First game of the 2008 season away to New England. Kansas City safety Bernard Pollard comes in on a blitz, goes low and crumples The Golden Boy.
That kid people know for being nothing more than a backup in college and a backup in the pros finally gets his shot. The Kid performs well and finishes with a winning record but no playoffs. Golden Boy gets healthy. The Kid becomes expendable, gets rich then traded. And gets richer.
The Kid is Matt Cassel. The new Kansas City Chiefs quarterback. Bernard Pollard’s new teammate. Former Patriots front office man Scott Pioli is posting up shop at Aarowhead and trying to bring some of that New England player personnel magic to the withering Chiefs.
Todd Haley turned his wealth of offensive talent in Arizona into a quick ascension to head coach. Matt Cassel isn’t Kurt Warner. And Dwayne Bowe isn’t Larry Fitzgerald. The Chiefs have some individual talent but coming off a two-win season, pretty much anything is considered progress.
Kansas City Chiefs
Last Season: 2-14, last in AFC West.
New Faces: HC Todd Haley, QB Matt Cassel, WR Bobby Engram, WR Amani Toomer, C Eric Ghiaciuc, LB Zach Thomas, LB Mike Vrabel, DE Tyson Jackson, LB Monty Beisel, G Mike Goff, CB Travis Daniels.
Subtractions: LB Donnie Edwards, QB Damon Huard.
The Draft: It wasn’t really until two days before the draft the name Tyson Jackson began to be thrown around as a potential No. 3 pick. The versatile LSU end is exactly what the Chiefs defense needs after finishing last in the NFL in sacks last season with a paltry 10. Good thing they traded away one of the premier pass rushers in the game (see Allen, Jared). Pairing Jackson with other high picks Tank Tyler and former LSU teammate Glenn Dorsey on the defensive line should give Chiefs’ fans hope as the team shifts to a 3-4 scheme under new defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast.
Third round pick Alex Magee (Purdue) will also factor into the D-line mix and comes from a fruitful college program for defensive linemen. Fourth round pick Donald Washington (Ohio State) started 24 games for the Buckeyes and has big game experience and will challenge to be the nickel corner.
The Good: Wide receivers. Heading into last season, wide receiver was a major worry for Kansas City. The Chiefs knew they had Dwayne Bowe, but not much after that. Jeff Webb and Devard Darling surely didn’t set any hearts aflutter. Now with future Hall of Famer Tony Gonzalez gone, even more emphasis will be placed on the Chiefs’ receivers.
What awaits new coach Todd Haley is far different than the Fitzgerald-Boldin-Breaston trio he enjoyed in Arizona. Bowe can be a star. With an unsettled quarterback situation, he still managed to notch a solid sophomore campaign (86 catches, 1,022 yards and seven TDs). He’s the Chiefs clear No. 1 (and No. 2) option.
Adding veterans Bobby Engram and Amani Toomer will only help Matt Cassel’s development. They are veterans who run precise routes and have trusted hands. Former Bears castoff Mark Bradley came on late last season and showed the big play potential he flashed in Chicago. He’ll hope to avoid the injuries that derailed his time in the Windy City. The addition of Toomer likely steals some of Bradley’s looks, but he has the speed others in the wideout corps don’t.
The Encouraging: Safeties. Bernard Pollard is every Patriots-hater’s favorite player for ending Tom Brady’s season minutes into the 2008 campaign. But Pollard is much more than just the guy who made new teammate Matt Cassel filthy rich. He’s one hell of a dancer. The Pride and Joy of Fort Wayne, Ind. (We can only hope some of the Cincinnati Bengals can give us something this entertaining on “Hard Knocks.” Lord knows, the Cowboys didn’t.)
Pollard led the team in tackles last year with 98, including 78 solo stops. Tying for second on the team with 85 stops was Pollard’s safety counterpart Jarrad Page. Page has started every game at free safety the last two years, which may or may not be a good thing. (The Chiefs allowed the fifth most passing yards in ’08.) But Page is a sure tackler, makes plays (10 forced turnovers since 2007) and is still young enough (he turns 25 on Oct. 19) to progress in pass coverage.
Both Page and Pollard will benefit from the presence of former Bear Pro Bowler Mike Brown. Brown is one of the more cerebral defensive backs in the league and can still perform at a high level. The question is, and has always been, whether or not he can stay healthy. He started 15 games for Chicago last season, but he missed nearly all of 2004 and 2007 and most of 2006 with a variety of injuries. He’s a savvy veteran paired with two young, emerging talents. It makes for a perfect blend in a defensive backfield that will need to compensate for iffy corners.
The Ugly: The defense. There are some pieces to work with. I just sang the praises of the safeties and talked about the youth on the defensive line. And there’s Derrick Johnson at linebacker to like. But the Chiefs still were 31st in total defense last season, allowing 393.2 yards a game. New coaches mean new systems, and Clancy Pendergast is bringing a 3-4 scheme. But are ancient Zach Thomas and Mike Vrabel really the answer? Eh. And Tamba Hali isn’t a linebacker, is he? The two Brandons (Flowers and Carr) are OK at corner, but had their share of burnings a year ago. We might learn real quick if Matt Cassel is the real deal because something tells me the Chiefs will have to throw a lot this season.
Fantasy Island: Kansas City’s fantasy relevance used to begin and end with Larry Johnson. (My regards to Tony Gonzalez.) LJ is going anywhere from the third to late fourth in 12-team leagues. Is Johnson going to ever match that 1,700-yard level he reached in 2005 and 2006? Probably not. But he still rushed for 874 yards in 12 games last season while averaging a promising 4.5 yards per carry. Now, it’s never good when you have as many fumbles as touchdowns (five), but LJ is still the most talented back in Kansas City. Jamaal Charles is a nice change of pace and third down option, but not a threat to steal anymore than seven carries a game from Johnson. With a more emphasis on an aerial attack, Johnson might find a little more running room this season. I say take a chance on him, you’ll be glad you did.
Matt Cassel is right on the cusp of being a fantasy starting QB option. If you take Cassel, make sure you have a viable Plan B. Is he a product of the Patriots’ system or a legitimate NFL starter? Throwing to the dynamic Dwayne Bowe and reliable Bobby Engram and Amani Toomer should help.
Potential Breakout Player: LB Tamba Hali. The Chiefs are looking anywhere for a pass rush after finishing last season 32nd in the league in sacks. Shifting Hali to outside linebacker from defensive end will free him up do what he’s supposed to do best – get after the quarterback. If Hali can’t adjust, he’ll join Michael Haynes, Jimmy Kennedy and Courtney Brown as Penn State defensive end first round flops. Paging Buffalo Bills fans (i.e. Aaron Maybin).
Schedule: The Chiefs highlight over the first two months of the season likely will be their bye Week 8. The defense just has too far to go for a developing offense to keep up. Kansas City gets the entire NFC East from Weeks 3-6 (away to Philly and Washington and home against Dallas and the Giants). Chiefs’ fans have to pray to get a victory against the Raiders (Weeks 2 and 10). If they don’t, the Chiefs will have to steal some pride against a soft final five games (Denver [twice], Buffalo, Cleveland and Cincinnati).
Worst Case: Ringo Starr Brodie Croyle gets his insanely hot wife pregnant.
Prediction: 4-12, last in AFC West.