How Will Todd Haley and Company Redefine Kansas City Chiefs Football?
"Marty Ball" and some truly brilliant defenses ruled the '90s. Dick Vermeil and Al Saunders' aerial circus coupled with a brilliant rushing attack and impotent defense defined the franchise in the early part of the new millennium, so what will Todd Haley and his new coaching staff conjure up for the Kansas City Chiefs heading into the next decade?
Defensively speaking, we have a pretty good idea what Kansas City will do. Out is the odd combination of Herm Edward's signature Cover 2 and Gunther Cunningham's affinity for blitz-laden packages.
In is the 3-4. Most observers expected the Chiefs to go this way when Pioli was hired, given his long relationship with the formation in New England. With the selection of defensive end Tyson Jackson with the third-overall pick in this year's draft, the move to a 3-4 has been all but cemented.
On offense however, the picture is a bit more fuzzy. Todd Haley comes from Arizona, where deep passes intended for Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin seem to fill the playbook. Last season, Arizona's passing offense ranked second in the league and their rushing attack ranked dead last.
When you have a possible future Hall of Fame quarterback like Kurt Warner and two young studs like Fitzgerald and Boldin on the roster, that kind of unbalanced attack can be effective.
However, instead of those three, Haley is now working with Matt Cassel, Dwayne Bowe, and who whould we put Boldin's place, Bobby Engram?
So, let's take a look at the coaching staff and player personnel, and deduct what they might be able to tell us about how the new Chiefs will operate.
Offense a Melting Pot
It's easy to look at Haley's history and assume the Chiefs are going to abandon the running game and start flinging the ball all over the field, but if you look beyond the surface, at both Kansas City's roster and the offensive assistants, you see players and coaches schooled in several different styles.
For starters, Haley's right-hand man and assistant head coach, Maurice Carthon, has a much more grounded past than Haley himself. Carthon played as a running back and fullback in the NFL for eight seasons, winning two Super Bowl rings with the New York Giants in 1987 and 1991.
In Carthon's 26 previous seasons in pro football (including three in the USFL), Carthon has either blocked for or coached running backs who enjoyed a 1,000-yard season on 17 different occasions.
Another coach with a history of producing great rushing attacks is offensive coordinator Chan Gailey. In his many years of NFL coaching experience, Gailey's coached on staffs boasting Pro Bowl running backs like Sammy Winder, Jerome Bettis, and Emmitt Smith.
Gailey also produced a lethal rushing attack as head coach at Georgia Tech, where his club led the Atlantic Coast Conference in rushing by averaging 199.3 yards per game in 2007, and ranked third in the conference in total offense.
Last season was Gailey's first with the Chiefs, and though his offense wasn't exactly a juggernaut, he did manage to make Tyler Thigpen, then a little-known, second-year, undrafted veteran look like a viable NFL quarterback. Under Gailey, Larry Johnson's yards-per-carry average rose to 4.5 and Jamaal Charles' to 5.3
What's the moral of this story? Haley isn't married to a run-and-gun system. He, like most coaches, will tailor his offense around his player personnel.
With that in mind, it's probably fair to say Kansas City will have a balanced attack in '09.
The offensive line, as it stands right now, still has two very good veteran guards in Brian Waters and Mike Goff, two capable centers ready to battle it out for a starting spot in Eric Ghiaciuc and Rudy Niswanger, a budding star at left tackle in Branden Albert, and a slew of guys looking for an opportunity at right tackle.
That makes for a strong interior line and a dependable protector of quarterback Matt Cassel's backside.
That strong interior line ought to be able to create more running lanes for Johnson and Charles than last year's line was capable of, and Cassel's arm should garner more respect from opposing defenses than any KC had last season.
Simply speaking, with the loss of all-everything TE Tony Gonzalez, this team does not have the weapons to solely strike through the air, so expect a good mix of LJ, play action, and some deep patterns from up-and-coming wide receiver Dwayne Bowe.
Nowhere To Go But Up
Kansas City's defense was one of the worst in league history last year, ranking near the bottom of the barrel in nearly every major category. That comes as no surprise, given Edwards and Cunningham were on completely different pages.
Edwards has built his coaching career on the Cover 2 defense. Its success, and his responsibility for that success, is what got him his first job as a head coach. That defense is based on building zones that confuse quarterbacks and narrow their passing lanes.
Cunningham built his reputation on guys like Derrick Thomas and Neil Smith getting to and in the face of quarterbacks. He was known for his relentlessly aggressive units who would blitz, blitz again, and blitz some more. Blending those two styles was a large part of what cost both Edwards and Cunningham their jobs this off season.
Now, make no mistake about it, a new defense has arrived. Haley and Pioli have decided what defense they're going to run, and they've gone all-in on the 3-4. There is no wavering. Sure, they will run some four-man fronts, but every NFL team runs multiple packages. The Chiefs' base defense will be a 3-4.
The riskiest part about switching from the 4-3 to the 3-4, is the first year. Often, a defensive end in the 3-4 would be a sub-par end in the 4-3. There are different physical demands. An end in the 3-4 makes his money on first and second downs, whereas many 4-3 ends have made a king's ransom on almost third downs alone.
When the decision was made to go to the 3-4, many Chiefs fans probably looked at linebacker as the biggest area of need, especially considering the problems they had at that position last season.
However, the team's biggest needs were really at end, where they had no true 3-4 specialists, hence, the drafting of Jackson and third-round pick Alex Magee. Both are tall with long arms and can play the run. Now, last year's week-one starters at DE, Tamba Hali and Turk McBride, are practicing at outside linebacker.
Pioli has said he sees Hali in primarily an attacking role on passing downs. Aside from last season, Hali has been productive in the sack column, and this role might fit him well.
Pioli has added possibly four new defensive starters this off season, which is a lot by any measure. Veteran linebackers Mike Vrabel and Zach Thomas have both played in the 3-4 before and project as starters. Jackson will almost assuredly start as well.
The fourth possible starter is Magee, who fits well into the 3-4 system. The man he will be battling against in training camp is last year's fifth-overall selection, Glenn Dorsey.
Dorsey was one of the most ballyhooed defensive linemen to come out of the college ranks in quite some time, but he fits better in the 4-3 scheme, where he can shoot gaps and get upfield. He is a bit of a tweener in the 3-4. He is not the prototypical space eater you see playing tackle in the 3-4, and at 6'0", he's much shorter than most ends too.
Dorsey will be one of the most watched players when the Chiefs head to River Falls, Wisc. this summer, as everyone is waiting to see how he fits in the new system.
In order to assure a smooth transition, the holdovers from the Edwards era will have to adjust quickly to the new defense and the off season additions will have to stay healthy. If that happens, look for vast improvement on this side of the ball in 2009.