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KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The first steps out of one of the bleakest periods in the history of the Kansas City Chiefs started with one deep breath.

Clark Hunt, the Chiefs' chairman and CEO, stepped to a podium seven days into 2013, two weeks after the end of a season that matched the worst in the organization's history, and barely a month after 25-year-old linebacker Jovan Belcher drove to the parking lot at Arrowhead Stadium hours after murdering his girlfriend to then turn the gun on himself.

The organization was engulfed in despair.

As he began to sort through it all, Hunt looked inward.

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"It was a very hard year on all of us — my family, fans, the organization — both on and off the field," he said at the time. "I don't want to say there was any one moment where I said I have to do something about it. But clearly when you're not successful in the National Football League, it's a certainty that change is coming."

The changes started from the top down. The dismissals of coach Romeo Crennel and general manager Scott Pioli were inevitable.

Hunt began sifting through possible coaching candidates and put in a phone call to Andy Reid, who only weeks earlier had been fired by the Eagles. They set up a meeting. It was supposed to be just three hours. It lasted nine. A week later, Hunt announced Reid as the Chiefs' new head coach.

But before he did, he took a deep breath.

"I'm glad that 2012 is in the rearview mirror at this point and we're off to 2013," Hunt said at Reid's introductory news conference. "And in Andy we've got our first victory."

Reid's job wasn't to exorcise the demons lingering over the Chiefs. "My job," he said, "and the reason I was hired, is to produce a productive football team, one that can challenge these other great teams in the National Football League and win games. So that's what I'm going to start to do."

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Reid has guided the Chiefs to the playoffs in two of his three seasons. Their march to an AFC divisional-round game against the Patriots on Saturday started with a win over the Steelers in October that snapped a five-game losing streak and saw them run the table the rest of the regular season. They are riding an 11-game winning streak.

When Reid began laying the foundation for the team, building around offensive tackle Eric Fisher, tight end Travis Kelce, and running back Knile Davie with his first draft class, he made it clear what he envisioned. They weren't a 2-14 team slowly pulling itself out of the rubble. They were a team built to contend immediately.

"Ever since the day I walked in the building and from my first team meeting with him in our first year here, he made it clear that we're chasing the title," Kelce said. "That first year, we were chasing the title. That's why we came out with the 9-0 start in his first year in KC.

"It's one of those things where our vision has never dropped. We want the Lombardi [Trophy], we want the big dog. And right now, we're in a hunt to chase that thing down."

Changing the culture in Kansas City never meant changing how Reid built a team.

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He was structured without being strict. He instilled discipline without stifling individuality. Veteran receiver Jason Avant spent the first seven years of his career under Reid in Philadelphia. They were his most productive, as he caught 259 passes for 3,199 yards and 10 touchdowns. From 2010-12, he didn't catch fewer than 50 balls a season. When Reid left and was replaced with Chip Kelly in 2013, Avant's role and production changed.

Avant became a free agent in 2014, and his first choice for a landing spot was Kansas City with hopes of reuniting with Reid. It took half a season and a stop in Carolina, but ultimately he found his was back to Reid.

"You have to have enough freedom where players are feeling that they're individuals, but enough structure that everybody's disciplined, and I think he has that perfect balance of discipline and guys feeling a bit of freedom," Avant said. "He's not so strict to the point that you feel like, 'I can't breath.' But we know when it's time for football that we can be disciplined, but we also have our personalities and he wants to let your personalities show."

Reid's track record was enough to instantly win the confidence of his players.

"When he first got hired here, that was a good look," said linebacker Derrick Johnson, who has spent his entire 11-year career in Kansas City. "Everybody respects Andy, he's a proven coach in this league, and we were blessed to have him a few years ago."

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But Reid also connects with his players as people.

"One of the great things in my view of him is that he has a great feel about our team," said defensive coordinator Bob Sutton. "He has a great pulse on our team and he kind of knows what to do. Back off, increase, whatever it is. And I think that's part of his makeup, that's probably part of the number of games he's been in, probably postseason or not. But he's got a great feel, probably as good as anybody I've been around.

"I think a little bit of it is innate. I think it's just some people have that, other people don't. It doesn't mean they're not good coaches, but I think to me this is still a people's game and you've got to want to keep track of your people and you want to understand the people around you."

The Chiefs have been far from free of distress since Reid was hired. In November 2014, safety Eric Berry was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma. By July 2015, he was back on the field.

His mantra while recovering was, "Fear nothing. Attack everything."

"I got that from him," Berry said of Reid.

"A lot of the things that he taught me on the field, a lot of the values and little nuggets he gives throughout the day, those are a lot of the things that help me out in life," Berry said. "So it's truly a blessing to have him as a head coach."

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The three years since the Chiefs were at their bleakest point seem like a lifetime ago. Reid is a large part of the reason the franchise found new life.

"Each year is different," Johnson said. "You go through ups and downs on the field and off the field, and we definitely have been though that being in this Chiefs organization. We're tough-minded here, tough character, and it's coming out now."


Julian Benbow can be reached at jbenbow@globe.com.