Somehow, the Chiefs did it. After three miserable seasons, it all came together in 2010 for a remarkable season in which the team went 10–6 and won the AFC West.
Quarterback Matt Cassel was sharp. Wide receiver Dwayne Bowe was diligent. Safety Eric Berry lived up to the hype. Now, as coach Todd Haley enters his third season in Kansas City, having experienced one good and one forgettable season, the Chiefs face a lingering question: Can they do it again?
The team lost much of its leadership off last year’s playoff team, both from the sideline and the locker room, and most inside the organization belief that it will have an adverse effect. To make matters more difficult, the Chiefs will pay for last year’s success with a brutal schedule that’ll test what Cassel and Co. are made of.
Last year, the Chiefs’ playoff window theoretically opened for the first time in years. Now the team that overachieved will have to prove, under far more difficult circumstances, that 2010 wasn’t a fluke — and that the window can stay open.
Cassel’s emergence as a reliable passer highlighted his best season, but losing coordinator Charlie Weis added a dose of reality and skepticism that the 29-year-old quarterback can repeat his Pro Bowl season. After Weis announced he was leaving Kansas City to join the staff at the University of Florida, Cassel promptly had his worst two performances of the season in blowout losses to Oakland and, in the first round of the playoffs, to Baltimore.
Cassel demonstrated rare leadership qualities in the months since those losses, gathering teammates for offseason practices during the NFL lockout. The Chiefs hired passing guru Jim Zorn to be Cassel’s position coach. Even without Weis calling plays, Cassel has no excuses if he is to be the first quarterback to lead the Chiefs to the Super Bowl since Len Dawson in 1969. The offense now has plenty of firepower, and the team added receivers Jonathan Baldwin (in the draft’s first round) and veteran Steve Breaston (in free agency).
Add in running back Jamaal Charles, an emerging superstar, and the Chiefs appear to have a potentially explosive offense. Veteran rusher Thomas Jones has returned for a second season, and Bowe, a first-time Pro Bowler last season, looked sharp early in camp.
The Chiefs didn’t do much to improve an offensive line that had Cassel scrambling too often last season, and five-time Pro Bowler Brian Waters was released early in camp. Second-year guard Jon Asamoah will be forced into a starting role. The inconsistent Barry Richardson will play right tackle, and either 38-year-old Casey Wiegmann or rookie Rodney Hudson will be the team’s regular center.
Haley also has been quiet about who will call plays, but that seems to be the worst-kept secret in Kansas City. After Weis left, longtime NFL coach Bill Muir, the team’s offensive line coach, was promoted to coordinator, a position he held when Tampa Bay won the Super Bowl in 2003. He never called plays for Jon Gruden, and he has never called offensive plays in three-plus decades of coaching. If Haley calls the offense, it won’t be the first time; he helped Arizona reach the Super Bowl as its coordinator, and he called offensive plays during his first season in Kansas City — with hardly the success he had with the Cardinals.
Coordinator Romeo Crennel’s unit faces questions, too, albeit without the many jolts his offensive counterpart will have to overcome. Outside linebacker Tamba Hali emerged last season as an elite pass-rusher — he recorded an AFC-high 14.5 sacks — and was rewarded with a five-year, $60 million deal that includes a reported $35 million in guarantees. He had been designated as the Chiefs’ franchise player before agreeing to the new contract.
On Hali’s opposite side, the Chiefs lost Mike Vrabel, who retired and accepted an assistant coaching position at Ohio State. The question of who will replace Vrabel, both on the field and in terms of locker-room leadership, will be important for a Chiefs defense that seemed to make progress in Crennel’s first season. Andy Studebaker, an overachieving veteran, and rookie Justin Houston will compete for the starting job, with Studebaker’s experience likely giving him the edge — especially after Houston missed the first week of training camp while negotiating his contract. Houston has the chance to be an elite rusher.
Kansas City also gambled at an important position in the 3-4 defense, allowing linemen Ron Edwards and Shaun Smith to sign with other teams and leaving the Chiefs thin at nose tackle. The team signed 34-year-old Kelly Gregg, whose age raises questions about how long he’ll be able to help before rookie Jerrell Powe (a sixth-round pick) is forced into the lineup. Kansas City occasionally struggled to stop the run last year, and Gregg will be expected to improve that area.
End Tyson Jackson needs a big year, not only to justify his No. 3 overall draft slot two years ago and his monster contract, but also to convince the Chiefs that he can be productive. Jackson has been underwhelming in two seasons, and after an injury last year, he lost his starting job to Smith and sub-rusher Wallace Gilberry. Right end Glenn Dorsey improved, but he still has work to do to become a dominant lineman.
The Chiefs’ strength is a young secondary that seems to be among the best in the league. Berry made the Pro Bowl as a rookie, and cornerback Brandon Flowers is nearing elite status.
The team has plenty of speed between returners Dexter McCluster and Javier Arenas, but the pair didn’t deliver as many big plays as the Chiefs expected when they drafted both in the second round last year. McCluster is a small and injury-prone player, but his versatility is intriguing. Arenas seems to have a knack for returning kicks, but he’ll have to improve in his second season.
Kicker Ryan Succop’s leg is strong, but his accuracy is questionable; he missed six of his 26 attempts last season. Dustin Colquitt remains one of the league’s more reliable punters. He’s averaged over 44 yards per kick in each of the past five seasons.
The Chiefs are expected to take a step back in 2011, if only temporarily. The team is actually better now after a solid draft class by general manager Scott Pioli, but a schedule featuring New England, Green Bay, Pittsburgh and other juggernauts will make it difficult for Kansas City to keep San Diego at bay in the AFC West.
Cassel will need another solid year to convince critics that he’s capable of leading his team to greatness, and he’s not the only one facing questions. If it all comes together again, the team has a chance to again compete for a division title. If one or more players suffers a 2010 hangover, the Chiefs could find themselves hoping only to be a .500 team.
Outside the Huddle
Matt Cassel spent training camp learning under new position coach Jim Zorn, whose unusual teaching methods were noticeable early. Zorn believes passers have to be able to adjust to all scenarios — even, apparently, the need for a righthander to throw left-handed. Zorn, a former lefty quarterback himself, had Cassel throw with his left arm early in camp.
Breaston Rejoins Haley
Wide receiver Steve Breaston signed with the Chiefs, initiating a reunion with his former coordinator in Arizona, Todd Haley, who’s now the Chiefs’ head coach. Haley was hard on Breaston while with the Cardinals, challenging him to be more than a “special-teamer.” Breaston had his best seasons under Haley, and apparently the turmoil wasn’t enough to steer him away from the coach. Shortly after signing, Breaston told a Kansas City radio station that Haley is “not always a butthole.”
Third-year defensive end Tyson Jackson spent the offseason working on his mixed martial arts moves, working in an MMA dojo to stay fit and improve his point-of-attack skills. Haley, of course, loved this; the Chiefs coach believes in unusual training methods, and for the past two years has hired a tae kwon do instructor to work with players at training camp on hand-to-hand combat.
Pope Saves the Day
Veteran tight end Leonard Pope was attending a pool party in Georgia in June when a 6-year-old boy slipped into the deep end. The boy’s mother called out for help, and Pope rushed through the house and jumped into the pool, delivering the startled but unharmed boy to his mother. Pope’s cell phone was ruined, but the potentially life-saving act led the tight end to launch a campaign for children to take swimming lessons.
During the NFL lockout, Cassel gathered teammates for impromptu workouts at a Kansas City-area high school, and in June, most players gathered to take part. Cassel even offered to turn his home into a makeshift inn; rookie wide receiver Jonathan Baldwin spent several nights in a spare bedroom at Cassel’s home.
Wiegmann Keeps Going
Veteran center Casey Wiegmann continues to defy the odds and, at age 38, re-signed with the Chiefs for a 15th NFL season. He’ll look to continue his streak of 127 consecutive starts and more than 10,000 consecutive snaps while tutoring rookie Rodney Hudson.
Cornerback Javier Arenas, a former star at the University of Alabama, was in his Tuscaloosa home when an EF-4 tornado ripped through town and hit Arenas’ home. The second-year corner ducked inside his bathtub as high winds tore apart his home. He has since worked to deliver food and supplies to the storm-ravaged area, saying the experience — and residents’ response to the tornado — forever changed him.
Do as I Say, Not as I Do
Wide receiver Dwayne Bowe and left tackle Branden Albert, who have spent time on Haley’s bad side for reporting to camp overweight, worked with children during the offseason to promote physical activity. Bowe, who reported about 30 pounds heavier than his target weight in 2009, continually reminded Baldwin, the rookie wideout, that he’d be smart to show up in shape. “You don’t want to go that route,” Bowe said he told Baldwin.