excelling behind a signature pass-blocking style defined by restraint. Schwartz is never in a hurry, never reacting too quickly to a rusher’s initial movements. On this Tuesday afternoon in November, though, he’s waiting out a more stationary target: More than 17 hours into cooking a smoked brisket, he declares that the meat needs a few minutes to cool. “People swear by 203 [degrees],” Schwartz says as he finally slices in, the bark crunching beneath his knife. “That’s the magical number. That’s when the meat gets super tender and broken down.”

Schwartz had placed a tin-foil tent over the brisket to control the cooling process—a technique he learned from actor and diehard Chiefs fan Eric Stonestreet, by way of celebrity chef Adam Perry Lang. Schwartz’s interest in cooking began during his time with the Browns, when he watched fellow lineman John Greco whip up mac and cheese from scratch without so much as glancing at a recipe, but his obsession truly took hold after moving to Kansas City. Schwartz signed with the Chiefs as a free agent in 2016, wooed by both a five-year, $33 million contract and the allure of playing for a franchise he’d heard about for years. Mitchell’s older brother, Geoff Schwartz, was on the 2013 Chiefs, and wasn’t shy about espousing the virtues of playing for head coach Andy Reid. “I think [Mitchell] understood if just from [me] talking about my time in Kansas City, it was a place that would intellectually be challenging for him,” Geoff says. “That’s who he is as a player. If he went to a place with a system that’s not as diverse as Andy Reid’s, I don’t think he’d have as much fun.”

The move lived up to the hype. In the land of barbecue sauce and burnt ends, Reid has constructed the NFL’s most high-octane offense. Kansas City averaged a league-best 35.1 points per game and 6.7 yards per play in 2018. Patrick Mahomes II, in his first season as a pro starting quarterback, passed for more than 5,000 yards with 53 touchdowns en route to becoming the presumptive MVP. Last Saturday, the Chiefs scored on each of their first four possessions against the Colts to set up an AFC championship game showdown with the Patriots. Through it all, Schwartz has been a key cog, at home in his place in Reid’s boundary-pushing system.

Reid was hired by the Chiefs in 2013 after spending a decade and a half at the helm in Philadelphia. In the past six seasons, he’s molded the offense from an efficient unit open to cutting-edge ideas into a virtually unstoppable machine. Ask those who know the 60-year-old innovator, and they make clear that Reid’s creation has been a long time in the making. This team offers Reid’s best chance at winning a Super Bowl. For a head coach who’s accomplished everything in the NFL except hoisting the Lombardi Trophy, it’s also a culmination. “It feels like this is something coach has been trying to do for 15-plus years,” Schwartz says.

Oakland Raiders v Kansas City Chiefs
Mitchell Schwartz and Patrick Mahomes II
Jason Hanna/Getty Images

The totality of Reid’s offensive juggernaut is unlike anything the league has ever seen, but its origins couldn’t be more familiar. At its foundation, Reid’s scheme is based on plays and principles that have comprised West Coast offenses for more than 30 years. “It’s the same stuff Bill Walsh did in the ’70s and ’80s,” Schwartz says. “It’s just done with more space and more window dressing.”

Bears coach Matt Nagy worked under Reid for nine seasons, first as an Eagles offensive assistant and later as the Chiefs quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator. He’s carried the standard West Coast staples he long used with Reid to Chicago: 22 Z-in, All-Go Special, 23 Texas. “What he’s done a really good job at is being able to take the core concepts of the true West Coast offense and basically dress it up,” Nagy says. “It’s the same concepts with just different ways to get to it.”

Reid has become known as an innovator and the NFL’s most gifted play caller, but there are aspects of the Kansas City offense that remain unchanged from the ones the Packers ran under Mike Holmgren during the early 1990s, when Reid was merely an assistant. “There are still plays, as coach always says, it just rolls off your tongue,” Nagy says. “If he calls a play Red Left Switch Tight Closed Z Right Sprint Right G Corner Halfback Flat, that is a play that he’s called and memorized over and over and over since his days in Green Bay.” As Nagy mimics the dialect with which would Reid rattle off the call, 13 words sound like they’re crammed into one. The West Coast offense is woven into Reid’s coaching DNA.

What has allowed Reid to thrive as the sport has drifted away from some of the more antiquated aspects of West Coast offense, though, is that he isn’t beholden to the system’s dogma. The simplest example is the proliferation of shotgun formations, both across the league and for Reid’s teams in particular. Other West Coast disciples have traditionally been opposed to the idea. As legend has it, the Packers staff, Reid included, encouraged Holmgren to dabble with shotgun looks when quarterback Brett Favre was at QB. During a Saturday walkthrough, the first snap sailed a foot over Favre’s head. The experiment ended then and there. “That’s it!” Brad Childress, who worked with Reid in both Philly and Kansas City, says as he recounts the story. “Fuck, we’re throwing it out! It’s done.”

Yet as more and more college teams transitioned to the shotgun, Childress—who served as the Chiefs’ spread-game analyst from 2013 to 2015, and who stayed with the franchise through 2017—says Reid began to see the benefits of embracing the approach in his own offense. Childress would watch spread QBs botch snaps at the Senior Bowl and wonder what the value was in forcing players to adopt to an increasingly irrelevant aspect of the game. “Everybody bitches about the spread passing game, that spread guys don’t know how to take a snap from center,” Childress says. “I venture to say this … if you look at Kansas City I bet they’re anywhere from 70 to 75 percent in the shotgun.” (The number in 2018: 79 percent.)

Two months after Reid arrived in Kansas City, the team accelerated its adoption of spread principles by trading the 49ers for veteran quarterback Alex Smith. Smith had played in a variation of the spread offense in college at Utah, and Reid began incorporating zone-read plays that took advantage of his athleticism on the outside. There were limits to how far innovation could go. When Kansas City tried to implement pistol-formation runs with the help of former Nevada coach Chris Ault, disaster ensued. But bumps in the road never curtailed Reid’s desire for new ideas. Over time, the Chiefs installed shovel passes designed by former Pitt coordinator Matt Canada, jet-motion concepts intended to create misdirection, RPO looks that cribbed from forward-thinking college offenses, and West Coast route combinations out of bunch formations engineered to exploit the rise of man coverage throughout the league. By the time the Chiefs kicked off the 2017 season with a convincing 42-27 win against the Patriots—a victory that featured a flurry of fly sweeps and a play lifted straight from Carson Wentz’s film at North Dakota State—Schwartz stood in awe of the scope of what Reid had constructed. “I think a lot of people find things: ‘Oh, this team does that, so we’re gonna try that,’” Schwartz says. “They don’t also do all the other things off it that make it look like [that play]. There’s cohesion with [Reid]. Everything works together.”

By marrying the core tenets of his coaching background with the most effective wrinkles of the modern age, Reid has transformed this season’s Chiefs’ offense into a masterpiece. It’s the product of an evolution powered by open-mindedness, and something that only could’ve been made possible with a fresh start in Kansas City. “He always thinks out of the box,” Nagy says. “He doesn’t have an ego. He’s not one of those guys who says, ‘This has worked forever. This is what we’re gonna do.’”

Kansas City Chiefs v Denver Broncos
Andy Reid
Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

Along with cooking, Schwartz’s other hobby is collecting and studying watches. A few hours before digging into the brisket, Schwartz was watching a video on how to spot a counterfeit Rolex while slicing paper-thin tomatoes for his smashed burgers. The book shelf in his den features an illustrated watch guide and a collective history of the luxury brand Patek Philippe. While watching Monday Night Football, he can identify the price of Titans head coach Mike Vrabel’s timepiece with one passing glance.

The crown jewel of Schwartz’s watch collection is a Zenith El Primero Chronograph, which was first produced in 1969. It’s designed to look like it features tourbillon movement—originally created to combat the effect of gravity on the mechanisms of pocket watches—but that’s a luxury even Schwartz can’t afford. “Those are super expensive,” he says. “This watch with that movement would be $100,000.” When a watch is composed entirely of in-house movements the price rises, because each mechanism of the piece is made by the manufacturer. The whole product comes from a reputable central source, so the process is controlled and quality is ensured. Schwartz understands the appeal of that type of system; after all, it’s precisely how the Chiefs work.

By the end of Reid’s tenure with the Eagles, he’d ceded much of the day-to-day oversight of the offense to coordinator Marty Mornhinweg. Reid’s role on the personnel side of the organization expanded in 2012 when former general manager Joe Banner transitioned out of the football side of the operation, and the promotion removed tasks like installation meetings and offensive minutiae from his purview. Philadelphia finished 29th in points per game that season and limped to a 4-12 record. It would be Reid’s last year with the franchise.

After being hired by the Chiefs shortly thereafter, Reid’s distribution of responsibilities shifted. “When we got to Kansas City,” Nagy says, “Coach said, ‘This is it. I’m diving back into this bad boy, and we’re going to get back into it. I’m going to do all the installs, and I’m going to be hands-on all the time.’ To me, that was so awesome.” Nagy had served under Reid for five seasons by that point, but 2013 is the first time that every detail and every design came straight from the best offensive mind in the business. He could feel the way these duties invigorated the then-55-year-old. In turn, that attitude trickled down to the entire staff.

Reid’s standing as the Chiefs’ main creative director also brought a sense of certainty. With the Browns, Schwartz was used to constant turnover. In his first four seasons, he played for four different offensive coordinators. For the second stop in his career, he sought stability, and that’s what he saw in Kansas City. “It’s the same head coach setting the expectations, setting the goals, setting the tempo,” Schwartz says. “Everyone works off him. There’s just so little variance in the day-to-day.” With Reid guiding the way, every aspect of the Chiefs’ workday is affected, no matter how small. Meetings are shorter, more straightforward. The expectations are known. “Typically in Cleveland, we had a first-year or second-year head coach,” Schwartz says. “You’re still trying to establish culture. You’re still trying to hold guys accountable. By the time I got here, that was all already laid out.”

Beyond the details, Reid’s level of ownership also came with larger-scale consequences. When he took over in Kansas City, his offensive braintrust included Nagy and Doug Pederson. Reid lost both to head-coaching jobs within a three-year span. As the Chiefs continue to smash records and pile up points, the stock of current offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy keeps rising, and he’ll likely be among the next wave of top hires. Yet no matter how many assistants depart, the Chiefs’ offense is built to endure with Reid as its figurehead. “You don’t ever lose his mind,” Schwartz says. “You don’t ever lose his structure, his ability to call plays, his ability to create plays. Currently, that’s the most important thing for an NFL team.”

At 60, Reid remains one of the most progressive, malleable thinkers in sports. He’s gotten to the doorstep of this season’s Super Bowl because now he has one of the most progressive, malleable rosters to go with it.

Wild Card Round - Tennessee Titans v Kansas City Chiefs
Andy Reid
Jason Hanna/Getty Images

The walls of Schwartz’s basement are lined with memorabilia. He has a framed photo of every NFL offensive huddle he’s played with. There’s a football gifted to him by the Chiefs commemorating his 100th consecutive start. And adjacent to the couch hang a trio of Browns jerseys: those of Greco, former Cleveland and current Atlanta center Alex Mack, and future Hall of Famer Joe Thomas. A handwritten message adorns each, with Mack’s consisting of a single sentence: Well ... it was never boring.

During Schwartz’s four years in Cleveland, the Browns went a combined 19-45. He played for three head coaches and blocked for quarterbacks Colt McCoy, Jason Campbell, Brandon Weeden, Brian Hoyer, Josh McCown, and Johnny Manziel. Yet despite all the turmoil, Schwartz still talks about his Browns stint fondly, thanks to an offensive line room full of teammates who became lifelong friends. “We had an amazing relationship, all of us,” Thomas says. “We had similar outlooks on the game, and I think we all had a great time being together.” Schwartz shaped his game by observing how Thomas approached film study, particularly how to pare down pass rushers’ moves and tendencies. Thomas even picked up a few tricks from Schwartz, like how to count players within the Browns’ zone-blocking scheme. “It speaks to the analytical brain that Mitch has,” Thomas says. “Even though he was a younger player at the time, he had such an interesting way of seeing things. He was a numbers and spatial savant.”

Kansas City now boasts the top pass-blocking line in the NFL largely because of a similarly collaborative dynamic. Offensive line coach Andy Heck came to the Chiefs with Reid in 2013, and has helped left tackle Eric Fisher (the no. 1 pick in the 2013 draft) and guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif (a sixth-rounder in 2014) earn lucrative contract extensions. Schwartz joined in 2016 and assimilated fast, elevating the unit while securing a reputation as the league’s best right tackle. This unit mastered the art of QB protection in Reid’s system, and that has allowed the coach to acquire the other players necessary to concoct his ideal offense. As his roster has caught up with his vision, the Chiefs have collectively kicked into a new gear.

With Smith at quarterback and Reid dialing up plays, the Chiefs’ offense proved efficient at stretching the field horizontally. Reid’s designs utilized every blade of grass from sideline to sideline, and Kansas City exploited the underneath areas of the field as tight end Travis Kelce blossomed into one of the league’s top receiving targets. But for Smith’s first four years in K.C., the passing offense didn’t take many chances. In 2016, only 9.4 percent of his passes traveled at least 20 yards downfield, according to Pro Football Focus, tied for the second-lowest rate in the NFL.

Kansas City has long placed an organizational premium on speed, though, and by 2017, the athleticism of its receiving corps became impossible to ignore. Speedster Tyreek Hill played a bit role as a pass catcher in 2016; last season, his snap count at receiver jumped from 416 to 793. Albert Wilson, who clocked a 4.43-second 40-yard dash at the 2014 combine, ascended to the Chiefs’ no. 2 receiver role, replacing possession wideout Jeremy Maclin. In a single year, Smith went from recording 521 yards on deep passes (25th among 27th qualified QBs) to 1,334, the top mark in the league. “I think he kind of had the ‘Fuck it’ mentality,” Schwartz says. “[He said] I’m just going to trust it. Let’s just go.”

This season, the Chiefs’ receiving depth chart has somehow gotten even more impressive. Chris Conley, who recorded a 45-inch vertical leap at the 2015 combine, played a career-high 856 snaps in 2018. In free agency, the franchise handed Sammy Watkins a three-year, $48 million contract, and Watkins has averaged 13 yards per catch. “I looked at our starting receivers, and Sammy was the slowest,” Schwartz says. “Chris was a 4.3 guy. Tyreek, crazy. De’Anthony [Thomas] is a 100-meter track champion. Kelce ran like a 4.5 at 260 [pounds]. So the fact that Sammy Watkins is quote-unquote your ‘least explosive’ skill guy is a whole other level of crazy.”

As Smith rained deep throws all over the field, the days of dinking and dunking in Kansas City came to an end. Reid finally had a collection of players who could stretch the field both horizontally and vertically. “I don’t think Coach invented all these plays in the past couple years,” Schwartz says. “I think these are things they’ve always had and they’ve always run. Just the personnel matches with the ability to run them.” This team’s personnel crucially includes the final piece: a quarterback perfectly suited to tie the system together.

Cincinnati Bengals v Kansas City Chiefs
Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes II
Peter Aiken/Getty Images

Reid developed eyes for Mahomes long before the draft process began. As general manager Brett Veach began digging through the crop of eligible QBs in the 2017 class, Mahomes’s name eventually slid across Reid’s desk. The love affair came fast. “Brett Veach and Coach Reid really did a great job of honing in on Patrick,” Nagy says.

What struck Nagy about Mahomes’s film from Texas Tech was his ability to conjure big plays as defenses narrowed their focus on the Red Raiders’ passing game. During his final season in Lubbock, teams routinely flooded the secondary with bodies and dropped eight defenders against him, forcing Mahomes to extend plays and create off schedule. He threw for 5,052 yards as a junior anyway. “There was a lot of scrambling in his cut-ups,” Nagy says. “When you scramble, you’ve got to be a playmaker and make throws that aren’t scripted from the pocket. You’re actually seeing that now.”

Schwartz remembers the first time he realized how special Mahomes’s arm was. The Chiefs were playing their final preseason game in 2017, and the rookie was leading Kansas City’s second-string offense against the Titans. Schwartz watched from the sideline as Mahomes faked a handoff and uncorked a throw that traveled 50 yards in the air to receiver Demarcus Robinson. “The guy had an incredible throwing ability,” Schwartz says. “No one doubted that about him.” What remained to be seen was whether Mahomes could handle every other aspect of being an NFL quarterback, and more pressingly, every other aspect of being a quarterback for Reid. Schwartz says any apprehension he had in that area faded when Mahomes started his first game, against the Broncos on December 31, 2017. “I was worried, playing Von Miller in Denver, ‘Oh, this [scrambling] quarterback’s gonna drop back to 11 yards, he’s gonna hold onto the ball,’” Schwartz says. “But man, he stayed within the rhythm of the offense.”

While offensive linemen can be uneasy about blocking for QBs who stray from the script, Schwartz learned that if Mahomes started darting around to extend a play, he typically did it to benefit his guys up front. “If you get beat inside, he’s going to flush,” Schwartz says. “If you get beat around the corner, he’s going to step up.” And Schwartz wasn’t the only person in K.C. who Mahomes swayed that December. The rookie’s performance against the Broncos made an entire organization ecstatic about its future. “I’m sure for everyone in the building, the way he handled himself all week, that made them say, ‘OK, this is the guy,’” Schwartz says.

When Mahomes took over as the Chiefs’ starter at the beginning of this season after Smith was traded to Washington, he displayed an even greater comfort within Reid’s system. He combined a steady, reliable presence with an uncommon willingness and ability to throw the ball to any spot on the field, at any time. “The smoothness, that was the biggest takeaway from the first few weeks of the season,” Schwartz says. “Yeah, he’s doing crazy stuff with his arm and outside the pocket, but he’s playing within the system of the offense. I’d imagine that, as a defense, made things a little scarier.” In Nagy’s mind, Mahomes’s mastery of the Chiefs’ system was accelerated by his year spent working with Smith. “There aren’t many guys smarter [than Smith],” Nagy says. “And when I say that, I’m not just talking about common-sense smart. I’m talking about Xs-and-Os smart.” When Nagy discusses Smith’s former role in the Chiefs’ offensive braintrust, it sounds like he’s talking about a peer, not a player. Smith provided Mahomes with the blueprint for how this franchise’s QB job should work.

From spending his childhood in professional locker rooms as the son of an MLB player, Mahomes also has an understanding of how to communicate with veteran athletes that few 23-year-olds can match. That’s helped him serve as excellent conduit for an ever-adapting football lifer. Mahomes is at ease among his teammates, and it’s led to a leadership role that feels natural. When Schwartz talks about his QB’s presence, there’s reverence in his voice. “If we’re up by a lot and we have to make sure we’re sticking to it, or if we’re down and we’re not playing well, he seems to always be the guy with the right words,” Schwartz says. “It’s motivating for everybody. It’s not forced. It’s not fake.”

As Mahomes has dissected opposing defenses en route to the AFC championship game, he’s invigorated the team and the sport at large. He’s helped Kansas City shed its ghosts of postseasons past, and has fans dreaming of their first title since Len Dawson carried Kansas City to glory in Super Bowl IV. More than that, though, he’s taken a process that began more than two decades ago and brought it to fruition. Over the years, Reid has perfected his scheme and his philosophy, and now he has the personnel to make both sing. This is the team he’s been waiting for. All that’s left is to win. “We’re doing things offensively that are pretty special,” Schwartz says. “There’s not much else you could ask for. You’d obviously like to be playing in the last game of the year and come away with a win. That’s the ultimate goal at all times. [I] didn’t expect to love this place so much.”

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