Chiefs CB Gaines has gone from getting burned to bringing serious heat
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — No curve, no mercy, no excuses. Phillip Gaines got grilled like a kielbasa at Lambeau Field, burned so badly by Green Bay’s clipboard holders that they could smell the Kansas City Chiefs’ rookie cornerback all the way in Fond du Lac.
"Oh, F," Gaines said when asked to grade himself on the night of Aug. 28, the Chiefs’ preseason swan song. "I mean, yeah."
Went after you, didn’t they?
"I would’ve went after me, too, (given) how I was playing in that game," Gaines said.
"Unfortunately, that’s the life of a defensive back: Sometimes, you get burned up. But you can’t let it hold you back; (you) just always have to get better. If not, then they’re always going to come after you."
Here’s the cool thing: Now they’re starting to think twice.
With cornerback Jamell Fleming scratched because of hamstring issues, Gaines made his second NFL start last Sunday against the New York Jets and more than held his own, recording four tackles and a stop for a loss as the Andy Gang churned out a methodical, businesslike 24-10 victory.
"Every game he’s getting in, he’s understanding the game a lot more," veteran Chiefs safety Kurt Coleman said of Gaines. "And he’s been able to make big plays, which gives a young guy like that a lot of confidence moving forward.
"And I think it’s very crucial, because in this game, especially at defensive back, there (are) a lot of things weighing against you. But I think if you’re able to make more plays, you understand (that), ‘Even if I give up one play, I can make that next play.’"
After an August of growing pains and more than a month of apprenticeship on special teams — Gaines has shined, at times, as a gunner — injuries across the secondary forced the coaching staff to push the rookie out of Rice a little farther into the deep end of the pool than they’d intended to before Halloween.
And yet all parties have managed to keep their respective heads above the water so far: ProFootballFocus.com gives the third-round draft pick a cumulative plus-0.3 grade through the first half of his rookie season for his efforts, with a plus-2.5 on special teams.
In fact, Gaines hits Week 10 with the third-highest overall PFF grade among Kansas City defensive backs, trailing only cornerback Sean Smith (plus-6.4) and safety Husain Abdullah (plus-4.3) as of early Tuesday afternoon. Even more interesting: The ex-Owl speedster’s first 144 snaps in the NFL compare pretty favorably with his more ballyhooed rookie peers such as Denver’s Bradley Roby (minus-1.4 after his first 186 snaps) and San Diego’s Jason Verrett (plus-2.9 after his first 112).
"That’s one thing that coach (Andy) Reid harps on most in practice," Gaines said, "(is that) football is an unforgiving game, so anybody can get hurt on any play. So when you’re in practice, whether you’re in or you’re just watching, you have to take mental reps — you have to know what you’re going to do, so when that time does come, you have to come in and perform. You can’t just come in and not do your job."
Gaines’ 144 snaps through the Chiefs’ first eight games are nearly three times that of first-round selection Dee Ford — who’s playing behind the scorching-hot outside linebacker tandem of Justin Houston and Tamba Hali — with all but three of those coming in the last three tilts since the bye week.
"I think one of the biggest plays that was a turning event for me was (covering) the Miami punt," Gaines said of the Chiefs’ Week 3 win, during which the rookie recorded two crucial stops on speedy Dolphins return man Jarvis Landry. "That was like my first real tackle in the NFL and it just felt good to be out there and making plays, you know? And once I did that, again, my confidence went up, and that’s just how it goes."
The snowball picks up steam, and before long, everybody starts rolling. A defensive backfield that’s been without Pro Bowl safety Eric Berry for most of the season heads into Buffalo leading the NFL in fewest passing yards allowed per game (199.4) and second in points allowed (17.2).
"The Green Bay game was a little rough on (Gaines)," Reid told reporters earlier this week. "I think he grew up in that game. He learned some things there in the preseason and that focused him in even more than what he might’ve been before."
Reid and defensive coordinator Bob Sutton trust No. 23. And, more important, No. 23 trusts himself.
"Again, I’ll go back to confidence," Gaines said. "Coming into the league, you see (that) you’re in the NFL now. You’re like, ‘All right, how am I going to do this? What am I going to do right here?’
"And you’re just thinking too much instead of just playing football. So now that I’m getting more play and just (meshing) with the team better, it’s just allowing me to play and not worry about where I’m supposed to be and all this stuff."
No curve, no mercy, no excuses. No turning back, either.