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The LiveBall Sports Kansas City Chiefs Season Preview

Checking in on the 32 NFL teams, starting from the bottom.

A question: will the next Kansas City team to score 10+ be the Royals or the Chiefs?

What we said about the Chiefs prior to the 2012 season

too talented to ignore this season

I wrote a pretty extensive article expressing enough optimism for the 2012 Chiefs season to talk about them in the same breath as the Ravens as teams that could represent the AFC in the Super Bowl.  The Ravens went on to make me look smart.  The Chiefs…not so much.

The Chiefs are a more interesting projection, because we know about how skilled they are on defense, and how they can now get after the passer with regularity.  Losing Brandon Carr will hurt more in the long term than the short term, because Stanford Routt can play the second corner position at a high level.  Eric Winston is a huge upgrade at RT, the team’s most problematic position.

The Chiefs have to overcome Matt Cassel at quarterback, but there is at least some evidence he can deliver a season in between his performances in 2010 and 2011.  He will have better players to throw to and is very comfortable in the offense.  It’s the combination of Peyton Hillis and Jamaal Charles at running back that should make the Chiefs the favorites in the AFC West.  The Chiefs have a lot of talent coming off of injury and as that talent gets healthier and healthier as the year goes on (provided it does get healthier), the Chiefs are going to be a tough out in the AFC playoffs capable of beating the NE Patriots or Pittsburgh Steelers.

Oops.

I was clearly really optimistic on the Chiefs running game heading into 2012.  Overall, it performed quite well, thanks to the bounceback season enjoyed by Jamaal Charles in his first year back from a torn ACL.  Charles, understandably, posted a career low YPC average in 2012.  Less understandably, that average was 5.3.  Charles is preposterously good at football.  Unfortunately, the overall production of the running game was dragged down by the ineptness of the passing game, posting a -7.0% DVOA for the year.  Peyton Hillis ended up being the same guy he was in Cleveland during a down 2011 season: this is who Peyton Hillis is.

Matt Cassel did not rebound, instead giving his middle finger to the plexiglass principle and dropping his interception rate to 1:2, an amazing decline from the 4:1 it was in 2010.  We can say what we want to about Charlie Weis — and he’s the kind of personality that gets run out of town on a rail — but they haven’t at all been the same team since Charlie Weis was run out of town on a rail.

Speaking of Charlie Weis, Brady Quinn quarterbacked the Chiefs in 2012, and not particularly well.  Ricky Stanzi did not quarterback the Chiefs in 2012, not even once, which tells you what you need to know about his NFL prospects.

Stanford Routt did not play the corner position at a high level for the Chiefs, in fact, he didn’t even make it though the season on the roster.  The biggest issue was that Tamba Hali struggle more than expected as a pass rusher, negating a lot of the contribution of the breakout season that Justin Houston had.  Houston was Scott Pioli’s best draft pick as GM of the Chiefs, which is one of the many reasons the Chiefs won twice last year.  Other players the Chiefs relied on in 2011, such as WRs Steve Breaston and Dexter McCluster, got hurt and weren’t the same players in 2012.

What should we have known, given the benefit of hindsight

The Chiefs did not change their defensive coaching in 2012, so it was pretty hard to have seen the total collapse of the front seven.  One year ago today, Scott Pioli didn’t look like a great GM, but he also didn’t look like a guy who had no idea how to draft.  Tyson Jackson looked like a pretty good defensive lineman.  But the Chiefs didn’t do a good job replacing the depth on the defensive line so when guys like Ropati Pitoitua and Dontari Poe weren’t able to jump in and contribute. opposing offenses moved the Chiefs defensive line this past season like they were playing on roller skates.  That would have been less of a big deal if Tamba Hali had contributed, but he failed to have an impact season, despite breaking the 8 sack mark for the fourth straight season.  Hali is likely not done so the Chiefs can count on bookend pass rushers this year, but given Houston’s emergence, one may have expected Hali’s production to have increased.  Instead, it declined.

Even with strong hindsight, we could have easily missed the mistakes Pioli made on the defensive line, and his successor John Dorsey took great strides to make sure the Chiefs got the defensive front right in 2013.  But one thing that was more apparent at the time — and something that the 2012 season made very clear — is that Pioli really screwed the pooch on the secondary.  Letting Brandon Carr get away despite having advantageous cap position was a major mistake.  The Chiefs should have ramped up their efforts to sign Carr after adding Stanford Routt last February, and instead let him go to the highest bidder (Dallas).  Brandon Flowers was maybe the best we’ve ever seen Brandon Flowers: he’s a top CB entering his prime years.  But Eric Berry wasn’t exactly Jamaal Charles coming off his ACL tear, Javier Arenas isn’t really a defensive player in the NFL, and the young, less established pieces in the Chiefs secondary that Pioli added never developed.

Also: Dwayne Bowe by himself is not really a “passing game.”

Where does the team appear to think it’s at?

This is the million dollar question with the Chiefs, who have come out really aggressive in the offseason to compete in a down AFC in 2013.  The Chiefs clearly feel like they acquired a top ten quarterback in Alex Smith via trade with the 49ers.  There is not a whole lot of pieces on the Chiefs offense that would help enhance Alex Smith’s skill set.  The Chiefs tipped their hand a bit when they added Chris Ault to the coaching staff.  Ault created the pistol offense at Nevada eight seasons ago, and then coached it for eight seasons, four of which he coached Colin Kaepernick, the man who took Alex Smith’s job.  This is also a coaching staff that is using Brad Childress as a spread game analyst.  Then you look at the actual offense that Andy Reid and Marty Morningweg ran last year in Philadelphia, and it’s not hard to envision the Chiefs as a slow, midwest version of the offenses that took the NFL by storm last season.

Clearly, the Chiefs believe they can scheme around their offensive personnel weaknesses, but then I’m not entirely sure how drafting Eric Fisher with the first pick and retaining Branden Albert under the franchise tender is making the best use of their resources.  The team thinks it’s close — close enough to send Donald Stephenson back to the bench, and close enough to sign Anthony Fasano, retain Tony Moeaki, and draft Travis Kelce to be very multiple in personnel — but the team’s only major receiving threat is still Dwayne Bowe, and I’m not sure that Alex Smith is the best possible quarterback to oversee Bowe’s breakout anyway.  The offense is obviously going to look very different from Philadelphia’s speed-based passing game from the last few years, and the pistol will help keep defenses honest…but you can play this Chiefs offense honestly and still shut down everyone except Charles.

The secondary is still an issue, and to have even average expectations for the defense, it’s going to hinge on a rebound year from the front seven.

How did the team improve itself in the draft and in free agency?

So beyond the Alex Smith trade…how many positions are the Chiefs honestly better at now.  They made an offensive lineman the number one overall pick, which may look great come 2016, but OL was not a Chiefs weakness last season, and won’t be the reason they win this season.  The Chiefs signed Donnie Avery, who even if you pencil him in for the same season in the Chiefs offense that he just had for Bruce Arians in Indy, is just a solid number two (admittedly, something the Chiefs lacked last year).  The depth behind Avery isn’t good.  Dexter McCluster will align all over the formation, but a space player that hasn’t established himself by his fourth season isn’t a good bet to stay in the team’s plans.

They are legitimately improved at TE, but that’s damning with faint praise.

I think signing former Jets DL Mike Devito gives the Chiefs a really strong contingency plan if the new regime finds they cannot trust Tyson Jackson any more than the prior regime did.

The Chiefs attempted to address the secondary by signing CBs Sean Smith and Dunta Robinson.  Smith is still just 26, so he might be better than he showed last year in Miami — Chiefs fans should hope so.  Robinson is over the hill and hasn’t been more than a quality reserve (one paid like a starter) in years.  Sanders Commings from Georgia is a day three draft pick that can contribute at either corner or safety.

I think the Chiefs overdrafted Knile Davis (Arkansas) in the third round, but the team clearly sees him getting 60-70 touches as a rookie.

What is the team’s outlook for the 2013 season?

The optimism surrounding the Chiefs in 2013 has as much to do with what the other AFC teams are not doing as it does with what the Chiefs have done.  The bottom line is that if the Chiefs get what they think they are getting with Alex Smith — then they improved by more at that position than any other team did, and will enjoy a greater points per game swing than any other offense in the league.  The Chiefs look a whole lot better at the quarterback position with Alex Smith and Chase Daniel at 1 and 2 on the depth chart than with Matt Cassel and Brady Quinn.

The Chiefs will do everything necessary to keep the Smith trade from looking like the Cassel trade, and they’ll have ample opportunity to avoid a repeat of the Pioli era, but the further you get from the Chiefs situation and the more generally you look, the more similar the last two Chiefs quarterback trades were.  At a highly detailed level of analysis, it’s clear that the trades were different enough to suggest that the Chiefs aren’t merely repeating history here, but at some point, the bullets are going to start flying, and no matter how much preparation the Chiefs have done, they’re still going to have Alex Smith sitting back in the pocket on third and seven, which has not historically been a winning situation for the offense.

Smith is giving up the elite defense he had in San Francisco, and is taking over an offense that absolutely will be relying on the PPG averages (23.667 PPG) he put up as a 49er in 2012 without many of the resources he enjoyed in San Francisco.

The Chiefs were a dreadful team in 2012.  They weren’t a talented team.  I had clearly believed in their talent a year ago, but it simply didn’t show up on the field.  They are going to be a better team in 2013, maybe even a lot better.  They will not go 2-14 again.  To approach .500, even in a weak conference, they are going to need to win their Alex Smith gamble, and get some better performances on the defensive side of the ball.

While that’s within the realm of possibility for the Chiefs this year, they look at the moment as more a 5 or a 6 win team that probably overrated it’s current situation and didn’t maximize it’s resources in the offseason for the future.  It is a team that will be competitive on a week to week basis, and will probably be well coached.  It will probably play 10 or 11 games that are decided by a touchdown or less.  And unless the Chiefs have figured out a way to win a disproportional amount of those close games, 5 to 6 wins feel like a comfortable range for a Chiefs prediction in 2013.

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