Head Coach Todd Haley has pointed out several occasions that the NFL season is broken up into four quarters, much like a football game. As such, the Chiefs have just completed the first quarter of the season with four losses and no wins. In my mind, this is about equivalent to being down 28-0 after the first quarter of a football game. There is still a lot of football to be played so in that sense the Chiefs are certainly not out of it but you certainly won't be running to your bookie to place a bet on them, either.
As the season wears on (as does the Chiefs seemingly never ending rebuilding project) it is important to stop and see how they are progressing and what the first quarter grades are by position. As one can imagine, this is going to be ugly. The good news, is just like a class in school, bad first quarter progress grades don't mean that there isn't time to improve. On the other hand, the bad news is that there can't be a lot of optimism for this season, since "F" students rarely become "A" students during the course of a single year. In any even, without any further ado, here is my Chiefs progress report card for the first quarter.
Most of this grade belongs to Matt Cassel, although the position grade gets some help from the play of Brodie Croyle in game number one. The NFL passer rating for Chiefs quarterbacks is 89.7 (this excludes on pass thrown by Mark Bradley), which is quite respectable. For Cassel, his rating of 82.5 is also respectable. Further, when evaluating the Chiefs quarterbacks one must consider the fact that Chiefs receivers have dropped 17 passes (including six in the Chiefs most recent outing verse the Giants), have been pressured constantly and sacked 13 times.
So why not a grade better than a C? The reason for this is two-fold. First, the Chiefs quarterback rating is skewed by a number of short touchdown passes, which greatly improve the rating, but just as easily could have been runs. Matter of fact, five of seven touchdown passes have been from less than 10 yards. Since the Chiefs can't run the ball they wind up having to pass in the red zone. The result is more touchdown passes (matter of fact, the Chiefs have not yet had a rushing touchdown to date). Next, the accuracy on throws by Chiefs quarterbacks particularly Cassel has been poor at times. For example, in the Chiefs' loss to the Raiders, Cassel found an open Dantrell Savage near the goal line, only to miss so badly that the safety behind the play was able to intercept. Then, this week, a pass to a wide open Bobby Engram is so far underthrown that it hits the back of Giants' defender's helmet, no where near Engram.
All things considered, Cassel and Croyle's moxie, competitive fire and play have been highlights (if there are such things in an 0-4 start) for the Chiefs, but still not nearly good enough. Both deserve credit for hopping back up after hit-after-hit and for standing in a pocket that always seems to be collapsing. Further, Cassel's running ability has been a pleasant surprise as has been his competitive fire.
Grade: Grade D
Larry Johnson has lost a step. There is no doubt about it and it is time for the Chiefs to really take notice. Take for example a 2nd quarter, 3rd and 10 vs. the Giants, where the Chiefs set up a screen to Johnson on the left side. Brian Waters was unable to maintain his block on Giants defensive end Justin Tuck, however, in spite of trailing Johnson, Tuck was able to run Johnson down and stop him for a one-yard loss. Johnson doesn't have the acceleration to get away anymore, three years ago he is still running. Johnson is now simply a guy, who at best turns a four-yard gain into a four-yard gain. Problem is that behind the Chiefs offensive line there are only two and three yard gains. The result is an average yards per carry of 2.6.
The sad part is that Johnson seems to be putting out the best effort that he can, but like many backs before him a 400+ carry season has spelled the end of his career. The Chiefs need to take a look at using a different type of back, such as Jamaal Charles or Dantrell Savage to compensate for the lack of blocking by the offensive line in order to raise the grade here.
Receiving core: Grade D
Four Chiefs receivers are on a pace for 40 or more receptions; Bobby Wade, Dwayne Bowe, Mark Bradley and Sean Ryan. However, this is a group that has dropped entirely too many passes. In addition to dropping passes, at times it has appeared that they are unable to get open, although this is a little hard to evaluate due to the poor play of the offensive line. Perhaps the most disappointing of the group has been Bowe. After playing exceptional at times during the preseason, Bowe has dropped a number of passes and hasn't been the same force in terms of run after the catch as he has been in previous seasons.
The surprise of the group has been Ryan, who has somewhat eased the loss of Tony Gonzales by leading the team with 11 receptions. However, he has dropped three passes and lacks the speed to get away on tight end screens, which are open on the Chiefs backside.
At times, this group seems to be hampered by the fact that injuries to Matt Cassel and later to Bowe have kept them from getting into sync. Plays are often just a hair away from being completions. Hopefully, time and improved offensive line play can help this problem. With time, this could ultimately become a strength for the Chiefs. Bradley has stayed healthy and continues to look fast and athletic. Bowe obviously has the ability to be a #1 guy, while Wade and Bobby Engram are capable guys.
Offensive line: Grade F
Where do I start? This is the worst offensive line I have ever seen play. Period. The best player on this line unbelievably has been Rudy Niswanger and not because he has played well, but because he is the only one who doesn't seem to be getting embarrassed every third or fourth play. Through four games, the Chiefs are on a pace to give up 52 sacks, even though the game plan has emphasized screens and short passing to take pressure off the offensive line. Had the Chiefs insisted on throwing the ball downfield and were Matt Cassel not mobile, it is conceivable that the Chiefs could have twice this number. Matter of fact, in the Chiefs loss to the Giants, the offensive line showed exactly what will happen if the Chiefs do open up the passing game. The result, five sacks in the 2nd half (not including a 6th called back by a penalty).
In the running game, Chiefs runningbacks are averaging 3.2 yards per carry, with the only success coming from Jamaal Charles and Dantrell Savage, who are able to use their speed to run away from defenders. Runningbacks Jackie Battle and Larry Johnson, who require the line to at least open a crease, often find themselves dodging defenders shortly after the handoff or running into a wall at the line of scrimmage.
The only good news is that Ryan O'Callaghan appeared to be an improvement over Ikechuku Ndukwe in Sunday's game verse the Giants. Of course, this leaves three glaring problem spots remaining on the offensive line in the form of Mike Goff, Brian Waters and Brandon Albert. In the case of Goff and Waters, you have two players who have just gotten to be too old. Both of them are regularly missing blocks due to a lack of speed or quickness. Frankly, at times it has been sad to watch both Waters and Goff play. These are both proud players, who at times look like a father getting taken to school by a 17-year old son, who has just found his oats. At left tackle, Albert has been just inconsistent, playing well at times (see the Raiders game) but then having lapses, which result in missed blocks, particularly in the passing game.
A possible solution here may be to move Ndukwe back to his natural position of guard and then perhaps to take a look at younger players such as Wade Smith and Andy Allenman at the other guard position. Also, the Chiefs have been working out offensive linemen at a frantic pace and it wouldn't surprise me to see the Chiefs add another lineman via free agency or trade in the coming weeks.
This group can purportedly be difficult to grade due to the Chiefs move to a 3-4 scheme. However, I disagree, while there may not be statistics directly related to the play of the defensive line, it is easy to see if these players are doing their jobs by occupying blockers in order to free linebackers. So far, this hasn't been happening on a regular basis. It isn't enough that the defensive lineman simple occupy one player, what he has to do is to force other players to assist in blocking him or disrupt lanes so that adjacent linemen cannot get to the 2nd level and make blocks. This hasn't been happening enough. However, to the extent the Chiefs have had some success stopping the running game, this has been the case. The problem here has really been consistency. One play the Chiefs defense looks like million bucks, the next it looks terrible.
Overall, in spite of the poor grade, this is the most promising group the Chiefs have because some of the players have clearly done well at times and all are learning their positions.
This group has been disappointing to say the least. A 3-4 defense is all about linebackers and this group has struggled. The most consistent performer of the bunch has been Demorrio Williams. However, Williams has been consistent but not spectacular. While he has 28 tackles, he has only one pass defensed and it isn't like he is a staple in the opponent's backfield. Corey Mays has been quite disappointing, following and impressive preseason, and his poor drops into pass coverage have left the Chiefs vulnerable in the middle of the field. At the outside linebacking spots, both Hali and Vrabel have been inconsistent in pressuring the quarterback and neither one has shown they can beat runningbacks or tight ends to get to the quarterback. Vrabel has provided fire and leadership, but seems to be missing Richard Seymore. Derrick Johnson has been relegated to a reserve role behind Williams, most recently due to injuries (and previously due to poor coverage in the pass game). I suspect that when Johnson returns to health that the Chiefs may tinker with this unit.
Overall, the Chiefs linebacking core just hasn't been dynamic enough. They don't regularly fly to the ball and they take too long shedding blocks. Additionally, there are way too many missed tackles. The result even when they are flying to the ball is that a 2-yard loss becomes a 2-yard gain. Since the Chiefs can't get pressure bringing just one backer, they wind up blitzing but even here - a general lack of speed prevents them from getting to the quarterback on time, while poor linebacker coverage, underneath leaves them vulnerable to dump off passes.
Brandon Carr and Brandon Flowers have both played adequately, although both have dropped a handful of potential interceptions. One thing that hurts both of them is the lack of pressure on the quarterback, which forces them both to cover longer and allows for QB's to set their feet and make hard, accurate throws.
Safety play has been mediocre at best. Mike Brown has been an improvement over Bernard Pollard, but has not played like the pro bowler he was when he was with the Bears. At the other safety spot, Jarrad Page continues to get sucked up and beaten deep. At nickel, Maurice Leggett has been adequate and has played much better than he did in the season opener against Baltimore, when he was forced into action as the starter corner.
This group has been the most disappointing because there positions have been the most unchanged in the Chiefs transition to the 3-4. Additionally, the Chiefs secondary was really supposed to be a strength of the team. So far, they have been just so-so. However, better linebacker play in the form of better coverage and better pass pressure would greatly help this group to improve.
Special Teams: B+
This has been the best part of the Chiefs game, which tells you everything you need to know about the Chiefs season. Ryan Succup is perfect on field goals and PATs, while Dustin Colquitt is averaging 46.2 yards per kick and leads the NFL in net punting yards.
The return game and coverage haven't been bad, either. Bobby Wade's contribution to the Chiefs as a punt returner is probably more than that as a wide receiver, since the Chiefs punt return prospects were scary going into the season. Wade has been solid, averaging 9.0 yards a return. On kick returns, Charles is averaging 25.7 yards per kick. In coverage, the Chiefs are giving up a slightly high, but respectable 22.1 yards per return, while giving up an exceptional 2.5 yards per return on punts.
Coaching and Front Office
The transition to head coach for Todd Haley has been a tough one. The Chiefs continue to have problems getting plays in on time and the playcalling has been suspect at times. I really wonder if Haley would have still fired Chan Gailey, if he knew what he knows now? Either way, we have learned a lot about Haley in the past few weeks. The first is he definitely will "play to win the game". He isn't afraid to take chances and to try the unconventional. He also doesn't have a lot of patience with poor play or losing. This is both a strength and weakness. It is a strength in terms of motivating his players to play hard and be willing to make changes. However, it can be a weakness if it keeps the team from developing cohesiveness. One of the biggest challenges for Haley will be finding balance here, matter of fact, his success as head coach may depend on it.
On the defensive side of the ball, Clancy Pendergast has done a better job at getting this group in sync and the defense has looked good at times, which considering the transition is a sign of hope. To be honest, Pendergast has done better than I expected. The Chiefs' defense has several players learning entirely new positions and a number of others known for underachieving. At least the group seems to be learning and playing hard.
Overall, the coaching staff has managed to keep the team motivated but obviously doesn't have the horses at this point to compete. The coaching staff will be more clearly tested in the next quarter and later in the season, when the Chiefs play teams that are of more similar talent.
In the front office, Scott Pioli scores points in my book for not standing by and doing nothing to improve the roster. For me, this is a big, positive change from the previous regime. Better is that Pioli seems to have salvaged at least a couple of hits from the NFL scrap pile. Bobby Wade has stepped in as punt returner and upgraded the receiving core, while Ryan Callaghan looked good at right tackle on Sunday. How these, as well as other acquisitions, play out will be better seen in the next quarter of the season (Note: I am only evaluating Pioli's performance on weeks 1-4 of the NFL season, evaluating him prior to this point is a topic for another article).
Overall Team Performance
No surprise here. Although the Chiefs were 2-14 last season, no points are given here based on expectations. Worse, I had expected that the Chiefs would come out of the first quarter with a 1-3 record, but a loss to the Raiders really hurt on a number of levels. The bad news is that the Chiefs are probably a worse team, now, than they were at the end of 2008. However, the good news is that they are probably a better team, now, than they were after the first quarter of 2008.
Overall, the roster is probably better than it was in 2008 but it is far less cohesive due to new schemes on offense and defense. Once players start to gel in these schemes, we can really start to gain an understanding of how good they may or may not actually be able to play.