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Chiefs' preseason about preservation
ST. JOSEPH, Mo.
The visceral sensation associated with an NFL training camp — the distinctive smacking of helmets and pads amid August heat — has been largely set aside as the Kansas City Chiefs quietly prepare for 2011.
This has not been an ordinary preseason. For a franchise reborn in 2009 as perhaps the NFL’s most meticulous architect of achievement put through a complete overhaul, the idea that you would expose the Chiefs’ carefully laid infrastructure of talent, speed and youth to the risk of full-contact practice is, well, ridiculous.
“Why would you take that chance? That would be crazy,” says coach Todd Haley, who embraces hard-core conditioning and preparation. But Haley doesn’t see the need in Week 2 of the preseason to expose starting quarterback Matt Cassel (27 touchdown passes, seven interceptions last season) or running back Jamaal Charles, with his 1,935 combined yards, to much more than a solid dose of mental hardening.
Haley has a point.
An offseason disrupted by a lockout left players to condition without supervision and NFL teams to wonder what they would really have when football finally resumed. When it did in late July, injuries piled up at an alarming rate. The list of season-ending Achilles' tendon tears is now in double digits, including Detroit Lions second-round pick Mikel Leshoure. New York Giants cornerback Prince Amukamara is out at least two months with a broken foot.
The Chiefs know they made great strides in 2010 by winning the AFC West with a 10-6 mark after enduring three consecutive seasons with fewer than five victories. They were subsequently manhandled by the Baltimore Ravens in a 30-7 wild-card loss, which only reinforced the team’s desire to come back mentally and physically tougher.
That regular-season leap, Haley said, was a product of a terrific 2010 offseason and preseason. He lost all of that in 2011. Now the Chiefs are relying on gut instinct, hoping the lessons learned from the 1987 NFL strike — specifically, the wake of serious injuries that resulted when the players returned — will prevent their roster from being laid out by Week 1 of the regular season.
“We’ll know soon enough if this was the right call,” Haley concedes.
These Chiefs leave nothing to chance.
A franchise that once plowed through the AFC West with maddening inconsistency now plots every minute and personnel move with great precision. And the roster for 2011, which builds on the foundation of Cassel, Charles and the league’s top-ranked rushing attack last season, has a distinct look.
The makeover stems from the genius of general manager Scott Pioli, whose personnel acumen and renowned attention to detail helped the New England Patriots win three Super Bowl titles, combined with the fervor and aggressiveness of Haley. Together, they have assembled one of the NFL’s most intriguing teams.
• It’s young: Two-deep on the enlarged camp depth chart, the Chiefs have only six players age 30 or older. But wisdom and experience man the middle — center Casey Wiegmann is 38; nose tackle Kelly Gregg is 34.
“For me, it’s nice to know those two guys are in there,” says Cassel, 29, who enters his third season as the Chiefs' starting passer.
• It’s explosive: Charles, 24, has track-star speed and the versatility to repeatedly challenge for the NFL rushing title. In 2010, the Chiefs drafted two high-flying Southeastern College standouts in the second round, wide receiver Dexter McCluster and cornerback/returner Javier Arenas.
“This team had a few fast players,” Pioli says of the transitional period since ’09 when he left New England to take a chance with Kansas City, “but overall, especially on special teams, it was one of the slowest I had seen. And I remember that was something we had to improve, because this is a fast league.
“This is not just about finding players with timed speed; that’s an athletic skill. But it’s also a mental skill where certain players play faster based on instincts — ability to see, ability to perform.”
• It’s deep: For example, in the Kansas City 3-4 defense Andy Studebaker, Cameron Sheffield and Justin Houston are battling furiously to play outside linebacker opposite standout Tamba Hali, whose work ethic and 14.5 sacks last season netted him a new five-year, $60 million contract ($35 million guaranteed).
• It’s versatile: Players must excel at special teams and be flexible. McCluster, for instance, is taking snaps in the backfield. “I love it,” he says, “because it gives me a chance to do more for this offense, make more of an impact.”
• It’s cozy: Haley lured talented free-agent wide receiver Steve Breaston from the Arizona Cardinals, where the two built a strong bond. And the Chiefs have collected players from the physically superior team that blew them out of the playoffs last season. Former Ravens are everywhere: Gregg; massive 6-foot-9 offensive tackle Jared Gaither; and fullback Le’Ron McClain. In addition, they hired charismatic former Baltimore quarterbacks coach Jim Zorn.
There also is a buddy system in place pairing players at different positions, aimed at fostering team-building.
“It’s important right now that we bond and do that outside of football,” says Charles, who is soft-spoken but possesses great leadership qualities, “especially with Le’Ron, just trying to build that relationship. I know he came from a great program and he not only knows abut winning, he’s passionate about winning.”
All of this should provide Cassel a wider array of tools he needs to fulfill the expectations that came with his arrival in Kansas City through a ’09 trade with the Patriots. Pioli knew Cassel had the talent and character to lead a rebuilding franchise, and Cassel was signed to a six-year, $62.7 million contract ($28 million guaranteed).
And while Cassel and the Chiefs exceeded expectations last season — he passed for 3,116 yards — the franchise quarterback also is realistic enough to know he can’t count on 15 of his 27 passing touchdowns going back to Dwayne Bowe.
First-round draft pick Jonathan Baldwin and Breaston are both locked up through 2015, providing a solid receiving corps. And Bowe, whose 15 TD catches led the NFL last season, remains a mercurial talent who may dazzle and disappoint in the same ballgame.
Bowe’s ill-timed drops are a source of consternation among Chiefs fans, and it’s unclear whether Pioli will re-up the 2007 first-round pick when his contract runs out next season. Kansas City expects big things from Bowe in a contract year, or he’s out.
So while the rest of the NFL is banging and knocking heads, the Chiefs’ intrepid preseason plan of minimal contact football will get another test on Friday against the Ravens in Baltimore.
Cassel, who had six total plays (a botched snap, five handoffs) in the 25-0 exhibition-opening loss to Tampa Bay, should see more than one or two series. But he completely understands the method behind Haley’s perceived hands-off madness.
Young players are getting a valuable look on film. Cassel is still learning terminology from Zorn, his new Zen master.
“The first day he was talking about ‘reach,’ and I’m thinking he means in my drop, as in reach back. But he’s telling me to reach the ball out,” Cassel says.
“It’s totally different things to two people. But that’s what this preseason has been all about — developing those relationships.”
The roster is swift in Kansas City, the preparation is slow. In the uncertain realm of the post-lockout NFL in 2011, who’s to say the Chiefs haven’t seized the master plan for Super Bowl XLVI?
“I know this,” Cassel says. “It’ll be a lot of fun to find out.”
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