Kansas City belongs to a division that oozes with quick-strike offensive capabilities—teams effortlessly drive over yards like suburban lawn care. Peyton Manning dictates movement like a puppeteer, Usain Bolt moonlights as Darren McFadden's stunt double, and Philip Rivers' arm accounts for more electrifying strokes than his stadium's midfield logo.
Meanwhile, in 2011, Snooki could've solved a Rubik's Cube in between Chiefs touchdowns.
So, how can last year's drought-stricken, 27th-ranked Kansas City Chiefs offense evolve into the AFC West's most efficient scoring machine?
You know the drill.
Divisional opponents annually account for more than one-third of every team's schedule—it's not breaking news, but it's significant.
In 2011, the defenses of Kansas City's closest three rivals were average at best—literally. The 16th-ranked San Diego squad finished in the middle of the NFL pack in total defense. Denver (19) concluded slightly behind, and Oakland (28) uncharacteristically ended with the bottom-dwellers.
Arrowhead Stadium housed the 11th-ranked (total) defense, and Romeo Crennel's youthful pupils are only going to improve. Although Dontari Poe isn't off to a hot start in training camp (Poe-lar bear?), Anthony Toribio is making strides and taking first-team reps with the starters. Following his first lockout-free offseason, Justin Houston—who finished second on the team in sacks last season—is primed to become a household name amongst AFC West fans. And most importantly, the Rock 'Em Sock 'Em presence of Eric Berry returns to the secondary.
A stronger defense equates to more opportunities for the offense, and a successful rush-first offense prolongs the sideline trips for Peyton Manning, Philip Rivers and Carson Palmer.
The three defenses that Brian Daboll will attempt to checkmate are suspect.
San Diego has attempted to address its linebacking corps throughout recent years. Shaun Phillips' return will make an impact, and Melvin Ingram is groomed to be a pass-rushing pest for years to come. However, Takeo Spikes is entering his 15th NFL season, newly signed Jarret Johnson produced substandard numbers in Baltimore and the Chargers' unproven defensive line is besieged by question marks.
Denver's defensive depth chart includes four impact players: Elvis Dumervil, Von Miller, D.J. Williams (whose six-game suspension expires before the team battles Kansas City), and Champ Bailey. But the interior—defensive tackles, middle linebacker and safeties—remains a gaping vulnerability.
Oakland's defense is in shambles. Its projected starting cornerbacks are Shawntae Spencer and Ron Bartell. The front office made a risky move by selecting Michael Huff seventh overall in 2006, and he's suffered a Jenga-like collapse under the lofty expectations. The rush defense was equally indefensible (both ranked 27th) in 2011. In all likelihood, opposing backfields will set foot in the Black Hole and run to daylight.
In December, it begins to look a lot like Christmas in Kansas City. In July, it begins to sound a lot like Halloween—at least if you're Matt Cassel.
Multiple reasons. Since he jogged out of the tunnel for the second half of 2010's wild-card matchup against the Baltimore Ravens, Cassel's performance has been...sub-par, to put it mildly.
In the wild-card blowout, the Chiefs quarterback completed a measly 9-of-18 passes for 70 yards, compounded by three critical interceptions that unplugged Kansas City's life support. In 2011, his touchdown and interception totals were nearly neck-and-neck (10 TD, 9 INT), while his quarterback rating (QBR) dropped to 76.6.
But before his QBR skydived in 2011, Cassel was relaxing with his feet up and using cloud nine as a headrest.
During 2010's regular season, he earned a trip to Hawaii after tossing 27 touchdowns to only seven interceptions.
The difference: Jamaal Charles.
Cassel's never going to surgically dissect defenses for 500-plus yards. In his aforementioned Pro Bowl season, he attempted the least amount of passes in his career as a starter (excluding his nine-game 2011 season)—it's not a coincidence that there's a correlation.
Charles covers Cassel's blemishes; when No. 25 went down a year ago, Cassel's weaknesses were exploited, and his comfort zone shrank quicker than a Slinky.
Charles is back, and Scott Pioli added Peyton Hillis and Cyrus Gray to complement Dexter McCluster as backfield backups. Play-action is Cassel's best friend, and Pioli virtually assured that it won't abandon him in 2012.
But that's not the only welcomed sight in training camp. As quarterbacks coach Jim Zorn explained to Randy Covitz of the Kansas City Star:
I really feel that he is further along than he was last year. He’s really taking charge. He’s working on things that he wasn’t working on last year at this time...We’ve really improved a lot of things sooner than we did last year. Matt is throwing the ball better. He’s throwing with more speed and more accuracy.
With a returning, revamped rushing attack headlined by Jamaal Charles and a full offseason, expect Matt Cassel to mirror his 2010 form.
"New" is a word that's primarily frowned upon by players, and the hiring of offensive coordinators is normally associated with it.
Brian Daboll's taking his talents from South Beach and installing a starkly different offensive system in the heartland.
The most drastic change is the implementation of Daboll's zone-blocking scheme. It's possible that the Chiefs will line up three relatively inexperienced interior linemen on opening day: Rodney Hudson and Jon Asamoah are shoo-ins, while rookie Jeff Allen is clashing with Ryan Lilja for the starting job at left guard. Zone blocking offers a simplified alternative that will serve as a helping hand to the trio of youngsters. There are no pre-snap assignments, just individual territory to protect.
How successful is it? Ask newcomer Eric Winston.
With a zone-blocking technique, the renowned right tackle bulldozed the way for the league-leading ground game of the Houston Texans in 2011.
As Bucky Brooks of NFL.com notes, Daboll's offense also utilizes a plethora of pre-snap shifts and motions. Not only will it create several mismatches for Kansas City's dynamic personnel (especially for the likes of Dexter McCluster and Devon Wylie), but it will also give Cassel a clue to defensive responsibilities.
Kansas City quietly stockpiled ammunition throughout the offseason.
Dating back to the Dick Vermeil era, "depth" had appeared to be nothing more than a noble concept to the front office; Scott Pioli learned from his mistakes.
In 2011, injuries eclipsed shooting stars and reliability regressed to liability.
Thomas Jones ran as if he swapped motors with Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and Tyler Palko threw like he just finished a keg stand on a merry-go-round.
Pioli plugged the aforementioned leaks by signing Peyton Hillis and Brady Quinn, as well as drafting Cyrus Gray. Tight end Kevin Boss also bolsters the insurance plan behind injury-prone Tony Moeaki.
But two particular acquisitions have been overlooked (one locally and the other nationally) since inking deals with Kansas City: wideout Devon Wylie and offensive tackle Eric Winston.
Wylie constantly laid the blueprint for collegiate highlights after securing punts that sweated with skepticism. But the open-field illusionist will also make immediate contributions in the slot. The threesome of Wylie, Dexter McCluster and Tony Moeaki will present inevitable mismatches within the hash marks.
Right tackle has remained an exploited void since John Tait's departure—that changes with Eric Winston. The towering 300-plus pound bodyguard of Matt Cassel embodies the DNA of a perennial Pro Bowler. Winston anchored the right side of the league's most successful rushing attack in 2011, and he'll be pancaking forks in the road for Jamaal Charles—an unpredictable blur that averaged 6.4 YPC throughout his last healthy season (2010).
During 2011's preseason finale, promising tight end Tony Moeaki—who snatched 14 additional receptions for 188 more yards than Tony Gonzalez in their rookie campaigns—was victimized by a season-ending anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury. The following (NFL) week, Stevie Johnson's ACL-tearing chop block cut All-Pro Eric Berry's season short. In a third consecutive game, the same narrative echoed true for fantasy favorite Jamaal Charles.
Three elements haven't made a larger impact on a chart in "September" since Earth, Wind, & Fire.
But a silver lining encompassed the nimbus cloud that rained on Kansas City's parade: The trio of injuries occurred at the dawning of 2011's regular season.
In the past, ACLs were torn by the Grim Reaper's scythe. It was an irreparable fate that punctuated the ending of careers. Luckily for Chiefs fans, times have changed.
While premiums are still attached to youthfulness, medical technology has repressed the severity of the stadium-silencing battle wound.
Terrell Owens recently snagged headlines with his seemingly successful recovery from ACL surgery. According to Mike Sando of ESPN.com, the scrutinized 38-year-old reportedly posted a 4.45-second 40 time at this week's Seattle Seahawks tryout. To put that into perspective, defensive nightmare Larry Fitzgerald has never officially broken the 4.5-second barrier.
The tears of Ronnie Brown (2007) and Deuce McAllister (2005) didn't deter the rushers' future prosperity on the gridiron. Both tailbacks were older than Charles at the time of their respective injuries, but the duo's productivity actually increased the year after surgery, in contrast to the season before it.
In other words, don't expect to see a pair of stiffened shells jogging onto the field alongside Matt Cassel (whose season also ended prematurely due to an injured throwing hand).
Historically, confidence can be atypical for athletes when testing a knee that was recently reduced to rubber. But if there's a limp in Jamaal Charles' (@JCharles25) step, he's probably just strutting:
— Jamaal Charles (@jcharles25) August 5, 2012