As Dwayne Bowe said this morning, the first season is over. The Kansas City Chiefs have washed up ashore with a 1-3 record, a troubled and conflicted fan base, a quarterback and a head coach on the hot seat, and a crowded injured reserve list. The next three “seasons,” starting this week against the somehow-even-more-injured Indianapolis Colts and ending with week 17 in January, the Chiefs will be facing adversity. So let us study how, exactly, that adversity came to be.
The 2011 Kansas City Chiefs truly began their collapse during the 2011 NFL lockout. There was a five month window where the incredibly talented youth on our team were unable to maintain the conditioning and individual work that many more experienced teams were much more aware to pursue. Every young and developing team was put at an immediate disadvantage to other teams with more veteran leadership or more natural leaders than what the Chiefs had on deck.
This was, however, the high point of the Matt Cassel project in Kansas City. Organizing close to 50 Chiefs (!) in a town where most of them don’t even live, including several free agents without a contract, Cassel single-handedly ran a week’s worth of practices on his own. It was an amazing display of leadership from somebody who knew what the team needed, incredible initiative, and an almost omniscient understanding of the playbook. Matt Cassel was becoming, finally, the Leader of This Team.
This key revelation nonetheless faced two serious obstacles. Cassel has always been a natural beta male, which allows him to effectively lead by example and play the Good Cop when needed, but he absolutely lacks the wherewithal to become the Bad Cop (which on this team has all too often become Thomas Jones out of necessity). This lets his teammates off the hook far too often instead of holding their feet to the fire. This is fatal with a roster as young and underdeveloped as ours, and when actual practices began, Todd Haley was apparently so shocked by the radical variations in his players’ fitness he felt the need to initiate a similarly radical solution: start training camp out super easy, and gradually build up the physicality like a crescendo all the way through the fourth preseason game.
To use the kindest language possible, this was a disaster. The team’s discipline was a thousand miles behind every other team who took the time-proven method of making their training camps challenging and easing up and crystallizing the roster in preseason. The easy training camp left much of the roster out of shape. A fight even broke out in the locker room which injured our stud first-rounder for at least two full months. And as the sloppy ramp-up began in the preseason, our team was crushed for four straight weeks (while charging fans full price while the team did little more than practice) without even the slightest clue as to what they were doing. Starters like Cassel, Jamaal Charles, and Dwayne Bowe played deep into the fourth quarter in the last preseason game. Which we still lost.
Even for a guy like me who has truly appreciated the work Haley’s done over the past two years, this was damn near unprecedented. We lost Tony Moeaki. Matt Cassel broke a rib. The roster looked weird, shallow, and incomplete. And we were all pissed off beyond belief about it, as the organization looked absolutely lost from the owner down to the ball boys.
Much more, after the jump.
Through all of this, we were constantly assured by One Arrowhead Drive and fellow, overzealous Chiefs fans that this was just the preseason, and thus could easily be ignored.
Then, Week 1 happened. Our best defensive player is out for the season, and we get hopelessly crushed. Then Week 2 happened. Our best offensive player is out for the season, and we get hopelessly crushed. Cassel was throwing interceptions at an astonishing clip, none of the help we brought in for him was healthy or registering as actual “help.” Our defensive line, bolstered (but not really) by a 35-year-old nose tackle, are getting wiped off the line of scrimmage by iffy (AT BEST) offensive lines that will be among the league’s bottom third by the end of the season. My hero Glenn Dorsey? Horrendous. Everybody’s favorite punching bag, Tyson Jackson? Surprisingly adequate, though it doesn’t matter if our starting strong-side linebacker (Andy Studebaker) has regressed so radically he’s flirting with being deactivated for Week 5.
Really, “regressed” is the key term I’d use for this whole team the first couple of weeks. A ton of the young talent that had made this team who they were in 2010 looked completely lost now that the league was expecting much more out of them. Jerheme Urban and Verron Tucker, nothing. Barry Richardson, awful. Javier Arenas, crappy when he’s not returning kicks. Dexter McCluster, awful when he is returning kicks. Kendrick Lewis is lost without Berry absorbing attention from opposing QBs.
And then… there’s Cassel. Inspiring zero hope from his multitude of play callers, Cassel had been given nothing but five-to-ten yard routes, check downs, screens, and draw plays, and was still barely completing 50% of his passing and stacking up interceptions like they were going out of style. When he was given the opportunity to make some noise, he was generally pathetic. His body posture and game management were equally awful. All of our worst fears were starting to come true, and flush went the season.
Then, Week 3. Even though many of the intangibles going into the team’s visit to San Diego were heavily slanted in the Chiefs’ favor, it was a “good loss,” which is a phrasing only really bad teams use. The Chargers predictably came out flat. The Chiefs amazingly came out strong. Tamba Hali and Dwayne Bowe continue to impress. Dexter McCluster is hell on wheels coming out of the backfield. Derrick Johnson and Brandon Carr look really good no matter what Romeo Crennel asks of them. And while he’s been on the hot seat coming into this year, Brandon Albert has looked very solid at the crucial left tackle position. The Chiefs earned turnovers, Cassel somehow found enough open receivers to save the offense from its usual pathetic form, and the Chiefs found themselves in a position to win that fell short in the last minute when Cassel chucked the ball into a defender’s chest in what was one of many infuriatingly ultra-conservative play calls, even in the waning seconds with the game on the line.
Week 4 was the team’s first victory, but it was just as bad a win as the previous week was a good loss. The defense looked extremely impressive, allowing only a field goal and a great touchdown by the Vikings but otherwise shut down Adrian Peterson and created numerous turnovers that provided Cassel and the offense with great scoring position time after time. The Chiefs connected only one of these many different opportunities, however, when Bowe made an All World move to beat half the Viking secondary single-handedly. Everything else had to come in the form of a field goal from the seemingly reborn Ryan Succop.
So we sit here, with the first season totally in our rear view mirror, and we look at the big picture. What this team has is a plethora of talented players that could decorate anybody’s Super Bowl roster. Berry and Charles are out with injury, but there is no doubt what they provide this team. Moeaki at tight end. Bowe and Baldwin at receiver. McCluster out of the backfield, and Breaston in the slot. Albert, Lilja, Asamoah across the line. Tyson Jackson at left end. Hali and now maybe Houston and Sheffield on the outside, with DJ and Belcher inside. Flowers and Carr at corner, and one of the best punters in the game.
This team has many elements. What the first season tells us, is that they are lacking a core. In last week’s win, the Chiefs D played out of their minds all day, and were stellar in stalling Vikings QB Donovan McNabb’s final drive to seal the victory. But the Chiefs had two opportunities on offense earlier that quarter to put this game out of reach, and promptly crapped its pants twice.
Matt Cassel has yet to win this team a game when it matters most: the final minutes of the fourth quarter. That distinction alone should put him on very thin ice entering this season.
The team has consistency finally with defensive coaching, but the offense remains ever in flux because Haley can’t get along with anybody. Cassel’s hearing three different voices in his helmet and it is stagnating the offensive game plan, the one thing Haley was brought here to fix.
Going forward, for three more seasons in 2011, this Chiefs team needs to do everything it can to develop its talent. But more than anything else, it needs to figure out if it has a core in its coach and quarterback, or otherwise move on next year.
That means a lot of forcing the ball into Matt’s hands whether he likes it or not. And that means a lot of frustrating play if Cassel is exactly who we think he is.
Think of it as a necessary exorcism, then. This team’s got three more quarters, and getting everybody else on the team to progressively play better if the core can’t reliably provide.