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Can Andy Reid and the Chiefs repeat last season's success?
The “nuclear” option — removing Scott Pioli as general manager and Romeo Crennel as coach and jettisoning the entire stable of quarterbacks — turned the Kansas City Chiefs into Godzilla in 2013, a Cinderella with teeth. The franchise buried arguably the worst season in team history (2–14) in 2012 by rebounding to a historic, cathartic 11–5 record and an AFC Wild Card berth last fall. The Chiefs rolled to a 9–0 start and became the first NFL team in the modern era to open a season with nine straight victories after winning two or fewer games the year before. Even a deflating 45–44 loss at Indianapolis in the first round of the playoffs couldn’t take all the shine off of coach Andy Reid’s and general manager John Dorsey’s first full season at the wheel. What was supposed to be a transition year instead turned into something magical. But with a slate in 2014 that is the NFL’s seventh-toughest, that magic could be hard to recapture, at least in the short term.
When Reid was hired, many Chiefs fans worried that the pass-happy coach might be the worst thing to happen to running back Jamaal Charles. They aren’t worried anymore. Whether Charles was lined up in the backfield, in the slot, or even out wide, Reid made it a point to get the ball into the hands of Kansas City’s best playmaker, who led all NFL backs in rushing touchdowns (12) and total scores (19).
Reid and Dorsey blew up roughly half the roster left from 2012, but the positional changeover was most dramatic under center, where every incumbent was off the roster by the end of August. Alex Smith, acquired from San Francisco for two second-round picks, picked right back up where he left off in 2012, throwing for 23 touchdowns while setting the Chiefs’ single-season rushing record by a quarterback with 431 yards on the ground. His numbers and efficiency improved dramatically over the final six weeks of the season, and Smith feels even more comfortable with a second full year of running Reid’s West Coast scheme.
If there was a criticism of the Chiefs’ new ace signal-caller, it was the strength of his arm and propensity for check-downs and dumps. In Smith’s defense, the downfield passing game was hindered by a rash of injuries at tight end, a staple of Reid’s offenses, and the aging of star wideout Dwayne Bowe, who at 29 posted the worst full regular season of his NFL career. Bowe also is suspended for the season opener against Tennessee for a violation of the NFL's substance-abuse policy. The weapons available to Smith this fall are largely the same as they were last season — and the starters at receiver, Bowe and Donnie Avery (40 catches in 2013), are a year older. If there’s a silver lining, it’s the expected return to health of the club’s top two tight ends, Anthony Fasano and second-year man Travis Kelce. Another bonus: Rookie speed merchant De’Anthony Thomas, a former track star at Oregon, is expected to be used as a hybrid slotback/tailback type, much the way the departed Dexter McCluster thrived this past fall.
But the biggest challenge for Smith is navigating behind a reconfigured offensive line. The Chiefs lost three starters to free agency, including left tackle Branden Albert. Former No. 1 pick Eric Fisher, who played an injury-marred and inconsistent right tackle as a rookie last year, has been penciled in as Albert’s replacement, while super-sub Donald Stephenson is expected to hold down Fisher’s old spot on the right side.
After years of wandering, the Chiefs found their identity early and ran with it — an aggressive, attacking, man-press, 3-4 defensive front that was beloved in Kansas City. Through the first six games of the season, the Chiefs recorded 31 sacks and were on a pace to push the ’84 Bears’ single-season record of 72. But as the opponents and signal-callers improved over the final seven weeks of the regular season, the sacks started to dry up.
The pieces remain in place for another strong unit, starting with a spine up the middle that’s built around three Pro Bowlers: nose tackle Dontari Poe, linebacker Derrick Johnson and safety Eric Berry. Poe shed more than 20 pounds after a so-so rookie season, recording 4.5 sacks while emerging as an every-down defensive lineman and one of the league’s top disruptive forces. Johnson, who’ll turn 32 in November, remains one of the steadier tacklers in the AFC. After a bounce-back season that saw him run two interceptions back for touchdowns, Berry could be slotted in at either his familiar strong safety slot or try his hand at replacing the departed Kendrick Lewis at free safety. Reid and coordinator Bob Sutton are excited to see what second-year man Sanders Commings can do at safety after a broken collarbone wiped out his rookie season entirely. The Chiefs re-signed Husain Abdullah as a special teams ace and nickel back and figure to give him the first long look as a candidate to replace Lewis in the lineup.
But the defense will probably go, as it did last autumn, as the players on the edge go — the outside linebackers who rush the passer and the cornerbacks who are often left to cover one-on-one. The quarterback-seeking combo of outside linebackers Justin Houston and Tamba Hali was among the best in the NFL last year, combining for 22 sacks, but both missed significant time over the second half of the season to injuries. When Houston and Hali are at full speed, the Chiefs are dangerous defensively, but when they’re hurt or absent, things can get ugly. Reid and Dorsey sought to remedy that in the draft by selecting former Auburn defensive end Dee Ford late in the first round.
Dorsey likes tall corners who can motor, and he drafted 6'1" Phillip Gaines to join a rotation that includes 6'3" Sean Smith, 6'2" Marcus Cooper and 6'0" Ron Parker.
Under the guidance of new coordinator Dave Toub and then-assistant Kevin O’Dea, Kansas City’s special teams units went from an NFL non-factor to one of the league’s most potent — two punt returns for touchdowns, two kick returns for touchdowns and a new NFL single-season record for the highest kickoff return average (29.9). Punter Dustin Colquitt will be looking to complement the Chiefs’ aggressive defense again after dropping 40.2 percent of his efforts inside the opposition’s 20-yard-line last fall. Kicker Ryan Succop was less of a sure thing, but he’ll get plenty more opportunities and has Reid’s trust. The Chiefs’ return game was a revelation last fall — and with Thomas or CFL import Weston Dressler likely to replace McCluster on punts, a team strength just might have gotten even stronger.
The Chiefs were expected to bounce back in a big way in their first season under Reid and Dorsey, but last season’s nine-win improvement exceeded even the most optimistic expectations. The pass rush should still be excellent, the quarterback slot is stabilized (for now), and Charles is arguably the best all-around tailback in the AFC. But a brutal schedule and a slew of free-agent losses point to a small step back before the Chiefs push forward again.