The Chiefs' Coaching Contingencies in the Time of COVID
Earlier this week, former Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator and current head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles Doug Pederson tested positive for COVID-19. While Pederson is quarantined from the Eagles' facility, he continues to run meetings virtually — but has temporarily given over head coaching duties to assistant head coach and running backs coach Duce Staley. Pederson, who asymptomatic, will complete quarantine well before the regular season kicks off the second week of September. But his positive test raises questions about what a COVID outbreak could do to a team if it happened mid-season. The Eagles apparently had a contingency plan in place and were forced to make that plan public when Pederson tested positive.
The Chiefs no doubt have a plan, too. Andy Reid has a plan for everything. But since the Chiefs have not and likely will not reveal that plan unless and until they have to, let's take a look at the Chiefs' coaching staff and what their contingencies might look like if COVID infiltrates their locker room.
Who would take over head coaching duties if Andy Reid were to be sidelined by COVID-19? The obvious choice would be one of the three coordinators: offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo, or assistant head coach/special teams coach Dave Toub.
Toub already has the "assistant head coach" title, which is a pretty significant tell. He's also a logical choice to step into an interim head coaching role, were Reid to be sidelined, for a number of reasons. First, as special teams coordinator, he has broad familiarity with nearly every player on the roster. Outside of the offensive and defensive starters, most members of the Chiefs' 53-man roster play some role on special teams. DeMarcus Robinson probably hasn't spent a lot of time with Steve Spagnuolo, nor Dan Sorensen with Eric Bieniemy, but both have spent plenty of time over the years with Toub. That familiarity could prove handy if Toub were to step into an interim head coaching role. Secondly, special teams — while undeniably a very important part of the game of football — requires the least amount of coaching on game day. The Chiefs totaled 422 special teams snaps in 2019, approximately 26.3 per game. In contrast, the Chiefs rang up 1,050 offensive snaps (65.6 per game) and 1,105 defensive snaps (69.1 per game). Toub could conceivably absorb head coaching duties while also overseeing special teams. This would result in the least disruption to the overall coaching structure, and Reid famously tries to keep as many things the same week-in and week-out. Finally, Toub has a long history with Reid, getting his NFL coaching start as special teams/quality control coach with Reid's Eagles in 2001 before reuniting with Reid in Kansas City in 2013.
Like Toub, Steve Spagnuolo also began his NFL coaching career under Reid, but his relationship with Big Red goes back even further — "Spags" was one of Reid's first hires upon being named head coach of the Eagles in 1999. Spagnuolo served as Reid's linebackers/defensive backs coach for eight years before landing a defensive coordinator position with Tom Coughlin's New York Giants in 2007. In his first year as DC, Spagnuolo's defense held the 18-0 New England Patriots to just 14 points in Super Bowl XLII. Spagnuolo is the only member of the Chiefs' current coaching staff with head coaching experience, having served as head coach of the St. Louis Rams from 2009 to 2011, compiling an unfortunate 10-38 record, and leading the Giants to a 1-3 record as interim head coach following Ben McAdoo's firing in 2017. Spagnuolo's prior experience in the big chair would make him an enticing option for interim HC, but his elevation could create issues, too. Spagnuolo is the Chiefs' defensive play-caller; he could conceivably continue in that role while also serving as head coach, but might be stretched thin. Spagnuolo has the longest history with Reid, but has only been with the Chiefs for one season, and the team may prefer some of the institutional knowledge of Toub or Bieniemy, each of whom joined the Chiefs with Reid in 2013.
Bieniemy, the Chiefs' offensive coordinator, would be a fascinating choice. Despite the full support of Andy Reid, Bieniemy has been unsuccessful in landing a head coaching gig of his own, despite several interviews over the past two offseasons. Reid spoke glowingly of his OC before scheduled interviews with the Giants and Panthers: “There's a team out there – I don't know the team – but there's a team out there that really could use him. Being the leader of men that he is, you're not going to find people better than that in that category." If Reid were to be sidelined, he could give Bieniemy the opportunity of a lifetime: head coaching experience without being a head coach. Bieniemy would also be well-positioned to take over Reid's primary function on gameday: offensive play-caller. As OC, Bieniemy collaborates with Reid, passing game coordinator Mike Kafka, and the rest of the offensive coaching staff on the gameplan, and already has some experience calling plays in conjunction with Reid.
Toub has the title. Spagnuolo has the experience. Bieniemy has the endorsement.
What if Bieniemy were to test positive? This question is easier to answer, because Reid is already the primary play-caller. Certainly Bieniemy's presence would be missed during the week, but Reid is one of the greatest offensive minds in NFL history, and likely would not miss a beat. In EB's absence, Kafka would likely assume a larger role. After serving as the Chiefs' quarterbacks coach in 2018 – Patrick Mahomes' first year as the starting QB – Kafka was awarded the title of passing game coordinator in March, perhaps to discourage teams from poaching him away from KC.
Steve Spagnuolo took one of the worst defenses in the NFL in 2018 to an above-average unit in his first season as DC in 2019. He was helped by a dynamite staff of assistant coaches, including defensive line coach Brendan Daly, who had previously held the same position with the New England Patriots; linebackers coach Matt House, who had been the defensive coordinator for the University of Kentucky; and defensive backs/cornerbacks coaches Dave Merritt and Sam Madison, all of whom were new additions to the defensive coaching staff in 2019. The line of succession here isn't obvious from the outside, but elevating House – who has experience calling defensive plays at Kentucky – would seem like the most logical choice. House was defensive quality control and assistant linebackers coach with Spagnuolo's Rams.
But a case can be made for Daly, who also spent time with Spagnuolo in St. Louis, serving as his defensive line coach from 2009 to 2011. Daly has never served as a defensive coordinator, but was a defensive assistant and defensive line coach for arguably the greatest defensive mind in NFL history, Bill Belichick, from 2014 to 2018, during which time the Patriots won three Super Bowls. Daly's fiery personality has helped him attain a higher public profile than House – it also doesn't hurt that Daly's unit, the defensive line, is arguably the Chiefs' greatest collection of talent on that side of the ball, whereas House's linebacker corps is certainly the weakest group.
There's also the possibility – however remote – that if Spagnuolo were to test positive for COVID, the Chiefs wouldn't need to replace him. Perhaps he would be allowed, if asymptomatic, to call the defense from the press box, as some coordinators regularly do. Spagnuolo typically calls games from the sideline, but if quarantined from the bench, could possibly petition the league to let him move upstairs.
The Chiefs no doubt have prepared for any eventuality. They have a plan, but hopefully, no one outside One Arrowhead Drive will ever have to know it.