Last season was a bizarre, frustrating year for the Kansas City Chiefs.
A team that had won the AFC West the previous year experienced growing pains of the most excruciating variety. Snakebitten by injuries to four vital players, including arguably the two most important in Jamaal Charles and Eric Berry, the Chiefs were hamstrung from Week 1.
Unfortunate injuries combined with a brutal schedule and a midseason coaching change all contributed to disappointing 7-9 finish in 2011. Despite the setbacks, Kansas City came within one blocked field goal of winning the AFC West and a second straight postseason berth.
Now under the leadership of Romeo Crennel, the Chiefs are intent on proving 2010 was no fluke. Following are six bold predictions on how they will get it done in 2012.
Not since Priest Holmes and Larry Johnson occupied the same backfield have two ball-carriers with this much potential been teamed up in Kansas City. The Chiefs paired the two in what seems to be an overall approach to winning football games that died with the 2000 Baltimore Ravens: win with a punishing run-first offense and stifling defense.
The success of going against the high-flying, air-attack offense that is the overwhelming trend in the modern NFL rests on the success of Charles and Hillis. And the way the Chiefs are built both in the trenches and with their coaching staff will make it happen.
The thundering Peyton Hillis is reunited with offensive coordinator Brian Daboll, whom Hillis had his best season under in Cleveland in 2010 when he rushed for over 1,100 yards. Daboll obviously knows how to put Hillis in a situation to succeed and with an offensive line vastly better than what he had to work with in Cleveland, it should be a lot of fun to watch Hillis smash-mouth his way to 1,000 yards.
As for Charles, his only kryptonite during the 2010 season was teams keying in on him with eight men in the box. He’s fast enough to make up for subpar blocks and the occasional extra defender, but not most of the defense breathing down his neck. Imagine what Charles will be able to do out of two-back sets with Hillis commanding his share of the defensive attention.
Yeah, I just got chills too.
To say the Chiefs pass rush has been anemic the past few seasons might actually be a bit generous.
In 2011 Tamba Hali accounted for 12 of the team’s 29 sacks. If the Chiefs have any aspirations of being an elite defensive unit, having Hali shoulder an overwhelming share of sacks simply isn't acceptable or reliable.
Thankfully, the 2012 edition of the Kansas City defense seems to have found the Neil Smith to their Derrick Thomas.
Starting opposite of Hali most of 2011 with negligible impact, Justin Houston found his groove against Chicago in Week 13. Torturing Bears quarterback Caleb Hanie throughout the day, he recorded three sacks. From that game on he would go on to record 2.5 more sacks, knock down two passes, force a fumble and recover a fumble.
Now that Houston has gotten his feet wet with NFL success, expect him to take the full plunge in 2012. Opposing offenses can no longer key in on just Hali, taking pressure off of both of them (not to mention having to account for blitzes from Derrick Johnson, Javier Arenas, Eric Berry…you get my drift).
The nightmares of offensive coordinators every week will be filled with the Bookend Beasts of Kansas City. 17.5 sacks for Hali. 10.5 for Houston.
The offensive line is like a bass guitar. You hardly notice it, but when it’s good it makes the music that much sweeter. And the Chiefs are poised to make some sweet, sweet music with their big boys come 2012.
The trenches in Kansas City were a major focus in the draft, with GM Scott Pioli selecting guard Jeff Allen of Illinois in the second round and former Sooner tackle Donald Stephenson in the third. Neither of them will start, and that’s the best news Chiefs fans could hear about their new hogs.
The practicality of drafting players who have little chance of starting in the second and third rounds is up for debate, but the last time the Chiefs didn't direly need immediate help on the offensive line, Bad Boys II was still in theaters.
A revamped interior featuring center Rodney Hudson and Jon Asamoah features former second and third round picks who sat for a year and then started the following season, a path Allen seems destined for in replacing veteran Ryan Lilja. Lilja, while considered the new weak point along the offensive line, will still be a valuable, experienced presence.
But it’s the two tackles who will make this line special. Branden Albert, while consistently middle of the pack in pass protection, excelled in run blocking last year. According to a story by Josh Looney on the Chiefs' official website, Kansas City halfbacks were considerably more successful running behind Albert on the left, averaging 5.61 yards per carry. The right side, on the other hand, netted only 3.25 yards per carry.
Thanks to a new Chief, though, the right side will be just as effective as the left.
In what very well may be the biggest upgrade in the entire NFL, the Chiefs reeled in free agent right tackle Eric Winston from Houston. Replacing the porous, putrid and penalty-prone Barry Richardson, Winston helps put the Chiefs over the top from a good offensive line to a great one. Few offensive lines will be better than Kansas City’s in 2012.
Even without Eric Berry, the Chiefs were a strong defensive team in 2011. Ranked 11th in 2011, Kansas City will finally take the next step to becoming an elite defense.
Why? Because the secondary is as stacked as a Oklahoma Joe's Z-Man sandwich. And in a division now featuring Peyton Manning, it might be in your best interest to hoard as many good cover men as you can.
Berry rejoins Kendrick Lewis and Brandon Flowers in the defensive backfield, where the trio accounted for nine of the team's 14 interceptions the last time they were all together in 2010.
Despite losing Brandon Carr in free agency the secondary recovered quickly with the shrewd signing of Stanford Routt. As evidenced in Oakland playing behind Nnamdi Asomugha, Routt is a more than capable second corner who will quickly gel with his new backfield.
Toss in Javier Arenas to cover the slot and DeQuan Menzie to make sure Sabby Piscitelli never sees the field again and this secondary will quickly be recognized throughout the league as one of the best.
Back in 2010 Matt Cassel certainly wasn’t the picture of an elite quarterback in the mold of Rodgers or Brees, but he certainly wasn’t Tyler Palko, either.
Throwing for 3,116 yards, 27 touchdowns and seven interceptions netted him a 93.0 quarterback rating. Respectable numbers, but they’re even more impressive if you consider what he had to work with compared to now.
Dwayne Bowe was still his primary receiver and happened to be on an absolute tear that year, but beyond Bowe and Tony Moeaki the receiving weapons cupboard was bare. Chris Chambers hit a wall, Terrance Copper couldn’t outrun Terrance Cody and the only options beyond that were undrafted free-agent Verran Tucker and rookie Dexter McCluster learning how to play slot receiver.
Now replace those fellows with Steve Breaston, Jonathan Baldwin and Devon Wylie. Upgrade is an acceptable word, but not quite strong enough.
Combine the receivers above with a healthy Moeaki, new tight end Kevin Boss, and the aforementioned Charles and Hillis duo. Add in a pinch of Daboll, a dash of improved pocket protection and throw that in the oven for a full, non-lockout interrupted offseason and what comes out?
A vastly improved Cassel.
The reloaded Chiefs offense has given Cassel more weapons then he's ever had previously. He may not be the most talented passer around, but few quarterbacks can boast more viable offensive firepower.
It wouldn't shock me to see him throw 35 touchdowns and five interceptions.
The overwhelming sentiment in Kansas City these days when discussing the Chiefs can be summed up with one phrase.
"If we could just win a dadgum playoff game..."
If all the above predictions come true that's exactly what will happen.
Will they all come true? No, of course not. Trying to pinpoint what's going to happen in an NFL season is like trying to hit a housefly in a dark room with a nickel.
But I do believe the Chiefs have enough talent and the right leadership to finally take the next step in postseason success.
Final Verdict: 12-4 regular season record, win the AFC West, reach AFC Championship.
I don't always make predictions, but when I do, I prefer them to be bold.