Recent trends in the NFL are enough to fill fans of slumping franchises with hope. The 2008 seasons of teams such as the Miami Dolphins and Atlanta Falcons support the idea that a front office shake-up and a talented young quarterback can revitalize a football team. It seems now more than ever that the miracle turnaround of an overlooked team is indeed possible, and even likely.
The future of the Kansas City Chiefs is filled with questions. Is it possible that the Chiefs (the same Chiefs that only won six games over the past two years) could be the next Miami Dolphins? The Dolphins finished their 2007 season with a dismal 1-15 record. The following season, they shocked the world by moving that hyphen over a space and going 11-5, beating the habitually dominant New England Patriots for the AFC East title and making a playoff visit that no one expected.
What key changes did Miami make to take their football team from worst to first? For starters, they brought in the revered Bill Parcells to handle personnel. They also made major upgrades to the two positions that are blamed and credited the most for a team's wins and losses by replacing Cam Cameron with Tony Sparano as head coach and solving their quarterback questions with reliable veteran Chad Pennington.
Have the Chiefs made the improvements necessary to be competitive in the AFC West? Based on the state of the rest of the division, it's entirely possible. Here's why:
Any division that is won with an 8-8 record should be considered up for grabs. Out of all the AFC West teams, I feel that the Chiefs are the only one that is taking definite steps forward. Offensive masterminds Todd Haley and Chan Gailey have joined forces. The Chiefs may have finally found the franchise quarterback they've been seeking for years in Matt Cassel, who stepped in admirably for the great Tom Brady last season.
Formerly feared beast-between-the-tackles running back Larry Johnson appears to be shutting up and buying into the system being preached by the hottest young executive acquisition of the offseason, Scott Pioli. The loss of Tony Gonzalez hurts, but an underrated receiving core consisting of Dwayne Bowe, Bobby Engram, Terrance Copper, and Mark Bradley could surprise with the coaching of receiver guru Todd Haley.
The solid young defensive backfield of the Chiefs was the lone bright spot of the team during the '08 season, and attempts at improvement have been made throughout the rest of the defense. A whole new defensive system is being installed in Kansas City, and the early drafting of a couple big bodies up front to go with the presence of a couple of big-name veteran linebackers, Mike Vrabel and Zach Thomas, appears to be the right direction for a team that totaled a league low 10 sacks during the 2008 season.
Is anyone reminded of a certain dynasty that thrives off of old linebackers and a hybrid 3-4 defense?
The rest of the AFC West is pretty much up in the air. The San Diego Chargers, once arguably the most talented team in the league, may be quickly moving past their window. LaDainian Tomlinson appears to be losing a step and there is no solid evidence that second string running back Darren Sproles can effectively pick up the slack. The first round selection of Larry English may point at a lack of confidence in the recovery of star pass-rushing linebacker Shawne Merriman.
Josh McDaniels has gotten off to a rocky start in Denver, headlined by the replacement of Pro Bowl quarterback Jay Cutler with Kyle Orton -- the same Kyle Orton who couldn't beat out mistake-prone Rex Grossman in Chicago. Additionally, explosive running back Knowshon Moreno, the Broncos' first round pick, was an odd choice for a team already loaded at the position and shaky at best on defense.
The Raiders appear to be set to field a hard-nosed running game with Darren McFadden, Michael Bush, and Justin Fargas running behind Lorenzo Neal; however, it is likely that the team will continue to be held back by Al Davis' controlling nature and obsession with athletes over football players.
The Chiefs are a team stocked with young talent. I can almost guarantee that Todd Haley and Chang Gailey will find ways to give fan-favorite Tyler Thigpen more to do than hold a clipboard, most likely as the team's wildcat quarterback. This is a team that ended up just short of a win in several very close games last season.
While there is no doubt that the Chiefs are in rebuilding mode, and still have a lot of room for improvement if they expect to make a serious run at the big one, have they made enough improvements to once again make them a competitive force in the AFC West? Only time will tell, but don't be too shocked if the Kansas City Chiefs, with a brand new regime, defense, offensive identity, and mindset, are this season's surprise sleepers.