Okay, I’m not going to lie to you. The game against the Rams on Friday night was a BIG disappointment for me. I stated last week that I thought the team needed to come out and beat up on the Rams in order to get the team in the right state of mind headed into the regular season. Yes, it was only a 4 point loss, and in the preseason that doesn’t always tell you who would win in a regular season game. However, the fact that their offense marched down and got two quick scores while KC’s first string offense continued to sputter didn’t help the thousands of Chiefs fans who have been worried about their team’s slow start to the preseason to feel any better.
The question is simple. Is this poor play in the preseason a sign of misery to come or simply worthless preseason fodder that won’t have any bearing on how the team plays in the regular season. Obviously, Todd Haley and his team would like us to believe that they are saving up and building for September 11th and that there is no reason for alarm. Meanwhile, some in Chiefs Nation (fans, media, bloggers, etc.) are starting to address some real concerns that they believe could carry over to the games that count and might prevent the Chiefs from repeating the success they had last season. MAYBE, the Chiefs will come out in their final preseason game (at the Super Bowl champs) and put on a show that will set all their fans at ease, but given their approach to the preseason thus far, I doubt it.
The simple truth is that we won’t know for sure until the Chiefs take the field against the Bills. However, we can look at both at the talent on the roster and the play of individual players on the field to make an educated guess. That is exactly what I will try to do after the break.
So let’s start by looking at the roster and where there might be a change in the talent from last season. I’ll go position by position.
QB: Croyle Out, Stanzi In
HB: Same other than McClain possibly playing there and McCluster getting more time.
FB: Castille Out, McClain In
WR: Chambers Out, Baldwin, Breaston, Urban In
OL: Waters Out, Hudson and Gaither In
DL: Edwards and Smith Out, Gregg, Powe, and Bailey In
LB: Vrabel and Mays Out, Houston, Sheffield, and (? ILB) In
CB: Brown In
S: Piscitelli In
K,P,LS: All same
Okay, so is there any position on the Chiefs where we can clearly say the Chiefs have gotten worse in terms of the roster talent at that position? In my opinion, there are only three positions that you can make even a small case for the Chiefs being worse off: QB, OL, and DL. At QB we lost our backup that had some NFL starting experience in Croyle. However, that experience was never winning an NFL game, EVER. Plus when we needed Croyle last year he laid an egg against the Chargers. So at least Stanzi has future upside. I would call the backup QB position on par with last year with the possibility of it being better as Stanzi (and Palko) develop. On the OL it would be easy to say that we lost our Pro Bowl guard so we must be worse off. However, Waters was clearly starting to slip a little last year and the Chiefs had a player on the roster in Asamoah to replace him. Hudson essentially replaces Asamoah as the up and comer on the bench. That leaves Gaither; if he’s healthy and makes the team then I would vote for the OL overall being a little better off than last year. Finally the DL, I think when the Chiefs first lost both Edwards and Smith a lot of fans were worried about this spot. However, Gregg and Powe appear (so far) to be an upgrade over Edwards. The Chiefs have not replaced Smith’s role of a DE that can rotate with Jackson. They did however add an interior pass rusher in Bailey. So I guess if you want to break it down by position, they got better at NT and interior pass rush, but worse at DE.
So in terms of roster talent, the only position that they may have slipped at is 3-4 DE, and that could change IF Tyson Jackson improves. At other positions like FB, WR, and OLB the Chiefs have clearly upgraded their talent from last year.
Speaking of last year, if I was going to go back and make a list of the five biggest problems the team had from last year this would be my list.
1. No WR threats after Bowe.
2. No outside pass rush after Hali.
3. NT play in general.
4. Bad short yardage run game.
5. RT play in general.
So, despite the horrible preseason play, can we call any of those problems solved? Let’s go in order.
1. We have improved the WR position this offseason. Verran Tucker was clearly our second best WR after Bowe last season. In practice thus far Tucker seems to now be the 5th man behind Bowe, Baldwin, Breaston, and Urban. That is a sign of progress. Now, I would argue (like most of you) that Tucker belongs ahead of Urban, but just the fact that he’s gone from clearly #2 to trying to win the #4 spot is a sign that we are better off. Now some may argue that Baldwin is hurt and Breaston hasn’t been a factor, but can anybody really argue that they aren’t an upgrade over Chambers?
2. Last season there was basically no pass rush whatsoever from the OLB spot opposite Tamba Hali. I think most KC fans would have said that Studebaker was the best of the OLBs after Hali in terms of pass rush skills. This preseason however, Studebaker has been a distant 4th in terms of OLBs behind Hali, Houston, and Sheffield. Both of the last two have shown a constant ability to apply pressure to the QB which is something that has been lacking for several years. This may be the most improved area on the team.
3. Ron Edwards gave a very workman like effort at NT last season. The numbers however show that he just wasn’t very good at his job. The Chiefs now appear to have a good thing going at NT. Kelly Gregg should be an upgrade over Edwards, but even if his age catches up with him he should at worst be even with Edwards play last year. However, the fact that Gregg appears to be a great teacher and mentor for our 6th round pick Jerrell Powe makes the situation all the better. Powe has the physical size and strength to be an NFL NT if he can just learn how to play the position and get his conditioning up. Plus, Powe has flashed better than expected quickness so far this preseason. Overall, even though it would be nice to have a probowler lining up at NT, I still feel much better about the position this year.
4. In the playoff game against the Ravens the Chiefs (the #1 rushing team in the NFL) had a third and inches in the first half and ran a pitch outside to Jamaal Charles. That tells you all you need to know about their faith in their short yardage run game. Enter LeRon McClain. McClain gives the Chiefs a couple of options. First, he’s a better lead blocker then Cox was. Second, he’s a better short yardage runner then Jones is if they want to put him at HB with Cox as the lead blocker. Plus, something not many people have talked about, Waters got pushed around last year by powerful defensive lines. Asamoah may not be as “savvy” as Waters, but in terms of sheer power at the point of attack, I like a young Asamoah over the once great, but now aging Waters in short yardage. AND….if the 57 year old Casey Weigmann isn’t getting great push up front they could bring Hudson in for short yardage plays at center. Once again, I feel like this area is better off than last season.
5. Well, at least the other 4 areas are improved. I really thought KC would go out and get a tackle to upgrade over Richardson. Thus far in preseason, Richardson has NOT been any better. If anything he has been worse. The only hope for improvement is that Gaither would earn the coaching staff’s trust and take over at RT. Some are even saying he should play LT, but I think it’s too risky to put a guy with work, attitude, and health issues at LT over a guy who has been okay (not great, but okay) and risk alienating Albert. Regardless, this is the one area of the 5 major concerns that you can’t argue has gotten any better yet.
So 4 of our biggest problems appear to have been upgraded with the 5th being the same as last year. You combine that with the Chiefs upgrading talent at several spots while only one position really looking like it could be worse off (and Tyson Jackson is at least showing some signs that he can fill the void left by Smith) and I think it is very reasonable to say that this team is better than it was last year when they went 10-6 and won the division even after seeing the garbage that has been the first three preseason games. IF..the Chiefs can achieve their goal of staying healthy throughout the preseason (knocking on wood) and they really have been conditioning as hard as reports say they have been, then they should be in good shape for the regular season. The only question marks are if they have the same winning attitude and can all get on the same page. It would be nice if there were signs of this in KC’s final preseason game. However, even if there aren’t, I think there is still enough proof of improvement out there to keep the Chicken Littles of the world from freaking out. So keep the faith and remember September 11th is only two weeks away.