The Chiefs staggered to a 2-14 record in 2008, finishing in the AFC West basement and sealing the fates of general manager Carl Peterson and head coach Herm Edwards. New GM Scott Pioli quickly began the process of overhauling the franchise, but it’s going to take more than one offseason to clean up this mess.
OFFENSE (#30 total yardage, #24 rushing, #29 passing, #28 scoring):
The most obvious changes from 2008 are revealed when the offense takes the field. Last year’s leading passer (Tyler Thigpen), rusher (Larry Johnson), and receiver (Tony Gonzalez) are all long gone, and after initially retaining offensive coordinator Chan Gailey, new head coach Todd Haley decided to cut him loose just before the season began. (Sounds familiar, no?)
After watching Matt Cassel fill in for the injured Tom Brady and almost take the Patriots to the playoffs, Pioli decided he was the franchise quarterback the Chiefs needed, working out a deal with his mentor in New England to bring the fifth-year signalcaller west to Missouri and signing him to a lucrative new contract. Somewhere, Scott Mitchell, who parlayed Dan Marino’s ruptured Achilles tendon into a starting gig in Detroit a few years back, is smiling.
As one might expect, Cassel hasn’t had nearly as much success now that he’s no longer throwing the ball to Randy Moss and Wes Welker. He’s completing fewer than 54 percent of his passes and averaging three sacks per game, and was especially dreadful in Kansas City’s blowout loss to the Broncos last weekend, completing just 10 of 29 attempts for 84 yards and two interceptions before watching backup Brodie Croyle finish up the fourth quarter.
From the sounds of Haley’s postgame press conference, though, it sounds like he’s willing to cut Cassel some slack: “Matt’s experience-wise as a quarterback: not great. Every game is adding to that experience. He has his experience from last year and now he has his experience from this year in a pretty difficult situation as far as making some major changes early.
He continued, “I think Matt has shown the competitiveness necessary. He shows the arm, he shows the accuracy, he understands what we’re trying to get done. He protects the football very well for the most part. Now, we’ve had two hiccup games here and we have to go back to how we did it early in the year which is protect the football at all costs. That is a prerequisite to playing the quarterback position.
“Those are some of the things you can build on and as he improves in some of the experience areas – which are only going to improve with experience – you have a base to build on,” he concluded.
Dwayne Bowe, who appeared to be on his way to becoming one of the AFC’s best young wideouts, didn’t help matters any by earning a suspension under the league’s performance-enhancing-drugs policy. Fortunately for the Chiefs, veteran Chris Chambers suddenly became available in early November, and slid neatly into the starting lineup during Bowe’s absence. The rest of the receiving corps is average, though, and tight end Leonard Pope isn’t making anyone forget about the future Hall of Famer he replaced.
After the team finally had enough of Larry Johnson’s act, first suspending and then releasing the former franchise back, Haley is counting on Jamaal Charles to carry the load at that position. The 2008 third-rounder is averaging almost five yards per carry and has the Chiefs’ only three rushing touchdowns, but with backup Kolby Smith on injured reserve, there’s an untested group behind him on the depth chart.
DEFENSE (#31 total yardage, #27 rushing, #28 passing, #30 scoring):
As one might have expected from Pioli (and the Belichickian school of thought), the Chiefs switched to a 3-4 defense and used their first-round pick on a lineman.
“It is completely different, it’s obviously a different coach, a different scheme, a lot of different players. But there’s definitely talent and we’re going to have our work cut out for us,” Ryan Fitzpatrick said earlier this week. “We’re just going to try to be physical and run the ball; it’s what we’ve been trying to do all year. It’s definitely going to be a challenge for us, but we’re looking forward to it.”
On paper, reuniting LSU teammates Tyson Jackson and Glenn Dorsey, both top-five picks, should have meant a significant improvement upon the pitiful 10 sacks the Chiefs registered in 2008. The reality: Dorsey is miscast as a 3-4 end, and the starting defensive line (including old friend Ron Edwards at nosetackle) has combined for exactly zero takedowns this season.
The outlook is a little more promising for another former first-rounder. Tamba Hali, making the switch to outside linebacker, leads the Chiefs with 6.5 sacks and has also forced four fumbles. After coming to Kansas City in the Cassel trade, Mike Vrabel tops the depth chart on the other side. The 13th-year vet is showing signs of age and nagging injury, though, and could give way to backup Andy Studebaker sooner rather than later. Demorrio Williams and Corey Mays start on the inside, while Derrick Johnson appears to be yet another top pick who has fallen out of favor with the current staff.
Second-year corners Brandon Flowers and Brandon Carr were immediately thrown into the starting lineup as rookies and emerged with their share of scorch marks. Flowers is the better of the two, showing signs of developing into a top-flight cover man, but may miss this game with a shoulder injury. If he can’t go, journeymen Travis Daniels and Mike Richardson and rookie Donald Washington are in the mix to replace him. Veterans Mike Brown and Jon McGraw start at safety.
Rookie kicker Ryan Succop earned the title of “Mr. Irrelevant” as the final pick in this year’s draft, but has been anything but that for a team struggling to find the end zone. He’s 18-for-22 on field goal attempts, including just one miss in 17 tries from inside 40 yards.
Dustin Colquitt might just be the Chiefs’ MVP this year, averaging 41.4 net yards and placing a league-high 32 of 76 punts inside the opponents’ 20-yard line with just four touchbacks.
Charles was handling kickoff returns while backing up Johnson, but following his ascension to the starting offense, rookie wide receiver Quinten Lawrence was signed from the practice squad to assume those duties.
This game sets up as a Draft Bowl special between two struggling teams. (Of course, that’s what some people said about the Detroit-Cleveland matchup a couple of weeks ago, and that ended up being an entertaining game.) The banged-up Bills line would seem to give Kansas City an edge, but is their pass rush good enough to take advantage of it? On the other side of the ball, Terrance McGee’s return should help shut down Cassel and Co., but can the front seven stop Charles?
The latest odds have the Chiefs as 1.5-point-favorites - a pick ‘em, in other words. I’ll pick a Bills win, but without any real sense of conviction.
*NOTE: Babb is absent from Chiefs beat coverage this week due to company-mandated furloughs. Boo, McClatchy.
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