As these two teams head into their Week 2 preseason contest, there are many ways the Kansas City Chiefs could envision themselves as a later version of the 2011 San Francisco 49ers.
They spent their offseason retooling the roster to fix the biggest weak spots, quarterback and offensive line, and brought in a coach who will bring competency to the sidelines arguably since the last time Dick Vermeil called the shots.
Folks in Philadelphia will give you a laundry list of new coach Andy Reid's flaws, but in the end, most have a soft spot for the man who made NFC Championship Game appearances feel like a disappointment. These Chiefs are three years removed from winning 10 games and two years away from winning seven contests.
There is this prevailing wisdom among mainstream fans that Kansas City is some wretched franchise devoid of talent—2-14 will do that to you. But as San Francisco proved two years ago, a competent head coach and improvement at the quarterback position can do an awful lot to improve your brand.
The 2013 49ers are in a place Kansas City hopes to be two years from now. They've upgraded from competent to burgeoning superstar at quarterback, developed a roster laden with star talent and came within a score of winning the Super Bowl a season ago.
Jim Harbaugh's squad is well beyond the point where preseason matters. His coordinators will use these four games to make assessments on a couple looming position battles and judge this crop of rookies, but it's fair to say the 2013 season doesn't start in the Bay Area until January.
But there are plenty of games to watch between now and then. Which you will. Because football.
Since said sport will be on your televisions Friday evening, let's check in with a preview of 49ers-Chiefs and look at the looming storylines for both sides.
When: Friday, Aug. 16 at 8:00 p.m. ET
Where: Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City
Watch: KPIX5 (San Francisco), KCTV5 (Kansas City)
Live Stream: NFL Preseason Live (paid service)
Spread: Chiefs -1.5 (via Vegas Insider)
Over/Under: 40 (via Vegas Insider)
Storylines to Watch
How Will 49ers' Secondary Battles Play Out?
There is exactly one goal in San Francisco in 2013: Win the Super Bowl. Any other result would be a massive disappointment. This roster is largely seen as the most talented or certainly one of the three or four most talented in the league. Bovada currently has the 49ers tied with Denver as the favorites to hoist the Lombardi Trophy, and a 4-1 favorite to make their second straight Super Bowl.
For a team with such high expectations, however, there are a number of positional battles that need sorted out.
In particular, the secondary looks like a jumbled mess of names you kinda-sorta know and kinda-sorta don't. Dashon Goldson is cashing a massive check from Tampa Bay now, leaving the free safety spot wide open.
The 49ers drafted LSU standout Eric Reid in the first round to fill the role, and his first preseason game certainly made that result look plausible. Reid had six tackles, five of which were solo, and showed solid wrap-up technique. He lit up Broncos wide receiver Kemonte Bateman in the type of hit you rarely see in the preseason, leading to much congratulation on the sideline.
But, as is often the case, a good deal of Reid's tackles came because he was a step or two late in coverage. He was another rookie, trying to find his place as the game speed ratcheted up. Still, The No. 18 pick indicated that he was happy with the performance overall, according to the San Jose Mercury News' Jimmy Durkin:
I felt comfortable. I do think there's some things I can improve on. For the most part, I feel like I had a good game, made some tackles. We didn't give up a big play on defense, so that's always good. We've got room to get better.
Despite the optimism, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio has yet to make a commitment to Reid as his full-time starter. He's currently competing with C.J. Spillman, Trenton Robinson and Craig Dahl for the spot. Spillman is listed atop the depth chart at the moment, but Dahl is probably his stiffest competition. Dahl was an underrated, smart player during his time in St. Louis and was one of many low-risk pickups for the 49ers this offseason.
Another player in the same category is Nnamdi Asomugha, one of a gaggle of players competing for the 49ers' second corner spot. Two years removed from being the baddest man on the planet, the 32-year-old veteran is scrounging for one last chance amid fierce competition. Asomugha, Carlos Rogers, Perrish Cox and Eric Wright each have some claim to the throne, though Wright's injury problems make him a long shot in the conversation.
Rogers is the odds-on favorite to land the starting job. He's an incumbent player in his third season in the Bay Area and is still plugging along with a workman-like style at age 32.
That said, it's hard not to be tantalized by Asomugha. So often in sports we see a player in the wrong place and in the wrong scheme totally "fall off" from their previous performance level. Asomugha was the poster child for that last season, ranking near the bottom of the league in every metric you can point out. But plenty of veteran corners have turned it around after questionable stretches as their body acclimates, so don't count him out of the race just yet.
Alex Smith vs. Old Teammates
If we're being honest, preseason is filled with a ton of mundane storylines and monotonous, slightly altered thoughts from the ones you heard yesterday. When the games don't count, the stakes and stress level plummet and suddenly we're worried about whether Tim Tebow ate Cheerios or Life cereal this morning. (Uncorroborated and completely made up reports say he threw us a curveball and went with Fruity Pebbles this morning).
So when there is an actual, kind-of fun story coming out of the preseason it's always best to pay attention. Through the first 10 games of the 2012 NFL regular season, Smith was the unquestioned starting quarterback of the 49ers. He was completing 70.4 percent of his passes, had 13 touchdowns against five interceptions and was likely headed to the Pro Bowl.
Then he got hurt, and the rest is another Wally Pipping for the record books. Colin Kaepernick came in, won an NFC championship and damn near led the greatest Super Bowl comeback in history.
The results give plenty of hindsight-based context, but I bet if you injected Jim Harbaugh with truth serum and asked why he benched Smith last season, he wouldn't be able to tell you. Smith was having the best year of his career, Kaepernick was a completely unproven commodity and Harbaugh somehow had the intuition to buck what a normal coach would do—go with what he knows to save his behind—and take a chance.
Now Smith is the quarterback of the Chiefs, having been traded in the offseason for a second-round pick. While all the internal vitriol toward Harbaugh he undoubtedly has festering deep in his loins would be better served during a regular-season contest, this is Smith's only shot in 2013. He'll make a return to San Francisco next season, but there should be at least a small peek into whatever open wounds there are remaining—if only for a half if we're lucky.
For his part, Smith told Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee that he's not necessarily bitter about the way things ended. His frustration with his treatment in San Francisco mainly stemmed from other coaches, including Mike Nolan and Mike Singletary. Playing for Harbaugh was actually a highlight according to the 30-year-old signal-caller, who has received gushing reviews out of Chiefs camp.
Nevertheless, it should be awfully interesting to see Smith going against players he once called teammates. Speaking with the Associated Press, some facetiously said they're looking forward to finally being able to hit Smith after years of seeing him in a non-contact red jersey.
Linebacker NaVorro Bowman said:
There's a first time for everything. We never got a chance to hit him. This time we can. We're looking forward to it. I know Alex knows we're coming. It's football, man. He's on another team and we have to go out there and play our game.
As we continue to slog through and barrel toward the first week in September, this is a nice little story for Week 2 to that can tide some of us over. Smith went 7-of-8 for 68 yards against New Orleans, leading the Chiefs to a touchdown on a long, sustained drive on their first possession.
The correct answer here, of course, is I don't know. No one knows how these preseason games play out. That, along with the whole not actually counting thing, is one of the many reasons some folks skip watching the exhibition season entirely. (But not I. You have my $20, NFL Preseason Live).
But when assessing these games, the easiest way to take a guess on the victor is to look at how they handled their first contest. Well, there's no such luck here. The first teams barely made it out of one drive, so we have nowhere to go but up from there. Using simple deduction about how these things normally go, I wouldn't expect either set of starters to play much more than two or three drives this time around.
We have nothing else better to go on, let's just make this an old-fashioned talent beauty contest. The 49ers are the better, deeper team on paper. So they win. Please don't throw tomatoes at me.
Score: 49ers 17, Chiefs 13
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