Kansas City closed 2015 on a team-record 10-game winning streak after a 1-5 start. The positive vibes even continued into the franchise’s least favorite month — January — with a 30-0 demolition of the Houston Texans during Wild Card weekend, the Chiefs’ first postseason victory since the winter of 1993-94.
It represented the club’s second playoff berth in three years under Andy Reid. But success led to noticeable staff upheaval for the first time in Reid’s AFC West tenure. Offensive coordinator Doug Pederson left for Philadelphia (and took quarterback Chase Daniel with him), with Brad Childress and Matt Nagy promoted to co-offensive coordinators in his stead.
On the plus side, more than a few familiar faces are back in the fold, including safety Eric Berry, who went from crushing cancer to cracking opposition receivers in miraculous time, and tailback Jamaal Charles, who tore his ACL in Week 5 against Chicago and returns to an offense that somehow managed to survive without him. With three out of the last four games scheduled for Arrowhead Drive — including a Christmas Day tussle with Denver — the Chiefs are poised (on paper) for another closing kick.
Kansas City went 11-1 in Charles’ absence and won its first playoff contest in a generation, showing that there might be life after No. 25. A transcendent talent — his 5.5 career average yards per carry ranks second among active players — and a red-zone magician when healthy, Charles turns 30 in December and is coming off his second major knee surgery in five years. Understudies Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware combined for 1,037 rushing yards and 11 TDs, and GM John Dorsey re-signed both, which means the Chiefs have serious depth — and, possibly, some very serious questions about their featured back going forward.
The legs that helped to pick up much of the slack with Charles’ absence belonged to quarterback Alex Smith, who set career highs at age 31 in rushes (84), rushing yards (498) and yards per carry (5.9) while continuing to move the chains and play it safe. Smart, athletic and risk-averse, Smith continues to give both his fans and critics fresh material.
The veteran built an almost instant rapport with new wideout Jeremy Maclin, who caught eight TDs (after the Chiefs had zero TDs from their wide receivers in 2014) and synced with Smith well enough to turn 49 of his 87 catches (56.3 percent) into first downs. The Chiefs raced to sign the former University of Missouri standout as their new No. 1 wideout, to the point the NFL accused the franchise of tampering in their contact during the ’15 free agency period, charges that cost the club a third-round pick this spring. Tight end Travis Kelce continues to improve his ball protection while remaining a matchup nightmare up the seam. The search for a consistent threat at the No. 2 wideout spot will likely continue through the late summer.
Left tackle Eric Fisher offered glimpses of the ceiling hoped for as the No. 1 overall pick in 2013 — enough that the Chiefs picked up his fifth-year option. Mitch Morse, a collegiate tackle, made a solid transition to NFL center and looks to be an anchor. Underrated Mitchell Schwartz signed as a free agent to shore up what had been a shaky rotation at right tackle. The number of sacks allowed dipped slightly last fall (from 49 to 46), although Smith’s legs have helped to cover for some of the unit’s shakier moments.
Bookend outside linebackers Justin Houston and Tamba Hali are both recovering from recent knee surgeries, casting doubt on the defense’s most assured asset — its pass-rushing prowess. Dorsey expects Houston to be back at full strength by training camp. Hali, who turns 33 in the fall, had surgery to repair a broken thumb and is coming off a season in which he failed to reach double digits in sacks (6.5) for the third time in four years. Houston’s health puts even more onus on former first-round selection Dee Ford, who took a decent step forward in his second season (four sacks) but will need to take another.
The Chiefs came out of the spring with fewer concerns at inside linebacker, save for Derrick Johnson’s age — the club’s all-time leading tackler turns 34 in November — and the matter of an eventual succession plan. Johnson missed all but the first two quarters of the 2014 season with a torn Achilles and spent last year playing as if he was making up for lost time (116 tackles, four sacks, two picks). Up front, the Chiefs lost one of their better veteran stoppers in defensive end Mike DeVito, who retired in April at age 31. Jaye Howard developed into a rotation standout in place of the injured Dontari Poe on the interior and a good partner with the underrated Allen Bailey at end (4.5 sacks).
Berry made a heartwarming return less than eight months after being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The Georgia native almost picked right back up where he left off (61 tackles, 10 passed defended, two interceptions) en route to a Pro Bowl (his fourth) and NFL Comeback Player of the Year honors. No. 29’s return solidifies a secondary that has to reload after veteran Sean Smith left for Oakland and safety Husain Abdullah retired. Marcus Peters was an impact rookie, picking off eight balls, breaking up 18 others and returning two picks for scores. He helped the Chiefs lead the AFC in turnover margin (plus-14). Smith’s departure opens a door for cornerback Phillip Gaines, who showed promise before falling to a season-ending knee injury after three games.
The Chiefs’ favorite returns weapon, speedster De’Anthony Thomas, is now a what-if; the former Oregon Duck (7.8 yards per punt runback) was placed on the reserve/non-football illness in late December. In the spring, Dorsey was reportedly shopping kick returner/running back Knile Davis (25.1 yards per return), who found himself marginalized largely to special-teams appearances despite Charles’ early-season injury. Maclin and Frankie Hammond can return punts in a pinch, and the drafting of return man Tyreek Hill might not portend well for the short-term futures of either Thomas or Davis. Veteran punter Dustin Colquitt (44.4 per attempt) still has the kind of leg you can set your watch to. And young kicker Cairo Santos is hoping for slightly less work and even more consistency.
Is it time for a new sheriff in the AFC West? The Chiefs seem poised to step into the divisional breach, although Denver’s defense will have something to say about that. If 2015’s schedule was weird and winding, with a November “home” game in London keeping the club away from Arrowhead for more than a month, then 2016’s dance card is more straightforward — though no less challenging. Smith and Johnson aren’t getting any younger, so time is of the essence. If the Chiefs can match the ball-hawking form they showcased the second half of last season, that time might be now.