Andy Reid and Alex Smith each proved that previous success means little in the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately NFL, but the Kansas City Chiefs are banking on them to help usher in a bright future for a franchise that has missed the playoffs five of the last six seasons.
The excitement is tempered for the Jacksonville Jaguars, who are more focused on basic improvement after undergoing an overhaul of their own.
Reid and Smith make their regular-season debuts for Kansas City, which visits a Jacksonville team unsure if quarterback Blaine Gabbert will be healthy enough to start the opener Sunday.
After nine postseason berths, five NFC championship games and one Super Bowl appearance in his previous 13 years, Reid was let go by Philadelphia after a disappointing 4-12 campaign in 2012.
He wasn’t out of work long, though, as Chiefs chairman Clark Hunt hired Reid in early January.
“I sincerely mean this — he’s having more fun,” said new general manager John Dorsey, hired about a week after Reid to replace Scott Pioli. “I see a more vibrant person. I see Andy, the coach I used to know.”
Two months later, Dorsey, who served with Reid on Green Bay’s coaching staff in the 1990s, traded a second-round pick and a 2014 conditional draft choice to San Francisco to bring in Smith as the team’s new quarterback. After nine starts last season, Smith led the NFL with a 70.0 completion percentage and ranked third with a 104.1 passer rating before suffering a concussion, paving the way for Colin Kaepernick to take over.
Kaepernick led the 49ers to the Super Bowl, and suddenly Smith became expendable.
“Listen, I thought (coach) Jim (Harbaugh) did a nice job with (Smith) out in San Francisco,” Reid said. “But here, everybody’s on board. I’m asking him to do a ton of things and he’s handling it.”
That’s good news for a team coming off a 2-14 season that tied the 2008 squad for the worst in franchise history. Kansas City selected Central Michigan tackle Eric Fisher with the No. 1 overall pick to help protect Smith as it looks to improve on its league-worst 13.2 points per game from 2012.
“I think every team in the NFL has positive expectations right now, every single one,” Smith said. “It’s a fresh start. It’s a new beginning for everybody. It’s what team is going to put in the work and take the steps necessary to get better?”
Not every rebuilding team, though, has six returning Pro Bowlers like the Chiefs — 1,500-yard rusher Jamaal Charles, linebackers Tamba Hali, Justin Houston and Derrick Johnson, safety Eric Berry and punter Dustin Colquitt.
They also return star receiver Dwayne Bowe, who signed a five-year, $56 million deal to be Smith’s top target.
“Even though the win column last year we didn’t do very good, our confidence level is up,” Johnson said. “It starts from the coach down. The coach is a big representation of having that confidence, believing in his players, and Andy Reid sets a good example for us.”
Former Seattle defensive coordinator Gus Bradley hopes to be as strong of an influence in Jacksonville as he takes over for the fired Mike Mularkey following a franchise-worst 2-14 season.
Bradley isn’t focusing on a quick turnaround after new general manager David Caldwell hired him in January, but rather making sure the team simply gets better.
Jacksonville selected offensive lineman Luke Joeckel out of Texas A&M with the No. 2 overall pick in the draft as its first key to the rebuilding process.
“I think when you look ahead, you forget about enjoying the process,” Bradley said. “We want to compete, have our guys go hard, get better at fundamentals and techniques, but also enjoy it. And when you look ahead, sometimes you miss those things.
“If we can get a guy to get to his highest level, then we win. That’s how we define winning, that’s how we talk about winning.”
The Jaguars may not experience much of it this season, though, especially with Gabbert coming off shoulder surgery and now dealing with a hairline fracture of his right thumb that could keep him from playing Sunday.
Bradley named Gabbert the starter ahead of Chad Henne, who would be under center if Gabbert is unable to play.
“It’s uncomfortable, but at the same time, it’s just something you can’t worry about,” Gabbert said. “You’re going to feel good some days and some days not so much, but at the same time the more I can do out there the more reps I can get, it’s going to help me mentally and physically.”
Though second-year wide receiver Justin Blackmon will be suspended for the first four games for violating the league’s substance abuse policy, running back Maurice Jones-Drew appears to be healthy after missing the final 10 games last season due to a foot injury.
Jones-Drew, who led the NFL with 1,606 yards rushing in 2011, will be looked upon to help improve an offense that ranked 29th at 299.3 yards per game last season.
With Blackmon out, Cecil Shorts steps in as the top target in a receiving corps that had an NFL-worst 11.1 percent drop rate of catchable balls in 2012.
Bowe caught a pair of TD passes to help the Chiefs overcome Jones-Drew’s 121 total yards in a 42-20 win in the last meeting Oct. 24, 2010.