NFL

Chiefs big on ability, but questions abound

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP)

The Kansas City Chiefs have every reason to be optimistic about this season.

They have All-Pro running back Jamaal Charles back from a knee injury, dynamic wide receiver Dwayne Bowe up to speed, and a vastly improved offensive line. The defense is anchored by Pro Bowl linebackers Tamba Hali and Derrick Johnson, and also features big-hitting safety Eric Berry.

No wonder folks around Arrowhead Stadium have been talking playoffs.

Then the Chiefs learned that Hali will miss the season opener Sept. 9 against Atlanta after violating the league's substance-abuse policy. Defensive backs Brandon Flowers, Kendrick Lewis and Jalil Brown went down with injuries. And the Chiefs played a couple of preseason duds against St. Louis and Seattle, the latter a 44-14 loss at home.

Now, all that eagerness about the regular season has turned into anxiety, and affable coach Romeo Crennel has turned a bit perturbed by the way things are headed.

''We're not ready to throw the offense or the defense in the trash can or anything like that,'' said Crennel, who took over on a full-time basis this season after serving in an interim role last season, when Todd Haley was fired with the team spiraling out of control.

''We have to play better. I think that our guys are capable of doing that,'' Crennel said. ''We've got good ability on the team. I still feel that way.''

The ability is certainly there. There's no disputing that.

Charles, who missed most of last season with a torn ACL, has looked every bit the breakout star of 2010, when he ran for 1,467 yards and averaged 6.4 yards per carry.

The Chiefs have been cautious in using him during camp, and that may continue when they open the regular season, but his signature speed and shiftiness is still there. Charles was averaging better than 5 yards per carry through three preseason games.

''The offense looks great and we feel comfortable with it,'' Charles said, ''and we are happy with it, and I feel like everybody on the offense can make plays.''

Charles should benefit from a retooled line that includes free agent acquisition Eric Winston anchoring the right side. Winston was a stalwart on the Houston Texans' line that opened holes for Arian Foster, and should be a significant upgrade over Barry Richardson.

To give Charles a break, the Chiefs added bruiser Peyton Hillis in the offseason.

Everything starts and ends at quarterback, though, and nobody seems to know whether Matt Cassel will look like the guy who threw 27 touchdowns passes while going to the Pro Bowl in 2010, or the guy who stumbled through 2011 before sustaining a season-ending hand injury.

He's shown signs of both during the preseason.

''A lot of times in preseason you are working different things out,'' Cassel said after a tough night against Seattle. ''It's not all negative, but at the same time, we do have to get better.''

One thing that doesn't appear to be an issue is Bowe, who skipped the offseason and start of training camp while refusing to sign his franchise tender.

Bowe reported in time to play against the Seahawks, and should have enough time to get his rhythm with Cassel and learn the intricacies of new offensive coordinator Brian Daboll's system.

''Me personally, I just need to work on me,'' Bowe said. ''Just taking it one day at time, make sure I learn the offense front and back and to be able to perform when it counts.''

While the offense has shown signs of brilliance during the preseason, a defense expected to be among the league' best has struggled to get off the field - and that' with Hali on it.

The standout linebacker won' be around against the Falcons after the league handed down a suspension for an unspecified violation of its substance-abuse policy. Hali has 26 1/2 sacks over the past two seasons, and earned his first trip to the Pro Bowl last season.

The Chiefs could be down to their third-string cornerback if Flowers can't return soon from a nagging heel injury that nobody on the team can seem to figure out, and if Brown has to miss some time with a groin injury he sustained in the game against Seattle.

Suddenly, that depth chart printed out a few weeks ago - the one with talent up and down the lineup - appears a bit like Swiss cheese, and nothing in Kansas City is a sure thing anymore.

''The thing that happens when you lose is you're perturbed,'' Crennel said. ''If you have one guy that's not on top of his game, then the other team can sometimes find that soft spot, so they found the soft spot a couple times. We've got to shore up that soft spot and not allow there to be any, and then we'll be able to be pretty competitive at that point.''

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Online: http://bigstory.ap.org/NFL-Pro32 and http://twitter.com/AP-NFL

Tagged: Chiefs, Matt Cassel, Eric Winston, Tamba Hali, Dwayne Bowe, Jamaal Charles

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