Kansas City Chiefs 2009 Preview
For the past few years, it’s almost like the Kansas City Chiefs have been on a road trip. Their exceptionally-passionate fans have been riding along, bellowing a cacophony of gripes and complaints from the backseat. The fans viewed the road trip not as an adventure but as a means for reaching a destination. They looked up to the front seat and saw GM Carl Peterson riding shotgun as the navigator and refusing to pull out a map. Peterson insisted that he knew exactly where they were going.
Perhaps he did. But what really drove fans nuts was that head coach Herman Edwards was in the driver’s seat, married to the right-hand lane and petering along 15 miles per hour under the speed limit. When fans told Edwards to pick it up, he smiled and told them to be patient. When fans suggested a short cut, Edwards again smiled and preached patience. But patience doesn’t fly in today’s NFL. Especially when your taxpaying fan base recently helped foot part of your $375 million stadium renovation bill. At the clip they were traveling, the Chiefs would have reached their destination sometime around the debut of hover cars.
There was expected jubilation when team chairman Clark Hunt finally sided with the fans and relieved Peterson––who served this franchise admirably for 20 years––of his duties. Longtime Patriots front office bulldog Scott Pioli was given Peterson’s shotgun seat. Pioli immediately changed drivers, dropping Edwards off at a truck stop and tapping Cardinals offensive coordinator Todd Haley. Using a familiar New England map that showed myriad routes to prosperity, Pioli instructed Haley to pull a U-turn and make a sharp left. In the process, key veterans Donnie Edwards, Patrick Surtain and Tony Gonzalez were dismissed.
From there, the road trip became a cross-country race. The Patriot map told Pioli to instill a system––in this case, a spread offense and 3-4 defense––before acquiring personnel. Haley, erudite in the spread offense, was tasked with filling out a coaching staff. For offensive coordinator he chose Chan Gailey, a throwback with a predilection for power-running that will have to be tweaked to favor the pass. Haley also lured respected longtime NFL assistant Bill Muir to handle the offensive line. Defensively, Haley hired his coaches before even knowing who exactly would coordinate things. He eventually chose his fellow Cardinals assistant Clancy Pendergast over former Saints defensive coordinator Gary Gibbs (Gibbs will now coach the linebackers). At first blush, this appears to be an eclectic but well-constructed staff.
Kansas City’s next move was filling out the roster. Instead of gambling on the development of Brodie Croyle or Tyler Thigpen, Pioli went out and traded for a quarterback who was of that exact same mold (i.e. young) only had broken his NFL seal and proven to be the real deal: Matt Cassel. In uncharacteristic munificence, the Patriots surrendered Cassel, as well as linebacker Mike Vrabel, for a mere second-round pick (No. 34 overall). With an abundance of salary cap space (perhaps the only perk to inheriting a team with very few quality players), Pioli soon gave Cassel a six-year, $63 million contract ($28 million guaranteed).
By finding a franchise quarterback to commandeer a shotgun-heavy system practically tailored to Cassel’s skills, the other issues on offense––shoddy front line, weak receiving corps, unhappy star running back––became a little less bleak. Thus, most of the rebuilding efforts were then directed towards the defense.
Needing to fill a 3-4 and upgrade what was statistically and ostensibly the worst pass-rush in NFL history last year (10 sacks total), Pioli took a surprising––and perhaps brilliant––route: he built the defensive line. Instead of reaching on first-round pass-rushing prospects like Aaron Maybin, Brian Orakpo or Robert Ayers, the Chiefs selected LSU defensive end Tyson Jackson. This despite already having defensive lineman Glenn Dorsey––Jackson’s LSU teammate and last year’s No. 5 overall pick. For good measure, Kansas City’s third-round pick was spent on another space-eating end: Alex Magee. The theory is that a domineering front line will control the trenches against the run, backing opposing offenses into an even tougher corner on passing downs. This, in turn, makes life easier for pass-rushers. It’s an unusual approach but one that Pioli thought worked well when his former Patriots team won three Super Bowls after drafting Richard Seymour.
But aside from signing sagacious veteran linebacker Zach Thomas, Kansas City’s offseason activity stopped there. Gaping holes at nose tackle, outside linebacker and safety all but ensure that the defense, like the offense, will experience some speed bumps in 2009. But at least fans know the Chiefs are on the right track. And at least the car is moving fast enough for the speed bumps to no longer feel like road blocks.
Let it be clear: Matt Cassel is the right horse to hitch the wagon to. There’s a reason that those who knew him best coveted him most (besides Pioli, Cassel was pursued by Broncos new head coach Josh McDaniels, who worked firsthand with him in New England as a quarterback coach and offensive coordinator). Cassel is a 6’4”, 230-pound pocket passer with the athleticism to operate outside the tackle box. He’s accurate, and his deep ball, while sporadic, still classifies as NFL quality. More important, Cassel is an ace in the shotgun, which is a formation Todd Haley utilized more than 65 percent of the time with the Cardinals last season.
What many don’t realize is that Kansas City may be sitting on another quality starting quarterback in Tyler Thigpen. Yes, the 25-year-old was just 1-9 as a starter last season. But Thigpen improved markedly from week to week and showed the telltale ability to stare down a gun barrel and pull the trigger with defenders around him. There are no guarantees, but Thigpen could prove to be valuable trade bait at some point.
Regardless, the team belongs to Cassel. He must continue to build his poise––no way should he have 73 rushing attempts again this season––and get comfortable with his complex reads. It won’t be easy. Third-year wide receiver Dwayne Bowe, while strong and acrobatic, is no Randy Moss. And quick, speedy No. 2 receiver Mark Bradley is not even in the same solar system as Wes Welker. Plus, keep in mind, this offense as a whole is adjusting to life without its best player, tight end Tony Gonzalez.
In Gonzalez’s place is enormous Brad Cottam (6’9”, 270), a second-year pro who blocks well but, at this point, isn’t starting material. Cottam will work ahead of Sean Ryan and Tony Curtis, two solid career backups who all but ensure this team will frequently employ three-and four-receivers sets in 2009. Slot connoisseur Bobby Engram is an adequate third receiver and should probably start ahead of Bradley. But behind Engram are Devard Darling, Terrance Copper and Jeff Webb––all good athletes who have proven to be trivial contributors.
Receivers will struggle to get open for Cassel, which is a problem because this front five will struggle to protect him. Right tackle Damion McIntosh plain shouldn’t be starting in the NFL. He doesn’t have supple hips or quick feet. Right guard Mike Goff is gritty, but it’s the type of gritty that defines worn-out veterans who have lost their quickness. Center Rudy Niswanger gets overpowered too easily and could fall behind newcomer Eric Ghiaciuc (who also tends to get overpowered). Expect utility veteran Wade Smith to start in one of these three places at some point in ’09. Smith has minimal flair, but he at least plays with decent strength.
The left side of the line is much more promising. Left guard Brian Waters was offended by the new regime’s brash approach and stayed away all offseason, but the 32-year-old will be sharp come fall because he’s that kind of professional. Waters, a four-time Pro Bowler hasn’t proven to be quite as good with subpar teammates around him, but his combination of power and mobility remains extremely unique. Second-year pro Branden Albert continues to learn the NFL left tackle position. The former guard has rare athletic tools and diligently strives to develop good habits. He could be special one day.
Larry Johnson is looking to reclaim his post as one of the game’s top running backs. Injuries and off-field problems seem to be behind the 30-year-old. Johnson spent virtually the entire offseason with the team after his February trade request was ignored. He is a downhill force who must prove he can conjure yards without ideal blocking. If he can’t, expect last year’s third-round pick Jamaal Charles to see more touches. Charles, in fact, is worth utilizing regardless. He has excellent speed, elusiveness and acceleration.
The development of Clancy Pendergast’s 3-4 defense hinges on the front line. While it’s possible, don’t expect the two young LSU first-rounders manning the end positions to pay huge dividends right away. For starters, they’re both undergoing major adjustments. Tyson Jackson is playing the unfamiliar five-technique––and at the unfamiliar pro level, no less. Glenn Dorsey is moving to the outside. Secondly, these ends don’t have the benefit of a viable nose tackle between them. Ron Edwards weighs 315, but the ninth-year veteran is lethargic and has far too many bad habits. Third-year pro Tank Tyler showed signs of life last season, but only early on. It’s doubtful he has what it takes to draw and fight double-teams for 16 games.
But rest assured––the Chiefs have the right idea. If Jackson isn’t solid right away, massive bull-rusher Alfonso Boone can take some snaps. If Jackson isn’t solid in the long haul, perhaps third-rounder Alex Magee will be. As for Dorsey, failure seems impossible. His strength and quickness off the snap are outstanding, and he plays with unyielding intensity.
In this scheme, Tamba Hali now gets an opportunity to operate standing up. Kansas City’s utterly worthless pass-rush last season prevented Hali from posting great numbers (had quarterbacks been forced to move even a little bit in the pocket against this team, Hali would have easily doubled his 3.5 total sacks). In truth, the fourth-year pro has star potential. He’s dropping his weight to 250 and learning the nuances of run defense in space. The tutelage of venerable Mike Vrabel should help Hali. Vrabel is not explosive enough to be a playmaker, but with Demorrio Williams and natural defensive end Turk McBride being the only other outside options, the 34-year-old won’t come off the field much.
Speedy Derrick Johnson is at his best in space, though the Chiefs want to harvest a long-term solution inside. The idea is to let Johnson learn from 3-4 guru Zach Thomas and, hopefully, continue to build legerdemain as a point-of-attack enforcer. He has plenty of room to grow in this sense. Former Cardinal Monty Beisel provides valuable depth inside.
Most likely, the Chiefs will enter the 2010 offseason searching for two new safeties to place around their young cornerback building blocks. Bernard Pollard (strong safety) and Jarrad Page (free safety) are both okay tacklers but insufficient pass defenders. If the focus is on winning now, Kansas City may want to insert playmaking veteran Mike Brown in one of these spots.
As for those corners, Brandon Flowers looks like a gem. He plays fast and never got picked on as a second-round rookie last year. However, that could be in part because teams were eager to go at his fifth-round counterpart, Brandon Carr. The jury will deliberate on Carr until he hones his technique. His starting job is safe for now, as last year’s undrafted rookie, Maurice Leggett, and this year’s fourth-round pick, Donald Washington, are the top two backups. Leggett doesn’t play with top speed; Washington, while a first-class athlete, was brought here to defend the slot.
Kicker Connor Barth could not keep his job from Mr. Irrelevant, Ryan Succop. Barth was accurate but Succop has the stronger leg. Punter Dustin Colquitt has justified his 2005 third-round draft status. In the return game, Kansas City has been abysmal since parting ways with Dante Hall. The Chiefs haven’t had a punt or kick return for a touchdown in 46 games––the longest current drought in the NFL. Don’t expect a change anytime soon, as there are no clear return options on the table for ’09.
There’s just not enough talent here for a sudden playoff run. But that doesn’t mean the Chiefs won’t regain respectability. They’re building a sturdy system that demands a very specific breed of player. This season will be about grooming those players and identifying the ones to replace.
Expected Finish: 3rd AFC West
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