The only team with wins over both the AFC and NFC champions on its résumé in 2014? That would be Andy Reid’s Kansas City Chiefs, who, despite a confounding slew of injuries and suspensions, tended to play up — or down — to just about every opponent last fall. Lose to Tennessee at home, then crush New England; top Miami and Buffalo on the road, then lose at Oakland. Which explains the end result: A roller-coaster, schizophrenic 9–7 campaign.
A healthy Jamaal Charles would get 2015 off on the right foot. As would a happy Justin Houston, who put together perhaps the quietest 22-sack season — a half-sack short of Michael Strahan’s NFL record — in modern NFL history, a run for the ages overshadowed by the monster campaign of J.J. Watt. But a slate that features just seven true home games — a Nov. 1 date with Detroit is being played in London — only makes a challenging schedule that much tougher to navigate.
Charles says he was never more “frustrated” as a pro than last fall, but the Pro Bowl back still accounted for 1,324 yards, averaged 5.0 yards per carry and totaled 14 touchdowns — nine rushing — on one good leg. Not much was done to upgrade the position behind backup Knile Davis, who could see more work to limit the wear and tear on Charles.
Quarterback Alex Smith signed a big-money extension before the start of the regular season that set him within his peers but also put him the squarely in the sights of some Chiefs fans who see that cash as better splashed elsewhere. Still one of the smarter and most accurate (65.3 percent completion rate in 2014) passers in the game, Smith has, on paper, as many toys to play with as he’s ever had in Kansas City. Chase Daniel is gaining street cred as one of the NFL’s top backups, and he’s paid like it ($3.75 million base salary in 2015).
The Chiefs became the first team since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger to go an entire regular season without a touchdown thrown to a wideout. Jeremy Maclin, signed away from Philadelphia to replace aging Dwayne Bowe, is expected to change all that, and quickly. Second-year target Albert Wilson found his groove over the final third of 2014; incoming draftee Chris Conley has crazy tools; and veteran Jason Avant, a former teammate of Maclin’s and a longtime Reid protégé, knows this offense back to front. Tight end Travis Kelce (862 receiving yards, five touchdowns) was a revelation in his first full active season; if he keeps his temper and ball security in check, Kelce could be the best tight end to put on a Chiefs uniform since Tony Gonzalez was traded out of town in 2009.
A succession of injuries and Eric Fisher’s bum shoulder forced general manager John Dorsey to piece together a makeshift offensive line last fall, and it showed, as the total sacks allowed jumped from 41 to 49 while Smith spent many Sundays running for his life. The addition of Ben Grubbs (Saints) and Paul Fanaika (Cardinals) should stabilize the interior blocking, but center Rodney Hudson, now with Oakland, could be sorely missed.
Things you can count on: death, taxes and four grinding quarters each week from nose tackle Dontari Poe. The Memphis native led all NFL interior defensive linemen in snaps played for a second straight year, rolling up a career-best six sacks in the process. Poe should benefit from the return of veteran end Mike DeVito, one of two defensive starters to suffer a season-ending Achilles tendon tear in a Week 1. DeVito’s injury allowed the club to get longer looks at Allen Bailey (five sacks) and Jaye Howard (one sack) at end in defensive coordinator Bob Sutton’s 3-4 scheme. With DeVito and former reserve Mike Catapano reportedly healed up, the Chiefs have strength, depth and flexibility up front.
Stalwart linebacker Derrick Johnson was the other veteran to tear an Achilles in the home opener, and the unit never quite recovered from the loss of its spiritual leader — especially against the run, where the Chiefs seemed to really wear down after early November. Like DeVito, Johnson said in the spring that he felt at least 80 percent of the way back. Even at that he is a more reliable anchor in the middle than super subs Josh Mauga and James-Michael Johnson, special-teams contributors who were forced to carry the rope in No. 56’s absence. Mauga was re-signed and is expected to have the inside track and a starting spot, but don’t be surprised if rookies Ramik Wilson and D.J. Alexander work their way into specific packages.
Rather than pout over the failure to land a long-term contract, Houston took his grief out on opposing quarterbacks, stringing together a career-best in sacks and affirming his status as one of the most exciting pass rushers in the game. Contract issues still loomed in the spring, though, and the former Georgia star bristled when the Chiefs slapped the franchise tag on him in March, staying away from the start of the voluntary spring OTAs. Houston’s outside linebacker bookend, Tamba Hali, saw his production slip (11 sacks in 2013; six last fall) but endeared himself to Chiefs fans by taking a pay cut rather than trying to force his way onto the open market via a release. First-round pick Dee Ford was a non-factor during the first half of 2014 but could take on more snaps (and responsibility) if the 31-year-old Hali fades.
As stunning as the Johnson/DeVito injuries were, it was nothing compared to the shocking news of late November, when Pro Bowl safety Eric Berry was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma, ending an injury-plagued season on a somber note. While expected to make a full recovery, Berry may not be healthy enough to return to football fitness before the start of the regular season. With that in mind, the Chiefs signed veteran Tyvon Branch from Oakland and re-upped with journeyman Ron Parker, who can slot into any role in Sutton’s secondary but seemed to excel as a safety. Cornerback Sean Smith is coming off his best season (18 pass breakups) in Kansas City but was expected to receive a multi-game suspension for this fall because of a drunk-driving incident dating back to last summer.
De’Anthony Thomas was drafted to change games with his legs, and the speedster didn’t disappoint as a rookie, averaging 11.9 yards per punt return with a touchdown and 30.6 yards per kickoff return. Thomas is a perfect complement to Davis, who has run a kickoff back for a score twice now in two seasons. After an impressive spring and summer, rookie kicker Cairo Santos beat out veteran Ryan Succop and rebounded from a terrible regular-season debut to hit 25-of-30 field-goal attempts and 8-of-12 from 40 yards or longer. Punter Dustin Colquitt (44.6 yards per boot) is the locker room’s resident grey beard, having survived five coaches and three GMs since joining the club in 2005.
Peyton Manning is fading, but he’s 13–1 against the Chiefs; as long as he’s at the controls, the Broncos probably aren’t going anywhere. A schedule that pairs the Chiefs with the NFC North doesn’t do them many favors, nor does getting stuck away from Arrowhead Stadium from Halloween to Thanksgiving. But three of the final four games are winnable and at home, and the locker room believes in Reid. If an answer is found at center and if Kelce stays healthy, the Chiefs should be primed to chase a playoff berth again.