Common Ground: How the Chiefs navigated a polarizing 2020 inside their locker room

Terez Paylor
·Senior NFL writer
·8 min read

For the better part of Andy Reid’s two-plus decades as an NFL head coach, one of his core philosophies has been to encourage his players to let their personalities show. The belief is that the more authentic players are to their true selves, the happier they’ll be — and the better they’ll play.

During a contentious 2020, that has also meant encouraging an atmosphere where Reid’s players have felt comfortable sharing their feelings about society’s significant events. This is not always given in the NFL, where coaches and team owners are often deathly afraid of “distractions,” and with several studies showing Americans being more deeply divided across racial and socioeconomic lines than ever before there was the potential for locker room divisions along those same lines.

Yet, that’s something that any team intent on winning big in 2020, like the Chiefs, could not afford to let happen.

“As a head football coach, you try to unite, make sure people have an opportunity to express their beliefs and feelings like you would around a dinner table … and have an open forum and respect one another,” Reid said. “That’s what team is all about.”

Now here the Chiefs sit, with an even better record (14-2) than last year (12-4) and one win away from capping off a season — one with an extreme degree of difficulty thanks to COVID and political tumult — with a legendary ending.

So while the Chiefs’ “Run It Back” tour can be attributed to Reid’s genius coaching, Patrick Mahomes’ prodigious arm or Tyrann Mathieu’s brilliant ballhawking, it must also be said that it’s been nurtured by an inviting culture where players were encouraged to speak their beliefs and, most important, listen to their teammates’, too, in hopes of fostering a tighter bond.

Kansas City Chiefs players dump a box of confetti on head coach Andy Reid after the AFC championship NFL football game against the Buffalo Bills, Sunday, Jan. 24, 2021, in Kansas City, Mo. The Chiefs won 38-24. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)
Players credit Andy Reid (about to get dumped on) for keeping the Chiefs' locker room unified during a divisive 2020 season. (AP)

From the death of George Floyd to the Breonna Taylor saga, multiple Chiefs have felt comfortable speaking up about various social issues over the past year. This is the fruit of a positive atmosphere, Chiefs players say, one that has allowed a team of 53-plus men of different races, ages, socioeconomic backgrounds and personal beliefs to remain united in pursuit of a common goal: becoming the first team since the 2004 New England Patriots to win the Lombardi Trophy back-to-back.

“I think a lot of guys, most of us in the locker room, we all appreciate each other so approaching us and having hard conversations, it’s not really difficult for us,” said Mathieu, one of six team captains. “I think we’ve got a team that’s really focused on football and focused on winning. I feel like some of the other conversations we’ve had, it’s been fairly easy.

“It’s an open floor,” Mathieu added. “All of us respect each other, appreciate each other, and I think that’s the start. That’s how you continue to grow.”

Here’s one (very public) example of this “open floor.” In June, shortly after George Floyd’s death, two of the Chiefs’ captains — Mahomes and Mathieu — appeared in a video with other NFL stars demanding the league acknowledge that “Black Lives Matter” (which the NFL eventually did).

Mahomes is the reigning Super Bowl MVP and is widely regarded as the NFL’s next generational superstar. He co-signed on the movement, which was especially significant.

“I think the biggest thing for me was, I think it was just time for action for myself, it was time for me to say something, it was time for me to go into the community and do what I can to make the world a better place,” Mahomes said this week, when asked in retrospect why he appeared in the video. “I think that was built up of me getting more and more confidence of being able to play and be myself and show myself and people respecting my platform and what I say. So I wanted to make sure I did whatever I thought was best to help the world out and try to make everybody feel equal and everybody feel like they can achieve their dreams.”

Afterward, it was just as notable that Reid expressed pride that two of his biggest stars felt comfortable speaking up about something they believed in.

“I appreciate Patrick and Tyrann for what they did and standing up, making a statement that allows all of us to be in a better place where love is first and we can surround all of ourselves with great people and most of all, respect the people we come in contact with,” Reid said back in June, two weeks after Floyd’s death. “This world is a great thing … we’ve got to be open-minded and open-hearted to do this.”

Reid said the team’s culture on such matters wouldn’t have been possible without the understanding of team chairman Clark Hunt and other members of the front office, who also supported the efforts of Mahomes and Mathieu to join other stars like LeBron James for the More Than a Vote initiative (a voter registration effort) and successfully push for Arrowhead Stadium to be used as a polling site for the Nov. 3 election.

Lots of the coaching staff also played a role in fostering the dialogue necessary to help players process their emotions during such stressful times.

FILE - In this Feb. 2, 2020, file photo, Kansas City Chiefs' Patrick Mahomes, left, and Tyrann Mathieu celebrate after defeating the San Francisco 49ers in the NFL Super Bowl 54 football game in Miami Gardens, Fla. The Kansas City Chiefs began talking about a repeat before they had even left the stadium following their Super Bowl triumph. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip, File)
Patrick Mahomes, left, and Tyrann Mathieu say the ability to speak their minds during the 2020 season has helped in their quest to repeat as champions. (AP)

“A lot of who we are is based off the leadership we have in this building, and it starts with coach Andy Reid, Clark Hunt and it trickles to Spags [defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo] and [offensive coordinator] Eric Bieniemy,” tight end Travis Kelce said. “[Those are] guys that hold us accountable on all aspects and challenge the egos in this locker room to become better men and better football players.”

Here’s a (not as public) example: Shortly after Floyd’s death, Spagnuolo wanted to make sure his players had an avenue to vent their frustrations, especially since they weren’t allowed to congregate every day at the facility due to COVID precautions.

So they decided to talk about it. Like, a lot.

“We made it a point in our virtual meetings to talk about [Floyd’s death] pretty much everyday for a pretty good period of time,” Spagnuolo said. “I just wanted the guys to know it meant something to us as coaches — it wasn’t just talk. And I think our players just kinda ran with that, which I thought was really, really good.”

Mathieu, in retrospect, said those summer talks were essential to helping players process their feelings, with Spagnuolo’s willingness to take time to do so giving the gesture even more weight.

“If you’ve been around Spags, he’s all ball, he’s all about the next practice and the next rep, so for him to take time out of what he really wanted to do — which is teach — I think that says a lot about him, a lot about our assistant coaches,” Mathieu said. “All those guys were involved in the conversations, and for us, it made us feel so great to have that conversation. For our d-coordinator to open the floor, I truly believe we all felt like we were in the right place at the right time.”

Chiefs defensive lineman Chris Jones agrees, and on Sept. 24, shortly after a Kentucky grand jury decided not to indict police officers directly in the shooting death of Breonna Taylor, Jones spoke openly about his frustration, noting that “when you look at things like that, you expect consequences.”

Immediately after doing so, he also credited the team’s culture for making it easier to process and express his feelings on the matter.

“They’ve been free and open to what the players want to do … I’m thankful for that,” Jones said at the time. “Within the team, everyone is accepting of each individual’s ideas and that’s the beauty of this team. Andy Reid and the staff have given us complete freeness to voice our opinions. They’ve accepted that, they’ve listened, and they’ve tried to help us in whatever direction we’d like to go.”

Despite everything that’s happened over the past year, from COVID to politics, any of which could have driven a wedge into a weaker team, the Chiefs sit only one more win away from a legacy-defining victory. Players insist that couldn’t be accomplished without a top-down willingness to find some common ground and listen to each other in pursuit of their common goal.

“It keeps the chemistry of the team together,” Jones said this week. “One quote that the team goes by is, ‘Team first, team second and team last.’”

“Everybody can talk to everybody’s group. I go cuss the o-linemen out, hang with them, crack a few jokes. That’s just the nature of this team,”

And players are certainly grateful for that.

“There’s a culture here that’s — I don’t want to say strictly business, because we are every bit of a brotherhood and a family — but at the same time, we don’t let those little things divide us,” Kelce said. “With that, man, there’s just so much respect and so much love for the guys around you that it’s hard to divide us.

“And that’s why I truly believe that when adversity hits, you see us just gear it up another notch and get a little bit better, because we believe in each other and we believe in what we stand for.”

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