A season that promised so much for Kansas City in 2011 ended up delivering very little in the end. First of all, injuries took out a host of the Chiefs’ most important and dynamic players. Then, locker room discord took its toll and eventually the head coach, who only 12 months earlier had delivered their first division title in more than half a decade, paid for the disappointing season with his job.
Great teams often have to suffer through troubles before they reach their peak and that is exactly what Chiefs fans will be hoping 2011 was for them. The young talent that gave the Chiefs such great hope entering 2011 is still in place, returning fresh from injury with new veteran and young talent ready to take the Chiefs even further in 2012 and beyond.
Was 2011 just a bump in the road for the Chiefs? What has to go right for this to be the season that, healthy once again, the Chiefs re-emerge as a force not only in the AFC West but the AFC as a whole?
Five Reasons to be Confident
1) Thunder and Lightning in Tornado Alley
They are well used to wild weather on the Kansas/Missouri border. However, this season Chiefs fans will be hoping that the Thunder and Lightning will be taking place on the field rather than in the skies overhead. Peyton Hillis, after a somewhat disrupted season in Cleveland, is back in the AFC West and with the dynamic Jamaal Charles the Chiefs could have one of, if not, the best 1-2 punches at running back in the entire league. Both have proven to be more than capable of carrying the load as No. 1 backs, but their combination of skill sets give the Chiefs a truly explosive backfield. Hillis brings the power and some great athleticism for a man his size, while Charles brings the ability to break open a big run at any moment. If Charles is fully recovered from his torn ACL, as has been indicated, the Chiefs will have real game-breaking talent in the backfield, ready to take the league by storm behind an upgraded offensive line.
2) Transforming a Weakness Into a Strength
Speaking of that offensive line, one of the league’s better units from last season should be even better in 2012 as their greatest weakness, right tackle, is now arguably the line’s greatest strength. The Chiefs mismanaged a shrewd signing at tackle last season, cutting Jared Gaither who went on to star for division rival San Diego, but you would have to believe that they cannot fail to get a good season from Eric Winston. We chose Winston as our starting right tackle for the AFC Pro Bowl team last season, and the season he put together couldn’t be more different than that which the Chiefs got from Barry Richardson. While Richardson was busy giving up 50 total pressures last season and earning a -19.5 run block grade, Winston surrendered only 29 total pressures and earned a +8.3 run block grade. Texans backs averaged 5.3 yards per carry either side of Winston last season, compared to Chiefs backs collecting 2.9 yards per carry off of Richardson’s gaps. Needless to say, the Chiefs will be taking a step forwards on the right side of the offensive line this season.
3) Two Tight Ends: The Personnel Grouping of the Future
The New England Patriots may have used it to the most devastating effect last season but they are not alone, two tight end personnel is the next big thing in the NFL and the chances are that it’s here to stay. Seemingly football is getting more “big” athletes that may have played basketball in decades past. As a result NFL offenses are reaping the rewards as the athletes to cover them simply haven’t emerged yet. The Chiefs now have their own pairing for a potentially devastating two tight end set in the shape of Tony Moeaki and Kevin Boss. Both players have a recent history of injuries but both have also put in spectacular seasons within very recent memory. Moeaki was a revelation, as a receiver and blocker, during his rookie season out of Iowa and Boss’ 2009 season was one of the best from a tight end that year. Both can be devastating inline for both run and pass, combine that with Moeaki’s ability as a split receiver and the Chiefs two tight set is ready to roll in 2011.
4) Front Seven Set to Dominate
If the front seven is the engine of a defense then few have more horsepower going into 2012 than the Kansas City Chiefs. In the shape of Tamba Hali and Derrick Johnson the Chiefs have two bona fide studs at linebacker to combat run and pass downs. Johnson was a revelation in 2011, putting together a full season of dominance that should really have seen him as a candidate for Defensive Player of the Year. While Hali may not have matched his astounding 97 pressure season from 2010 last season, 63 total pressures and a significant step forward as a run defender is nothing to be sniffed at. Combine these two with the excellent run defense of Glenn Dorsey and Tyson Jackson up front, the capable run defense of Jovan Belcher beside Johnson, and the potential of Justin Houston opposite Hali and you have something potentially very special up front.
5) Berry and Flowers Re-United
Depth is crucial for any defense and the Chiefs learned the hard way last year that behind their starters things are a little thin, however with Brandon Flowers and Eric Berry re-united in 2012 things are looking rosy again in Kansas City. After a dodgy start to his rookie season Berry rounded out the final 12 games of his rookie season, including the playoffs, with an overall grade of +10.5. Without a shaky start that would have made him close to the top five safeties in the league. At his best Flowers is one of the best corners in the league in the tier below Darrelle Revis, he earned a +11.7 coverage grade in 2010. With such dominance in half of the secondary the Chiefs have the foundations of a pass defense to tackle Peyton Manning and his passing game twice a season.
Five Reasons to be Concerned
1) Is Cassel the Man?
There aren’t many questions left with regards to the offense of the Kansas City Chiefs, but one certainly does remain and went unaddressed through the offseason. Is Matt Cassel the right man to lead the Chiefs’ offense? With Peyton Manning available and a plethora of first round quarterbacks there was potential for the Chiefs to bring someone in to challenge Cassel, but the only quarterback signed was Brady Quinn. A signal caller who might struggle to unseat Ricky Stanzi as the Chiefs’ No. 2 quarterback let alone Cassel as the starter. Cassel has weapons at his disposal but can he do the job? Ever since his arrival in Kansas City, in spite of a division title, his passing grade is a decidedly disappointing -20.2, with only seven of his 40 starts earning a passing grade of +1.0 or higher. With Peyton Manning to duel twice a season, Cassel will have to raise his game or he will not get another reprisal in 2013.
2) Will the Receivers be Disrupted By the Tag?
The question here might be more along the lines of can they and do they want to? Dwayne Bowe has yet to report to camp, protesting at being tagged rather than collecting a big pay check, and is by far the most important component in the Chiefs’ passing game. While Steve Breaston is a perfectly capable contributor and Jonathan Baldwin showed some glimpses of promise, but also looked mighty raw, neither can be relied upon to be go to guys if Bowe experiences a slump season playing with the tag. As much as the Chiefs’ two tight set should be dangerous, if there is no threat outside, opposing defenses will simply load the box to take away the threat of those tight ends and that running game.
3) Center of Attention
After 16 seasons and at the age of 39 it would seem that Casey Wiegmann’s NFL career is finally over and stepping into the breach for him at center is Rodney Hudson. A second round pick in 2011, Hudson brings with him plenty of potential but also a distinct lack of proven play. Hudson registered 136 snaps last season and while he was perfect, allowing no pressure, during his 72 snaps in pass protection his run blocking was more of a struggle. Against the Bears in Week 13 he played half of the game and registered a run block grade of -2.6 that week. That profile, excellent pass protector and sub par run blocker, is a similar fit to the aging Wiegmann. However, the Chiefs will be hoping that Hudson’s run blocking takes a step forward in his second season, his first as a starter in Kanas City.
4) Depth at Corner…or a Lack Thereof?
The quality of Brandon Flowers is undeniable and free agent addition Stanford Routt has the talent to run with just about any receiver in the league (and shut them down if he can cut out the penalties). Chiefs’ fans learned last season though that starting quality isn’t enough, you need the depth. Behind those two things don’t look quite so peachy for Chiefs fans and they will be praying that the injury bug doesn’t hit at corner this season. While Javier Arenas is a capable nickel corner he is distinctly unproven on the outside, only 27 snaps as an outside corner in the last seasons, and behind that the Chiefs have nothing to inspire confidence. Travis Daniels has not played more than 300 snaps in each of the last four seasons, Jacques Reeves has been out of the league for two years since an average season in Houston and DeQuan Menzie is an unproven late round rookie. You can’t run four deep at every position, but corner above any other is a crucial position to be deep with the proliferation of the passing game and behind a strong starting pair the Chiefs are undermanned.
5) Mega-Talent…or Mega-Bust?
At the end of the season Dontari Poe was a relative unknown. His pre-draft workouts however, saw him catapulted into the NFL limelight and he was even in attendance at Radio City Music Hall to be selected with the 11th overall pick by the Chiefs. How often do these late risers live up to their potential? How many workout warriors can be pinpointed as the biggest of busts? There really isn’t much pressure on Poe to be dominant from the word go in Kansas City. With the talent around him in the Chiefs’ front seven they won’t be wanting for a quality front seven without him and behind him players like Amon Gordon are capable of playing as limited two down run defenders. By all accounts Poe has massive potential. As such a late riser have the Chiefs put all of their eggs in one basket hoping for Poe to be a dominant run defender and a contributor as a pass rusher on a defensive line so sorely lacking one?
What to Expect
In 2010 the Chiefs set themselves up with a development path that should have seen them at the top of the league for the next half decade at least. Injuries, among other things, derailed that development in 2011 but the young talent still remains. New head coach Romeo Crennel was far from a success in his previous head coaching stop in Cleveland, his challenge is to put the Chiefs back on that development path. Considering the talent at his disposal there is little reason to think that without another host of ACL’s going ping early in the season that the Chiefs won’t be fighting for the top spot in the AFC West this season.
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