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2009 team preview: Kansas City Chiefs
"Change is hard, change is painful, change is not easy," said Haley, who made things even harder Aug. 31 when he fired offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Chan Gailey. "We're going to do everything here at the Kansas City Chiefs that we can to win championships. Right now, we're trying to lay the foundation for where we want to get to."
Haley decided the foundation wasn't going to set correctly with Gailey running the offense. Without detailing reasons for his decision, the head coach made it plain that his offensive approach and that of the highly respected Gailey did not match.
That may explain problems the offense has had all year, going back to offseason practices and mini-camps in April. New quarterback Matt Cassel and the passing game had real problems being productive and efficient during the preseason schedule. The situation was not helped when Cassel went down Aug. 29 with a sprained MCL in his left knee.
Last year as offensive coordinator of the Arizona Cardinals, Haley called plays for a high-powered offense with one of the best passing games in the NFL. The Cardinals were good enough to reach the Super Bowl. Haley knows he's not in Arizona anymore. There's no Larry Fitzgerald. There's no Anquan Boldin. Heck, there's not even a Steve Breaston.
"I don't think we're going to be a high-powered group right now," Haley said. "We're going to have to find ways to win games, and running the football is something we're going to have to be able to do."
That will require better play from the team's backs and offensive line than what the Chiefs had last year (less than 1,400 yards from their running backs). In the preseason, the running game was not consistently effective whether Larry Johnson, Jamaal Charles or Jackie Battle was carrying the ball. Johnson has worked hard on his body and his attitude, and he's been a reliable and consistent presence for Haley and the offense since March.
But Johnson will turn 30 in November; this is not the same running back that set an NFL record for carries (416) in 2006. In two seasons since, he has a combined 351 carries.
"I'm ready to do whatever the coaches want to do," said Johnson. "I think we can run the ball. I know we can. Split up the carries any way and I think we have guys who can make yards."
With All-Pro tight end Tony Gonzalez traded to Atlanta, who will catch the ball? Wide receiver Dwayne Bowe fought his way out of Haley's doghouse during the preseason by improving his effort and focus. But after him, the cupboard is not full of experienced or talented receivers. The closest the Chiefs picked up is veteran Bobby Engram, in his 14th season at 36 years old (7,690 career receiving yards).
Last year the Chiefs set an NFL record for pass-rushing futility, getting just 10 sacks in 16 games. Defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast was not given any great pass-rushing talent by Pioli and his personnel staff, as the team added only 34-year-old outside linebacker Mike Vrabel, who has 55 sacks in 12 years in the league.
Pendergast has changed the team's defensive approach, running under the 3-4 scheme on first down and then using a 2-4-5 in most nickel situations. Blitzing and confusion are going to be keys to the Chiefs getting pressure on the passer.
"It's more than sacks," Vrabel said. "It's making the quarterback uncomfortable and getting him out of his rhythm. That can be as effective."
Learning how to win dominates everything.
"We need to learn how to win," said Haley. "We haven't shown the ability to win or finish or do the things we had to do to have a chance. That's where we are at as a team."
COACHING: Todd Haley, 1st year, 1st with Chiefs.
REMEMBERING: 2008 record: 2-14 (4th in AFC West).
PREDICTING: 2009 regular season record: 5-11 (3rd in AFC West).
Notes and Quotes
--There was a time when Chiefs home games at Arrowhead Stadium were sold out and there was a waiting list for season tickets. On the secondary market, seats would go for double the face value. Those days are gone. None of the Chiefs' eight regular-season home games is currently sold out. The waiting list is long gone and things are so bad on the secondary market, one Kansas ticket broker was offering tickets to the team's preseason game against Seattle for $10.
BY THE NUMBERS: 16 - that's the uniform number QB Matt Cassel wanted to wear, but couldn't get because it's retired in honor of Hall of Fame QB Len Dawson; it's also the number of seasons since the Chiefs have won a game in the playoffs. That came in the 1993 postseason when they beat the Houston Oilers.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "You can't have two roosters in the hen house." - RB Larry Johnson talking about the firing of offensive coordinator Chan Gailey by head coach Todd Haley.
Strategy and Personnel
--QB Matt Cassel suffered a second-degree sprain of the medial collateral ligament in his left knee Aug. 29. Recovery from MCL injuries varies widely from player to player, but it's generally considered a two- to four-week recovery.
--CB Brandon Flowers suffered a left shoulder sprain Aug. 29 and his availability for the regular-season opener was very much in doubt. That's too bad, because Flowers may have been the Chiefs' best player during training camp and the preseason.
--CB Maurice Leggett looks as if he'll be the team's punt returner, and he'll certainly factor into the situation in the secondary as the nickel back. The second-year man out of Valdosta State continues to be a playmaker in practices, something he showed in games during his rookie season.
--RB Jamaal Charles has again shown he's one of the few home run hitters in the Chiefs offensive lineup thanks to his speed. Todd Haley will work overtime to find ways to get Charles in open space. As long as he holds onto the football, Charles could be a 1,500-yard player in combined rushing and receiving yards.
--OT Damion McIntosh went from starter at RT to backup at LT to possibly out on the street to back as the starter at RT. McIntosh figures to keep that job as the Chiefs continue to push the offense more to the running game. The veteran tackle can still block for the run; it's his pass protection that is a liability.
--ILB Demorrio Williams has come back from roster death to being a factor for the Chiefs defense. An unknown leg injury kept him off the practice field for the first two weeks of training camp. But he's fought his way back to possibly earning a starting spot with the defense.
PLAYER TO WATCH: ILB Corey Mays - Signed as a free agent from Cincinnati, the Chiefs envisioned Mays giving them a lift on special teams. With the Bengals in the last two seasons, Mays had 29 tackles in the kicking game and just 14 on defense. But when Zach Thomas went down with an injury in training camp, Mays stepped forward and has claimed one of the starting jobs at inside linebacker in the 3-4 defense. Not only has he produced in the defense, but he's also taken over the leadership role in the huddle. At 6-feet-1, 245 pounds, Mays likes to hit and he arrives quickly.
Rd. 1/3, DE Tyson Jackson, LSU - He missed the first 10 days of camp and has fought his way into the starting lineup at LDE. Jackson must improve his pass rush, but if he's solid against the run, he'll have a successful season.
Rd. 3/67, DE Alex Magee, Purdue - As a pass rusher, he's more advanced than Jackson thanks to his time playing both inside and outside on the Boilermakers' defensive line. He'll get plenty of playing time, especially in the Chiefs' nickel defense.
Rd. 4/102, CB Donald Washington - A physically gifted player, Washington fell behind when he couldn't take part in the offseason program because of NFL rules involving college graduations. He's made up that ground and will definitely be a contributor on special teams.
Rd. 5/139, G/T Colin Brown - Drafted as a tackle, Brown was moved inside to play guard early in training camp and he seemed much more comfortable there. He's a developmental player, probably a year or two away from being able to contribute.
Rd. 6/175, WR Quinten Lawrence - Thanks to his speed, Lawrence will get a chance to make a career in the NFL. But he's a real project, as his hands are inconsistent, his running of pass routes is spotty and he sometimes loses focus. However, he is fast.
Rd. 7/254, K Ryan Succop - As the last man selected in the 2009 NFL Draft, Succop won the title of Mr. Irrelevant. But he quickly made himself relevant with the Chiefs and his offseason performance chased off all competition. Succop has a strong leg, with most of his kickoffs reaching the end zone.
Cassel will begin the season with a sore left knee due to an MCL sprain. Since he arrived in KC in a trade with the Patriots, Cassel has done all the intangible things that teams look for from their starting quarterback. He's been a leader, he's been a voice with the coaches, he's provided encouragement and sometimes reprimands to teammates. But the Chiefs' passing game was out of synch before Cassel was injured, so there's a lot of room to grow. Croyle is battling back from knee surgery last October and he's shown good mobility; he also has a strong arm. Thigpen has been very erratic as he tries to adjust from the spread offense the team ran for the second half of last season to the drop-back passing game that Haley has installed.
Down 15 pounds from last year, Johnson may no longer be the power back he was several seasons ago, but he's worked hard on all parts of his game and should be the featured runner in Haley's offense. Charles provides speed and big-play potential, if he can hold onto the football. Battle is a cross between Johnson and Charles; he's a big back but he's got a burst that makes him a tough north-south runner.
Eventual Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez is gone and that leaves a huge hole at the position and in the Chiefs' offense. Ryan is a journeyman, known more for his blocking than catching. Cottam is in his second year and he's very similar to Ryan, although he's a big target like Gonzalez. Crabtree should get an opportunity because of an injury to his college teammate, Jake O'Connell.
A weak position on the roster, there are not a lot of proven weapons for Cassel to work into the passing game. In his third season Bowe is a big, physical receiver who is prone to dropping the ball. Bradley has never been able to stay healthy and available, while Engram gives them a target as a slot receiver. Lelie has been a disappointment over his career and Copper is a special teamer. Lawrence has speed and a lot to learn.
OFFENSIVE LINE: Starters - LT Branden Albert, LG Brian Waters, C Rudy Niswanger, RG Mike Goff, RT Damion McIntosh. Backups - C/G Andy Alleman, RT Ikechuku Ndukwe, C/G Wayne Smith, G/T Colin Brown, LT Barry Richardson.
There are real questions about the right side of this group and starters Goff and McIntosh could quickly be supplanted by Alleman and Ndukwe, trade pickups from Miami. Albert and Waters provide a strong left side, while Niswanger is solid but sometimes struggles with smaller, more powerful nose tackles. Depth is shaky as youngsters Brown and Richardson have not shown they are ready to play.
The Chiefs have invested a lot of early draft choices on the defensive line in this decade and they've not paid off. The new regime has done the same, using first- and third-round picks on Jackson and Magee. Last year's top choice Dorsey is moving from tackle to end, although the change in schemes makes the move less severe. It's important for him to have a good sophomore season. Nose tackle with Tyler and Edwards is a question mark.
LINEBACKERS: Starters - OLB Mike Vrabel, ILB Corey Mays, ILB Derrick Johnson, OLB Tamba Hali. Backups - OLB Turk McBride, OLB Andy Studebaker, ILB Demorrio Williams, ILB Jovan Belcher, ILB Monty Beisel, OLB Pierre Walters.
Last season, this position was the weakness in the Chiefs' defense. With a change in coordinator and scheme and plenty of new faces, it will be interesting to see how the linebackers respond. Hali, McBride and Studebaker are all making the transition from DE to OLB. Johnson continues a transition started last year of moving inside from the outside. Vrabel and Mays were added to the group and they've had good preseasons.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: Starters - LCB Brandon Flowers, RCB Brandon Carr, SS Bernard Pollard, FS Jarrad Page. Backups - CB Maurice Leggett, CB Donald Washington, CB Ricardo Colclough, S Jon McGraw, S Mike Brown, S DaJuan Morgan.
The secondary is the strongest position on the roster. Flowers and Carr were full-time starters last year as rookies, one of the toughest jobs any first-year player can have. Both should be better this year thanks to that experience. Same for Leggett, who was the team's rookie of the year in '08 and has a real nose for the ball. Pollard and Page are hitters rather than cover guys playing deep, and with the new defense they will probably spend more time closer to the line of scrimmage.
Colquitt ranks among the league's better punters and he was able to continue kicking last year despite dealing with a detached groin muscle and a sports hernia. He's healthy now and gives the Chiefs a weapon. Succop can be a bit inconsistent on his field goals, but he has a strong leg and he's helping the defense with his lengthy kickoffs. Charles and Leggett both have speed and as long as they return the ball the way Haley wants (north and south), they could be factors.