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You’ve heard the stories about how much Jared Allen loves Gunther Cunningham. Reportedly, he has a T-shirt with his defensive coordinator’s likeness emblazoned across the chest.
The feeling is reciprocal. Cunningham looks at Allen these days, fresh off a season in which he led the NFL in sacks, batted down more passes than any Chiefs cornerback save Ty Law and caught two touchdown passes, and sees greatness.
“He’s averaged I don’t know how many sacks a year, but it’s double digits,” said Cunningham. “He’s got a lot of turnovers. One day I said to him ‘you know, you could do something really great.’ And he knew what I was talking about. I was talking about Derrick Thomas.”
But it wasn’t always this way. There was a time, when Allen and Cunningham were practically at each other’s throats. It was 2005, Allen’s sophomore season in the NFL, when the pair had a confrontation in Minnesota during a preseason game. Cunningham benched his star defensive end later that year.
Even after all of that there were issues. After an embarrassing blowout loss in Pittsburgh during the 2006 season, Cunningham and Allen had “a little tussle.”
“Thank god for the middle linebacker (Kawika Mitchell), he might have saved my life,” said Cunningham. “It got pretty heated. He learned all the things he needed to learn.”
And Allen has learned – how to play the run, mostly. Cunningham once told the defensive end he had questions about him as a “one-way player.” But now things have changed.
Allen had more tackles (65) than almost every other defensive end in the league last season, including nine behind the line of scrimmage. Teams preferred to run the opposite way, at left defensive end Tamba Hali. Cunningham took notice, and believes Allen made his first Pro Bowl this season because of his growth against the run.
“He was always about the pass until this new coach came in,” said Cunningham. “Now, he went to the Pro Bowl because he played the run. He’s tough. You should watch him play. He plays all-out, every play. It doesn’t matter anymore.”
But Cunningham still sees unrealized potential in Allen. If he stays in Kansas City, he might one day be as dominant a force as Thomas was, Cunningham said. How does Allen reach that level?
“In order to do that, you have to be very smart,” said Cunningham. “You have to be consistent. You have to feel good every day. He knew I was talking about [Kansas City] being your home. There are a lot of guys that leave places.”
“You had a linebacker play the other day in the Super Bowl, and I did everything to try to help him be a player and he finally broke through. He grew up at camp, because it got bad. Kawika Mitchell could have stayed here. But there are things that happen. He went to the Giants for a lot less money because we moved on. Sometimes these players always think about moving on.”
And that is the million dollar (or rather, $8.879 million, according to the latest franchise tag number) question this offseason. Will the Chiefs re-sign Jared Allen? How do they re-sign Jared Allen? Does he even want to stay in Kansas City?
Cunningham believes there’s no question about that last one.
“I don’t think personally that Jared Allen is about the money,” said Cunningham. “I think he’s about this game. The way he plays, he’s about this game. All the other things are out of my hands, which they have to be as a coach. He has to deal with that, but I think Jared Allen really has to look to see what he wants to do in this game. He does it very well here, and he and I know each other very well. We’ve gone through a lot of things.”
But that’s as far as Cunningham will go. As much as he loves his best defensive player, he won’t get between Allen and the organization when it comes to contract matters. He said it’s not his place as a coach to take that role. That responsibility is up to the agent.
“All you can do as a coach is keep their minds right,” said Cunningham. “Let your agent do the talking. We can’t cross that line. There’s no way a coach can cross that line and start saying ‘I need this guy.’ If you do that, you’re stepping over the line. I call the defense. I don’t want someone stepping into the press box and making a different call. If you do that, you should do the job."
“I tell our assistants to help people grow, advise them the right way, but don’t get involved any other way. Jared Allen and I have too much respect for each other and I do for this organization for me to talk any differently.”