How have the Kansas City Chiefs turned it all around?
The answer to this question is very simple. It’s explaining the process that will be difficult.
The Kansas City Chiefs began the season 0-3, and it was a particularly dreadful start. The Buffalo Bills and Detroit Lions are both good teams. But in back to back losses to open the season, the Chiefs lost by a margin of 89-10. They were, at that point, the worst team in professional football. Since that start, the Chiefs are 4-1 (winning four consecutive games), and have outscored opponents 118-81. Only two things have happened to foster the rebirth of playoff hopes: Matt Cassel has gone from liability to asset, and the defense has consistently improved from a low point in the second half of 2010 to become one of the league’s best in 2011.
Whether the Chiefs can sustain this depends on whether Cassel’s improvement is sustainable (hint: it probably isn’t), and whether the Chiefs defense called by Romeo Crennel is for real (hint: it probably is). I don’t think the Chiefs can compete with the Chargers and Raiders if both aren’t true, but even if its not, it is remarkable that the Chiefs are even at this point.
Even at 4-3, Kansas City is still trying to win with one of the league’s worst offenses and perhaps the least consistent down-to-down quarterback in the NFL. When you’re a bad team, inconsistent beats consistently bad, but it’s hard to forget the five game stretch that Cassel put together starting in January of 2011 against Oakland and continuing until he got back on track against Minnesota this October. For that span, there probably wasn’t a quarterback in the league worse than Cassel. Since then, he’s managed to outplay his opponent on the other sideline for pretty much every game.
In there lies the Chiefs’ problem. They have been able to protect Cassel from scrutiny for one reason: Donovan McNabb, Curtis Painter, Kyle Boller, Carson Palmer, and a struggling Philip Rivers have been all that the Chiefs played against over the last month and a half in terms of the opposing quarterback. This week, Kansas City draws Matt Moore. At this point, the only difference between Matt Cassel and Kevin Kolb, beyond time in the current offensive scheme, is that Kansas City has been able to manage Cassel’s deficiencies in light of an awful start, and Arizona just digs Kolb a bigger hole every time they drop him back to pass. The Kansas City OL is proficient at giving Cassel time to throw, but it is unable to win the line of scrimmage on runs. Consequently, they don’t have a good running game. They do, however, have Jackie Battle.
I’m going to try to explain why, in light of what happened to cause me to write the paragraph above, the Chiefs are poised to have a better offense with Battle than they had last year when Jamaal Charles finished second in the NFL in rushing. A year ago, the Chiefs were incredibly careful with Charles’ workload, as he in fact, did not lead the 2010 Kansas City Chiefs in carries. Thomas Jones did. Because of the huge contract given to Charles after the season, there is no reason to restrict Battle in the same way. Battle is not a complete player back there, as he will not make plays out of the backfield, and is not considered a better pass blocker than the veteran Jones (although when you’re trying to find a role for a guy like Jones, that’s an easy “evaluation” to make). He will not supplant Charles atop the depth chart in 2012, and since they pretty much have the same role in the offense, Battle’s best value after the season may be as trade bait. So for the Chiefs, you might as well let Battle exceed 300 carries. Doing so will cause the Chiefs to enjoy their best running game in years, even with the liability they have up front creating huge holes. And of course, Battle lacks the breakaway speed of Charles, meaning it will take more carries to cover the same amount of yards.
The takeaway for Chiefs fans is that the team is not worse off following the injury to Charles. Battle would have no role in the offense if Charles were healthy. Those are Charles’ carries to be had. Battle wouldn’t even be active every week (7 offensive snaps Weeks 1-3). All of this means the Chiefs need less Cassel, which means that it’s easier to manipulate the playbook to the benefit of the quarterback. The Chiefs aren’t going to be able to improve on offense unless they can get a significant contribution from rookie first round draft pick Jonathan Baldwin, though rookies typically struggle through a long adjustment period. With Cassel prone to wild swings of inconsistency, things probably won’t stay all rosy for the Chiefs on offense.
Defensively, it is another story. The Chiefs have two of the best defensive players in football playing linebacker: OLB Tamba Hali and ILB Derrick Johnson. Last year, the struggles of Ron Edwards and Shaun Smith made the Chiefs an easy target to run on as the season wore on. It’s a different group this year. Kelly Gregg has been a big improvement on the nose. The Chiefs have salvaged the career of Tyson Jackson, who has gone from an epic bust to a backup to a quality starter over a three year career. The 2011 Chiefs are one of the best teams in the league against the run and must now find a way to get pass pressure from someone who isn’t Hali. The Chiefs know this: they have put up with plenty of negatives with rookie OLB Justin Houston because he has developmental pass rushing skills. Houston made no impact in the Chiefs 1-3 start, but has begun to pressure passes in the three games since. They have a better run defender on staff in Andy Studebaker, but they are apparently willing to sit through rookie mistakes in order to find a pass rusher.
Here’s why a pass rush is so important: the Chiefs play four safeties with Eric Berry on IR: Kendrick Lewis, Jon McGraw, Donald Washington, and Sabby Piscatelli. None of them are very good. Lewis is going to be a starter on this team for the forseeable future, but McGraw, Washington, and Piscatelli will never start in this league again. A pass rush can protect these players when Kansas City runs into the part of their schedule that includes Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, and Aaron Rodgers over a five game stretch. The Chiefs are running out of time to develop it: the Pats game is just over two weeks away.
Still, I believe in the Chiefs defense. As long as Hali is healthy, the Chiefs can get creative in their coverages and not feel like they are about to be exposed. Hali is relentless, one of the best OLBs in football, and because of Derrick Johnson, might not be the best player on his own defense. Going forward, the Chiefs need to add depth in the front seven. Right now, a clean bill of health can save them the rest of the season. For all the injuries the Chiefs have had to deal with this year, they are healthy where it matters.
Kansas City looks likely to rebound to 6-3 because of how soft Miami and Denver have been this year, but the next five games get brutal at that point. And on the other side of those five games, the Raiders wait in a game that could easily decide the AFC West. So because of what happened the last two weeks against quality division opponents, the Chiefs presence atop the division standings is very real. And they have a good shot at sustaining this performance, and getting to at least 7-7. They’ve done it because in light of injury, they were forced to become a different team: a pressure-based defense, and a pass-first offense. And the Chiefs have proved they can adapt where other, weaker teams have failed, making them one of my biggest preseason misses of the 2011 NFL season.