After making a surprise trip to the playoffs in 2010, the Chiefs took a surprisingly big step backward in 2011, resulting in the firing of head coach Todd Haley and the promotion of Romeo Crennel to replace him. The biggest question for the Chiefs heading into 2012 is whether last year’s big step backward was mostly the result of bad luck with injuries, or whether this roster needs a fundamental overhaul.
What Chiefs fans have to hope is that injuries really were the primary culprit behind last season’s disappointment. And there’s a good argument that that’s the case: Safety Eric Berry, the Chiefs’ most talented defensive player, was lost for the season with a torn ACL in Week 1. Running back Jamaal Charles, the Chiefs’ most talented offensive player, was lost for the season with a torn ACL in Week 2. Throw in promising young tight end Tony Moeaki missing the entire season after a torn ACL in the preseason, and starting quarterback Matt Cassel suffering a season-ending hand injury in the ninth game of the season, and the Chiefs could make a good case that they were hit with more bad luck on the injury front than any team in the league. If they’re healthy in 2012, the Chiefs should be better.
On the other hand, Cassel wasn’t playing particularly well before he got hurt. And Berry and Charles rely heavily on their speed and ability to cut, and it sometimes takes such players more than a year to get all the way back to form after an ACL injury. So even if those injured players are all on the field for 16 games this season, the Chiefs may be in for another disappointing year.
If Jamaal Charles is healthy, his presence in the running game is a major strength for the Chiefs’ offense. Over the course of his four-year career, Charles has averaged a stunning 6.1 yards a carry, a number no running back in NFL history has achieved. Of course, Charles has carried the ball only 499 times in four seasons, thanks to last year’s injury and former coach Todd Haley’s underuse of Charles when he was healthy. If Charles can keep running the way he did before that ACL injury, and if Peyton Hillis can be effective when splitting carries with Charles, they should be strong in the running game. (It’s easy to forget after both players’ disappointing 2011 seasons that Hillis and Charles were two of the best running backs in the NFL in 2010.)
Assuming franchise player Dwayne Bowe signs in time to be ready to go for Week One, the Chiefs have a very good playmaker as their No. 1 receiver, but they’ll hope to get more out of their talented young No. 2 receiver, Jonathan Baldwin, a first-round draft pick last year who was limited to 21 catches for 254 yards as a rookie.
Although the Chiefs’ defense fell apart when Eric Berry went down in the first game, giving up 41 and 48 points in losses to the Bills and Lions in the first two weeks of the season, the defense actually recovered and played pretty well for most of the season. Tamba Hali has emerged as one of the best pass rushers in the league, and on the other side Justin Houston came on strong late in the year with 5.5 sacks in the last five games. With Berry back, the Chiefs have to think their fortunes are looking up on defense.
Just about everything on offense was a weakness last season, although it’s open to debate how much of that was the result of all the injuries. The biggest concern for the Chiefs has to be that Matt Cassel is a weakness. After a very good season in 2010, with 27 touchdown passes, seven interceptions and a 93.0 passer rating, Cassel struggled mightily in 2011, with his touchdowns declining to 10, his interceptions increasing to nine, and his passer rating falling to 76.6. The way Cassel played last season, it’s hard not to view him as a weakness.
Kansas City’s three-man defensive line has three first-rounders starting, with 2008 first-round pick Glenn Dorsey and 2009 first-round pick Tyson Jackson manning the ends, and this year’s first-round pick Dontari Poe at nose tackle. That means the Chiefs have talent on the defensive line, but so far Dorsey and Jackson’s talent hasn’t translated to a whole lot of production. And that was the knock on Poe in college, too: He’s enormous and explosive, but he didn’t really wreak havoc while playing against mediocre opposition at Memphis, so how confident can the Chiefs really be that he’ll wreak havoc against much better offensive linemen in the NFL? Drafting Poe makes the defensive line bigger and stronger, but not necessarily better.
Cornerback Brandon Carr, who started all 64 games in his four seasons with the Chiefs, has departed for the Cowboys in free agency. The Chiefs signed Stanford Routt, formerly of the Raiders, to replace him, but the loss of Carr makes cornerback look like a weakness.
Upgrading at right tackle isn’t a sexy change, but it’s an important one for the Chiefs: Barry Richardson left to sign with the Rams and was replaced with free agent Eric Winston, and that’s an improvement, especially in run blocking. It was a surprise when the Texans released Winston to give themselves more salary cap room, and a pleasant surprise in Kansas City when Winston arrived.
Also arriving is Peyton Hillis, the free agent running back from the Browns who was one of the most disappointing players in the NFL last season with the Browns. In Kansas City he’s reunited with Chiefs offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, who was the Browns’ offensive coordinator when Hillis had his breakout 2010 season. Daboll and Hillis arriving together give the Chiefs some interesting possibilities on offense.
And the biggest change may turn out to be that Romeo Crennel, and not Todd Haley, is the head coach. When Haley was fired late in the season and Crennel appointed to interim head coach, the Chiefs seemed to get a spark, playing their best game of the season in a Week 15 win over the Packers. The team seemed worn down by Haley early last season, and energized by Crennel late last season. Crennel needs to keep that energy going into 2012.
The Chiefs’ coaching staff has talked about the competition improving everybody at the quarterback position. That doesn’t mean Cassel is in much danger of losing his starting job during training camp, although it does mean they want backups Brady Quinn and Ricky Stanzi to push Cassel, and push each other for the No. 2 job.
Peyton Hillis and Jamaal Charles are so different as runners that they’re not really battling for the No. 1 job as much as they’re planning to complement each other in the Chiefs’ offense. Still, each of them will try to show in camp that he’s the guy who’s ready to get most of the running workload.
And between the quarterback and the running back, there will be an interesting training camp battle at fullback, where Shane Bannon and Taylor Gentry are competing for a spot in the starting offense. The Chiefs might use some packages where Hillis lines up at fullback in front of Charles, but during minicamp and OTAs, the indications were that the Chiefs see Hillis as a halfback and want to have a fullback who can lead Hillis and Charles through holes.
We have the Chiefs just outside the Top 20 teams in the NFL, which is right around where they were when it was all said and done last season. At 7-9 in 2011, the Chiefs were a last-place team, but last place was only a game out of first place in the mediocre AFC West. With a healthier roster, Kansas City might have made the playoffs last season.
Unfortunately, it probably won’t be as easy to make the playoffs in the AFC West this season, and the questions about Matt Cassel’s effectiveness as a starting quarterback and the loss of a very good cornerback in Brandon Carr make the Chiefs look like a team that’s going to miss the playoffs again this season.