Preseason games are meaningless. They are glorified scrimmages.
That’s what fans tell themselves when their team loses preseason games. And while these exhibition games are not transcribed in any sort of record book, I don’t think the results are useless.
I’ve always been a proponent of when the starters are on the field, the game is meaningful. Sure, the play calling is often more conservative because offensive and defensive coordinators don’t want to show too much on tape before the regular season starts. Sure, many teams are just using the preseason games as another opportunity to learn the playbook and build chemistry. And sure, many players aren’t going to play to their utmost in an attempt to avoid serious injury before the real games begin.
For the most part, I think the Chiefs defense has followed the above preseason exercises (unfortunately, our defensive backfield has not remained unscathed). And until game three, I thought the Chiefs starting offense looked solid*.
*Full disclosure, I am closing in on working 100 hours this week so I wrote this post before Friday’s game with the expectation of a good showing by Cassel & company. After staying up late re-watching the game, I knew some of what I wrote would have to be changed.
In three preseason games, the starting offense has looked like it can’t decide if it wants to be good or not. Against the Cardinals they looked unstoppable, with each of their two drives ending in touchdowns. Against the Rams they looked like they still had some momentum even with a one-sided score, as they went on two drives of 10+ plays – one resulting in a touchdown – and converted a field goal after an 8 play drive at the end of the first half. Then on Friday night, I wasn’t sure what to think about them.
The first four possessions by the Chiefs resulted in 18 plays good for four punts and 11 total yards. And then all of a sudden they commence on a 17 play drive (11 of which were in shotgun) that ended in a touchdown to Dexter McCluster that was the result of Cassel extending the play with his legs (which he could have used to land on rather than his back when he jumped and missed during his touchdown celebration).
They would then begin the second half with a 9 play drive that ended in a Cassel fumble and then a 5 play drive with a pick 6. After converting a first down on the next possession, Cassel was replaced by Brady Quinn. And while the offense wasn’t as good as we hoped it would be last night, the play calling seemed to be more about creating chemistry between Cassel and his receivers than anything else. I mean, the guy lined up in shotgun more than me playing Madden 12 on rookie mode. The play calling wasn’t what fans will see when the regular season hits.
I know that it’s hard to be excited about the Chiefs offense after a thorough butt kicking like the one Seattle just delivered to us, but based off these three preseason games, I’m going to break down some points of excitement (and one question mark) fans should have about this Brian Daboll lead offense:
Biggest variable: Dexter McCluster
McCluster has always been a bit of an in-betweener. He’s not quite a running back, not quite a wide receiver. He’s an “offensive weapon,” but until this preseason, many were wondering if the Chiefs had the game plan to actually take advantage of McCluster’s unique set of skills, especially with the return of Jamaal Charles. He kept being moved around from position to position, and never seemed to look comfortable as a situational back. McCluster, however, seems to be flourishing in Daboll’s new offense. He has (before Friday’s game) 13 catches for 129 yards and 1 TD starting action so far. These are short yardage throws, usually screen passes, that McCluster can gain yards on by making people miss. That’s what he’s good at and I’m glad to see he’s not just being used for 3rd and long draw plays like last season.
Biggest Man-crush: Peyton Hillis
This one has to go to Peyton Hillis. With Charles back, some fans questioned the importance of Hillis. Why bring him in if it means taking away snaps from Charles? I understood the thought, but loved the addition of Hillis on a one-year contract. He’s got a lot to play for this season, and let’s be honest, being on the cover of Madden doesn’t hurt. And as I loved the signing, I have not been disappointed with the showing. With the Chiefs being conservative with Charles, working him back slowly, Hillis has looked like a man amongst boys running the football. He’s knocked people down, dragged players with him, and been unstoppable near the goal line, which is exactly what the Chiefs have been missing since perhaps the heyday of Larry Johnson. In three games, Hillis has 11 carries for 51 yards (4.6 ypc) with a TD and one catch for 11 yards and a TD – Hillis only carried the ball twice against the Seahawks. Hillis came to KC to reunite with Daboll; it seems like the match was made in heaven.
Biggest Comeback: Matt Cassel
All due respect to Eric Berry, Jamaal Charles and Tony Moeaki, but Cassel got my nod for this one. Berry’s been back in the defensive line up, but Charles and Moeaki haven’t got all that many repetitions (what’s the point of getting hurt in preseason?). These three guys are the ones whose returns were supposed to make all the difference, but Cassel has looked better than he did in all of 2011 so far. In three preseason games, Cassel is 37/58 (64%) for 377 yards 2 TDs, 1 INT and 1 fumble. Before Friday, you would have been hard-pressed to find a more efficient quarterback so far in the preseason, and even against the Seahawks, Cassel had many passes hit players in the hands that couldn’t hold on. And even if Cassel didn’t seem the most comfortable last night, it does seem Cassel has found a comfort zone within Daboll’s offense. “The quarterback position is a hard job to play every single year. I’m not going to say it’s easier this year versus other years. We’ll just have to see.” Interpretation: he likes it.
Question mark: Wide Receivers
This is really the one question mark I have, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Until last night, there had been a lack of receivers catching the football. Baldwin and Breaston finally got involved, with Baldwin having 6 catches for 37 yards. Bowe was slowly worked back into the line-up, but not starting. After the first two preseason games used the running backs and tight ends more for receiving, it looked like Daboll wanted Friday to be about the receivers. With the talent the Chiefs have at that position, I’d like to see them get involved in the game plan more.
What to watch further: Use of tight ends
After addressing the wide receiver play, it’s time to talk about where all the reception yards have been going: to the tight end. In three games, several different tight ends have caught passes from Cassel including Tony Moeaki, Kevin Boss, Steve Maneri, and Jake O’Connell. Boss and Maneri both had multiple reception games. This isn’t out of the ordinary for a Daboll-run offense; in 2010, the leading receiver for the Browns – which Daboll was the offensive coordinator for – was tight end Benjamin Watson with 68 catches for 763 yards and 3 TDs. Moore also added another 34 catches for 324 yards and 4 TDs (in a side note, Hillis had 61 catches for 427 yards and 2 TDs). Kansas City has quite a bit of talent at the tight end position between Boss and Moeaki, so I can see them being used heavily in this offense, which isn’t a bad thing.
If the 2012 Chiefs offense falls into place and finally realizes its collective potential, it could be deadly. As Kevin Boss recently stated: “I think we’ve got a real strong team. If you look from top to bottom at each position, we’re deep.”
Now that they’re deep, it’s time for them to be good.