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Shades of 2001

More by William Cloake
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The Kansas City Chiefs have a new head coach, a new quarterback, have alienated, benched or released what seem to be some of their best players and sit at 1-6. It sounds like this season, right? It's not. I am actually speaking of Dick Vermeil's first season as head coach of the Chiefs in 2001.

Although, most look back on Vermeil's stay in Kansas City in terms of what didn't happen, one thing is for certain, he managed to build a did have some success as he managed to post a record of 44-36 during his 5 years in Kansas City. On top of that, he built the number one offense in the NFL from 2002 to 2005. While Vermeil's stay only included one play-off appearance and an average record of 9-7, who in Kansas City wouldn't love to have at least that right now?

So let's go back to 2001. The hiring of Vermeil was a bit of a surprise. Vermeil had seemingly burned out in St. Louis to only now want to return to coaching just one year later. He was a complete departure from the Chiefs previous head coach, Gunther Cunningham. Cunningham had compiled a 16-16 record in only two years with the Chiefs and was known for being a tough disciplinarian. Vermeil, on the other hand, was known for being a player's coach but he still brought a new attitude to Kansas City.

In particular he kept saying he wanted players to "play faster" and one player quickly landed in Vermeil's doghouse; Pro Bowl wide receiver Derrick Alexander. Alexander was coming off a 2000 campaign, which had seen him grab 78 passes for an astonishing 1,391 yards and 10 touchdowns. Yet, Alexander was relegated to a reserve role in preseason and struggled to get his starting job back. When asked why, Vermeil stated that Alexander had to learn to do things the Chief's way, and this meant being more "uptempo" and "playing faster". In addition to alienating Alexander, Vermeil also let go of staples such as Kimble Anders and the Chiefs parted ways with other players such as James Hasty and Tim Grunhard.

Of course the other big change was the loss of Pro Bowl quarterback Elvis Grbac, who had thrown for 4,169 yards with 28 touchdowns and only 14 interceptions in 2000. Grbac took the free agency route to Baltimore and Vermeil brought in a player he had coached in St. Louis in Trent Green. There were many questions about this move as the Chiefs sent their number one pick for a quarterback coming off of major knee surgery. Vermeil was quickly criticized for having chosen to bring in Green solely because of the relationship he had with him during his time with the Rams. Additionally, the Chiefs sought to remedy their runningback problems by bringing in a relatively forgotten free agent in Priest Holmes, while forgoing former #2 draft pick Mike Cloud. I can remember that the pickup of Holmes was criticized and it was written that Holmes; "wasn't as good as Tony Richardson, who filled in for the Chiefs at tailback in 2000".

So what happened? The Chiefs struggled out of the gate, going 1-6 with their only win – ironically – a road victory of the Washington Redskins. The offense looked terrible and worse yet, the victory over Washington was followed by a lackluster loss to the division rival Denver Broncos, in which Trent Green had his worst game so far throwing four interceptions and leading the Chiefs to a woeful six points. After 7 games, Trent Green was looking like a complete bust and had only 8 touchdown passes, while throwing 12 interceptions. Two weeks later, going into their bye, the Chiefs were 2-7 coming off of a 27-7 loss to the New York Jets, where Green tossed 1 touchdown pass and three interceptions. Everywhere, fans were asking why Alexander wasn't playing (he would be released after the season after catching only 27 passes) and how the Chiefs could have let GrBac get away only to replace him with Green. There was further uproar when Vermeil brought in yet another player with whom he had ties – Eddie Kennison – to address the Chiefs woeful receiving core. Kennison had just been cut by the Broncos, where he couldn't even crack the starting lineup.

So needless to say, fans of the 2001 Chiefs were in an angry, frustrated and wondering what was wrong with Vermeil, as he had taken the #9 ranked offense in the NFL (in 2000) down to near the bottom of the league. But this is only part of the story. The 2001 Chiefs came on strong at the end of the season and won three of their last four games. By the time 2002 cam around, the Chiefs led the NFL in scoring putting up a team record 467 points.

So how do the 2001 Chiefs compare to the 2009 Chiefs? Well, the similarities are obvious. The Chiefs have made a change from a player's coach to a disciplinarian (a flip-flop from 2001), have changed quarterbacks (from Thigpen to Cassel), brought in a totally different offensive scheme, alienated, benched or lost seemingly key players (Derrick Johnson, Brian Waters, Tony Gonzalez, etc.) and sit at 1-6, ironically after a lackluster loss to a division rival following their first victory of the year over Washington. Seems eerily similar, doesn't it?

However, there are differences between these two teams, as well. First is the sentiment of the fan base. Fans were mostly excited by the hiring of Vermeil, as most were excited by the hiring of Todd Haley. However, Chief's fans in 2001 were not nearly as frustrated as those in 2009, having watched a 16-16 team over the previous two seasons, as opposed to a 6-26 one. Secondarily, Vermeil had more credibility with fans, as a coach who had been to two Superbowls and won one. As a result, when the team faltered, fans mostly gave Vermeil the benefit of the doubt, Haley, conversely, is on a much shorter leash. Instead of seeing the Chiefs struggles as part of a rebuilding process, there is a tendency to wonder whether or not he is the right man for the job. Additionally, unlike Vermeil, Haley is going through a learning curve and is not as patient as Vermeil or his predecessor, Herm Edwards. In a sense, this makes Haley vulnerable to fans criticism. Since he has no patience with losing, he makes changes and tries things in order to find a spark. This makes him appear erratic and inexperienced (which he is). However, it is a catch-22 since if he were patient, it is just as likely that fans would be clamoring for him to make changes or to try something to at least spark the team.

But, more than the changes in the fan base and differences in the coaching staff, there is something else that is quite different between the 2001 and 2009 Chiefs. In a word: talent. By 2001, four fifths of what would be the greatest Chiefs' offensive line in history was assembled, with Casey Wiegmann, Will Shields, Brian Waters and John Tait awaiting the arrival of left tackle Willie Roaf in 2002. Additionally, the team had Tony Gonzales, Priest Holmes and Tony Richardson. The only real problem on offense was at wide receiver, where rookie Snoop Minnis lead the team with a paltry 33 catches.

Meanwhile, on defense, the 2001 Chiefs finished 23rd in the NFL in points allowed and yards (sound familiar?). However, there was talent on the unit with players like Eric Warfield, Donnie Edwards, Marvcus Patton, Duane Clemmons and Greg Wesley. Unfortunately, this would be a problem Vermeil would never be able to address and poor defensive play arguably kept the Chiefs from going to a Superbowl. Still, in spite of similar results, the 2001 Chiefs had more talent on defense than do the Chiefs of 2009.

Ultimately, compared to the 2009 Chiefs, the 2001 Chiefs had a roster full of all-stars. The 2009 Chiefs have very few players on their roster that other teams would be clamoring for at this point. Todd Haley doesn't have a solid offensive line or players with talent of Tony Gonzales, Trent Green, Priest Holmes or Tony Richardson to work with on offense. On defense, there few established NFL performers (Mike Vrabel, maybe Brandon Flowers and Mike Brown – who has severely underachieved).

Point is: it may not be fair to completely judge Todd Haley on what is an entirely unfinished piece of work. The 2009 Chiefs – after 7 games – look exactly like the 2001 Chiefs in the same time frame, and that didn't turn out all bad. Following the Chiefs fast finish in 2001, fans felt more optimistic going into 2002. Hopefully, the same will be true for the Chiefs in 2009. At this point, who really knows for sure?

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