Kansas City Chiefs
Can a blend of veteran experience and youthful promise give this club something other than a Jekyll-and-Hyde identity?
What exactly are the Chiefs right now? Coming off an up-and-down season in which they edged into a wild card, they jettisoned longtime starting quarterback Trent Green, wanting to get younger across the board. So their four big free-agent acquisitions were a 34-year-old outside linebacker, Donnie Edwards; a 28-year-old middle linebacker, Napoleon Harris; and two starting tackles, Damion McIntosh and Chris Terry, who are 30 and 32, respectively. At quarterback they're straddling the line between ancient (Damon Huard, 34, the opening day starter) and fuzzy-cheeked (Brodie Croyle, 24, the presumed successor). "I know who we are," said coach Herm Edwards in training camp. "We've changed the face of our team, but we're still a cross between a young team and a veteran team. This franchise has had 53 wins the last six years, which is good, but that's what this team was."
K.C. thinks its retooled defense could be a top 10 unit. Coordinator Gunther Cunningham will move end Tamba Hali all over the front seven to maximize his rush skills, and over his shoulder often will be one of the fastest linebackers in football, Derrick Johnson. Free-agent vets Harris and Edwards, with Johnson, should give the Chiefs their best linebacking corps in years. At safety two 2006 rookies, Jarrad Page and Bernard Pollard (who blocked three kicks last year), take their head-hunting games to the starting lineup. The Chiefs will have to play smart, low-scoring games and win the turnover battle.
WHERE THEY'RE HEADED
There are plenty of obstacles to success. This is the only team in the league that plays its first two and its last two games on the road. There's also a bull's-eye on the shoulder pads of running back Larry Johnson, the main offensive threat; a green quarterback, Croyle, pegged to take over at some point in the season; and a formerly strong offensive line that's now a patchwork.
The offense is all Johnson, all the time. He was wise to redo his contract in August because he almost surely won't have the same negotiating power after the season as he did before, running behind a line in which guard Brian Waters is the only outstanding pro. Plus, there's no way a back can continue on the pace Johnson has kept up the past two years. After carrying the ball 140 times in his first two seasons, mostly backing up Priest Holmes, Johnson toted it a combined 752 times in 2005 and '06. Since the NFL went to the 16-game schedule in 1978, only Eric Dickerson carried it more in back-to-back seasons, with 769 for the Rams in 1983–84. Johnson is only 27, but if he continues bearing such a burden, he may have only two or three dominant years left.
Herm Edwards says he'll keep LJ fresher this year by using a couple of relief pitchers -- veteran Michael Bennett and surprising fifth-round rookie Kolby Smith from Louisville -- but let's see if that plan holds in late December if the Chiefs are still in the playoff race. "Obviously he won't run it 400 times again," Edwards says, "but whoever runs it, we've got to get 2,000 yards." K.C. rushed for 2,143 last year.
The Chiefs will play it safe in the passing game, with Huard expected to give way to Croyle, the second-year player out of Alabama who'll get the chance to show he's the quarterback of the future. "I get the don't-be-a-gunslinger talk twice a week," says Croyle. "If the big play's there, hit it. If not, check down to the back. I know that, and I'm ready. This is what I've been preparing for since junior high school. It's not too soon."
There's ample reason to suggest that last year's 16th-ranked defense can get much better -- mainly because of four rapidly developing young players. Derrick Johnson, being mentored by veteran tackling machine Donnie Edwards, could have a breakout season pass rushing from the weak side. Page and Pollard are the biggest combo platter in the NFL in the deep secondary. Both weigh about 225 and are Polamalu-type big hitters. The question is, Are they mature enough and smart enough to be good players and not just torpedoes?
But if this defense is going to be great, Hali is the key. As a rookie out of Penn State he showed such consistent pursuit that Cunningham began playing him on both sides of the line and as a stand-up rusher at times, all to try to get him in the backfield more. The result: eight sacks and six forced fumbles. "If you want to be good in the NFL," Hali says, "there has to be something that separates you from the other rushers. With me, I think it's being relentless on every play." Hali will be helped by having a playmaker like Edwards commanding attention. After leading the 14–2 Chargers with 141 tackles last year, a healthy Edwards looks to have a season or two left. He and Hali could form a dangerous rush tandem.
Typical of this team, Edwards is 34 and Hali is 23. The Chiefs will need outstanding efforts from the old men and the kids to make a playoff run.