Let me start by saying that by no means am I pushing the "panic button". However, no one could watch the Chiefs loss to the Eagles on Sunday and not come away with some serious concerns about where the Chiefs are at so far in 2009. While certainly no one was predicting that the Chiefs would make the play-offs this season, this team is supposed to continue to improve and get answers as this season progresses. As such, it is appropriate to look at concerns about the Chiefs that will play out as Scott Pioli and Todd Haley's inaugural season progresses.
My first concern has to do with the playcalling. Granted the Eagles were blitzing the pants of the Chiefs offensive line and granted that Matt Cassel was sacked 3 times, while attempting only 18 passes. However, the Chiefs offensive play calling, particularly in the second half, was curious to say the least. In spite of trailing by a large margin the entire second half, the Chiefs insisted on running (literally) nine times out of ten 1st and 10 opportunities in the 2nd half. At first, I thought that Haley was setting the Eagles defense up for a 1st and 10 play action pass, but the payoff never came. Instead, the Chiefs kept attempting to pound Larry Johnson up the middle for little or no gain, particularly in the 4th quarter. What is more perplexing is that - even if the Chiefs were hell bent on running on first down - even here they were predictable as 6 of the 9 runs were handoffs to Larry Johnson between the tackles.
Even outside of first down, the Chiefs play selection seemed strange. Granted, in his post game press conference, Coach Haley talked about the play selection having to do with "establishing an identity", but one could not help but feel that he had absolutely no confidence in the Chiefs offensive line to provide even cursory protection for Matt Cassel. Further, with the Chiefs needing multiple scores to get back into the game, of 28 second half plays, 20 were runs. That is a whopping 71%. This would be a lot even if the Chiefs were running the ball effectively, which the Chiefs clearly were not. In the second half, the Chiefs 20 runs amounted to only 71 yards, 22 of which came on a reverse to Mark Bradley. Perhaps the most frustrating moment was the Chiefs 5th possession of the 2nd half, when three consecutive running plays netted the Chiefs zero yards. Of the passes the Chiefs did attempt in the second half, half of these (four out of eight) were screen passes all to tight ends or receivers.
Needless to say, Haley's play calling was disappointing to say the least. How come the Chiefs didn't attempt any play action? Where were longer developing screens to running backs? The concern here is whether or not Haley has as some have suggested bitten off more than he can chew by taking over the Chiefs play calling. Frankly, the play calling was conservative in the 2nd half that I almost wondered if somewhere in America Mike Solari was watching the game going, "Damn, aren't you going to open things up?" The concern here is that it is going to take Haley longer than it would have to grow into a solid head coach, due to his having to manage so much of the game. Ultimately, I wonder if this is a decision he regrets at this point.
Another concern is obviously the state of the offensive line. Not only did the Chiefs offense surrender three sacks in the first half, but four times there were flags for offensive holding and the line failed to open holes for running backs most of the game. What is really disconcerting is that this offensive line is so bad that it may hinder the Chiefs ability to develop the offense and younger players. While I am not yet convinced that the Chiefs are the worse team in the NFL, I am convinced that they do have the worst offensive line in the NFL. The only player on the offensive line who has showed any promise is Brandon Albert and even he has been disappointing. Both Brian Waters and Mike Goff look like they have waited a year to long for retirement; Rudy Niswanger continues to look like a guy who should be a back up and Ikechuku Ndukwe looks like a developmental prospect at right tackle.
In my mind, the Chiefs need to bring in or trade for some kind of help. If the offensive line doesn't develop some sort of ability to function, 2009 may be a wasted season in terms of players learning to implement Haley's offense. Frankly, the good news is that the Chiefs can still bring in a right tackle, which would allow Ndukwe to move back to guard. This would basically give the Chiefs two linemen for the price of one. Both Langston Walker and John Runyan are available, however, I wonder about the condition or abilities of both of these players since no one has signed them since they became available.
Whether they can bolster their offensive line or not, one thing the Chiefs have to do is to develop some sort of running game. This again comes back to play calling, to some extent. The Chiefs need to run more misdirection and accept the fact that pounding it with Larry Johnson is not an option. It isn't a coincidence that the Dantrell Savage and Jamaal Charles are averaging 5.4 yards per carry, while Larry Johnson is averaging 2.5. In a world where the Chiefs can't block, misdirection plays and runningbacks who can make people miss make more sense. An effective running game would allow the Chiefs to work on play-action passing, which should slow the linebackers and allow things to open up all the way around.
On defense, the secondary has not look as good as one would have hoped and this is a concern. In particular, I suspect that Jarrod Page may soon be benched in favor of DaJuan Morgan or Jon McGraw. As the Chiefs free safety, Page was responsible for several blown coverages, which led to big plays, including being out of position on DeShaun Jackson 64-yard TD catch and run in the 2nd quarter. As a group, the secondary needs to find away to come up with plays that are handed them by not dropping potential interceptions.
Of course, on defense the concern continues to be the lack of pass rush. On the upside, the Chiefs continue to do a decent job of stopping the run, having held the Eagles to 93 yards rushing on 27 carries. However, through the air, Kolb had plenty of time to throw and this allowed him to pick the Chiefs secondary apart.
Here a concern seems to be that Tamba Hali has not followed up his preseason play or 1st game performance in weeks two and three. For the season, Hali has only seven tackles and just one sack. In general, the Chiefs blitzers are routinely being picked up by runningbacks and unable to speed rush around offensive tackles. This is a problem since more sacks are generated by players beating blockers one-on-one. Granted, scheme may occasionally get you a free run at the quarterback, but such aggressive blitz tactics typically leave the defense vulnerable to dump off passes and screens. When all is said and done, the Chiefs need to be able to generate pressure by rushing their front three and blitzing one linebacker.
So, what do all of these concerns mean? What these concerns mean is that the rebuilding process may take longer than was originally anticipated. In some ways, the team has taken some steps backward, particularly on offense, from the 2008 Chiefs. Although, the loss of Tony Gonzales was essentially unavoidable, it has set the offense back in terms of losing its most reliable weapon. Additionally, Goff and Ndukwe have looked less effective than Damion McIntosh and Adrian Jones were a season ago (although this is not to say that McIntosh whose play had clearly slipped should have been retained). While on the left side, Brian Waters has looked old and overwhelmed at times and isn't playing as well has he did last season. The result is that the offense may be 3-5 pieces away at this moment. On defense, the results may be a little more encouraging. Frankly, the addition of an impact, rushing outside linebacker might be enough to solve a lot of the Chiefs problems here.
Regardless of what anyone may have thought of Herm Edwards, there were a lot of reasons why the Chiefs were 2-14 last season and it was concern over that fact, which led to the bringing in of the new regime. But, Rome wasn't built in a day, and sad to say a winning Chiefs team won't be either.