You can call me Pollyanna, but I think the Chiefs may actually be a winning team this season. Don't get me wrong, I am not saying anyone should start surfing E-bay for Superbowl ticket rights, but I am saying that 10-11 wins aren't out of the question. You may ask how this is true. I will tell you. The way I look at it, there are four ways in which the Chiefs are substantially different from the Peterson-Edwards regime of the past three seasons. With no further ado, here they are:
The Chiefs roster is already vastly improved over last season. Yes, believe it or not this is true. Conservatively speaking, the Chiefs will have four new starters on offense and four new starters on defense. That is a 37% change. Most of these are upgrades, too. Mike Vrabel and Zack Thomas may have their best days behind them, but they are certainly upgrades over last season. I like Rocky Boiman as much as the next guy, but would you rather have him or Zack Thomas? You may not like the choice of Tyson Jackson, but certainly he will be better then last season's options at defensive end. In the secondary, Mike Brown is playmaker unlike either of the Chiefs safeties from last year.
What about on offense? Granted the biggest loss is Tony Gonzales being replaced by Brad Cottom, but on the other hand Bobby Engram (who will likely start as the Chiefs employ a three wide-out set) is an upgrade over anything the Chiefs had at #3 last year. Even if you don't like Engram, consider that he had more catches than Will Franklin, Devard Darling and Jeff Webb combined and there is no getting over the fact that he is a major upgrade. On the offensive line, Mike Goff is a major upgrade over Adrian Jones, and a leader like none on the Chiefs line to date. At center, Eric Giuciac may or may not beat out Rudy Niswanger, but you have to like that the Chiefs brought in a guy for competition. Granted Giuciac may not have had a good 2008 season, but if he can return to his 2007 form (when the Bengals o-line allowed only 17.0 sacks) the Chiefs may have something. Either way, he is a guy who can play multiple positions and is an experienced starter who adds depth. Finally, in a point worthy of its own heading, Matt Cassell is a major upgrade over Tyler Thigpen.
Frankly, one thing I am starting to realize is how much the Chiefs underachieved last season. I am not saying that this was a good football team, but they should have been better than two wins. On offense, the line played remarkably well in the second half of the season, in particular. Brandon Albert was a beast, Brian Waters did his thing and Damion McIntosh, Adrian Jones and Rudy Niswanger were at least adequate. Then you have weapons like Dwayne Bowe, Tony Gonzales and Larry Johnson and you wonder why offense was such a problem. On defense, granted everyone but the secondary played poorly, but these were all the guys that Edwards and Peterson picked. At some level, I think everyone has come to think that this team is full of awful players but that isn't completely true. Some of these guys just need to be used properly, motivated and taught how to win.
Regarding Thigpen vs. Cassell, consider that in the last eight games of 2009, when both Thigpen and Cassell were up and running, that Cassell's rating was 94.4, while Thigpen's was only 80.7. Granted, Cassell had more talent around him, but the difference between a mid-nineties and low eighties QB rating is light years. Keep in mind, too, the Cassell grew into a difficult NFL offense that was designed for Tom Brady, while Thigpen had his career saved by running an unconventional offense designed completely around what he can do (frankly, at the expense of any semblance of a running game). To some extent, the Chiefs offense even further enhanced Thigpen's numbers because the Chiefs would throw the ball in short yardage when teams (like the Patriots) would run. This led to more TD passes then the offensive production warranted.
Further, if you watch Patriots games from last season, you will be impressed with Cassell's accuracy, decision-making and arm strength. Yeah, he was throwing to Randy Moss and Wes Welker...blah, blah, blah...but look at the way the passes were thrown. These guys weren't making great catches, the passes were there, they were open and they were there on time. Also, it may surprise Chief's fans to know that Randy Moss was not the be all, end all, last season. Matter of fact he dropped a lot of passes (see the game vs. Pittsburgh where he drops four passes, two of which would have been touchdowns). In fact, Moss caught only 69 passes, 13 less than Dwayne Bowe. Frankly, Cassell surprisingly spread the ball around as Kevin Faulk, Ben Watson and Jabbar Gaffney combined for 118 catches.
On the other hand, Thigpen's accuracy when questionable even when he was at his best. Remember the game against the Dolphins? Thigpen had a good day but down by three with two and half minutes left the Chiefs have the ball first and ten at their own 25. The first two plays are wild throws to an open Dwayne Bowe. On 3rd and 10, a screen gets 9 yards but on 4th and 1, Thigpen makes a bad decision to run (never even looks for a receiver) and slips...game over.
Remember, too, that Cassell had to do his work with a revolving door at runningback. By the end of the 2008 season, BenJarvis Green-Ellis - a free agent - was starting for the Patriots at runningback. The Patriots number one back Laurence Maroney got only 28 carries for the season, while his replacements Sammy Morris and Lamont Jordan also got hurt. So, while you can say you wonder what Thigpen would do throwing to Moss and Welker, isn't it equally fair to say that you might wonder what Cassell would do with a runningback like Larry Johnson behind him?
The Coaching Staff
Next, the coaching staff. Although Clancy Pendergast may not have been anyone's first choice, I am thrilled that the Chief's are moving to a 3-4 defense with guys who know how to play it. If Tamba Hali can make the transition to outside linebacker and Tyson Jackson is as good as Pioli thinks this defense could turn around really quickly. Imagine, too, that Vrabel and Thomas have gas left in the tank and that Brown stays healthy and suddenly this defense could be something worth talking about. Granted this a lot of "if's" but these moves all have a couple of things in common. First, they were bargain pickups that are easy to get out of if it doesn't work out. Second, guys are all experienced guys who work hard and know how to win. This coaching staff is attempting to change the Chiefs culture. This may be the first step towards winning and might be the most important.
On the offensive side of the ball, who can tell me that Haley's offensive philosophy alone will not be an upgrade over the mindset of Herm Edwards? I wonder how many times Haley has made the statement that "a punt isn't always a bad thing". My guess is probably, I don't know, ZERO. If this offense doesn't score and move the ball, this guy will be getting in peoples faces and making changes. Although, I was never a major Edward's detractor, I will admit that I hated this statement. You should expect to score ever time you have the ball. If you don't it is a bad thing. I think Haley has this same mindset.
Herm Edwards and Carl Peterson's mindset's were very patient. Guys were given a lot of time to develop. William Bartee, Ryan Sims were just two examples of players who were allowed to flounder (I mean develop) while the rest of the team struggled.
For right or for wrong, this is not the Pioli-Haley mindset. They have taken a lot of heat for cutting a guy like Will Franklin, but I like the message it sends. It tells players on the team that they are not going to be given time to catch up or slow the team down, no matter what their "potential". The NFL stands for "Not For Long" and Pioli and Haley seem to want players who play like that.
My guess is that if the Chiefs don't win this season that the attitude won't be "we've got to give the young guys time to develop", the attitude will be "we have to make some changes so we can win".