2008 was a colossal disappointment for the AFC West. The division winning Chargers failed to record a winning record, while the four AFC West teams combined to go 23-41, second-worst among the NFL’s eight divisions.
2009, however, should provide a much different outcome.
2008 W/L Record (Division): 2-14 (2-4)
Key Additions: QB Matt Cassel, WR Bobby Engram, C Eric Ghiaciuc, OG Mike Goff, DE Tyson Jackson, S Mike Brown, LB Zach Thomas & LB Mike Vrabel
Key Losses: LB Donnie Edwards, TE Tony Gonzalez, CB Patrick Surtain
The Chiefs’ biggest missing piece from 2008 is 10-time Pro Bowler Tony Gonzalez, who was traded to Atlanta in April. His presence in Kansas City’s offense is irreplaceable. Because of this, the Chiefs will be forced to move on with an offense which lacks a dominant receiving tight end for the first time in a decade.
Despite this loss, new Chiefs’ General Manager Scott Pioli has added several important pieces in an effort to improve on last season.
Pioli’s biggest move came in the acquisition of Matt Cassel. Say what you want about the 2005 seventh rounder, but Cassel is the only player in NFL history to start a game at quarterback without starting a game in college. Despite this inexperience, Cassel tallied an 11-5 record last season in New England.
Pioli’s most underrated move to date has come in the free-agent signings of center Eric Ghiaciuc and offensive guard Mike Goff. Assuming left guard Brian Waters is still with the team, Kansas City’s offensive line will be one of the most improved units in 2009.
An improved offensive line will translate into offensive success for Kansas City.
Better blocking means Matt Cassel will be allowed ample time to find open receivers. It also means wider running lanes for Larry Johnson and his newfound attitude to run through.
Under the tutelage of offensive masterminds Chan Gailey and Todd Haley, third-year wide receiver Dwayne Bowe will lead an underrated group of pass-catchers featuring the experienced pro in Bobby Engram, and Mark Bradley’s career 14.2 yards per reception.
In April’s draft, Pioli re-stocked the defensive line, selecting Tyson Jackson and Alex Magee with the team’s first and second round picks. Jackson and Magee, along with 2008 first rounder Glenn Dorsey (among others) will attempt to solidify the defensive line in the Chiefs’ new 3-4/4-3 hybrid defense.
Pioli re-stocked Kansas City’s linebacking core as well, adding veterans Zach Thomas to play one of the inside linebacker positions, and Mike Vrabel to play on the outside.
Derrick Johnson, still looking for his breakout season, will start on the inside. Tamba Hali, who is making the transition from defensive end, will likely start as the pass rushing outside linebacker.
Kansas City’s No. 28 ranked pass defense from 2008 can be linked to their all-time worst pass rush. The Chiefs’ young and talented secondary is on the verge of greatness, led by fourth year safeties Bernard Pollard and Jarrad Page, and second year cornerbacks Brandon Flowers and Brandon Carr.
Last year’s 2-14 campaign may be somewhat deceiving. Half of Kansas City’s losses were by seven points or less; that's nothing a little coaching, veteran guidance, and leadership can’t fix.
While the Chiefs have a tall mountain to climb on their way to a playoff birth, they have the feel of the 2008 Miami Dolphin team; a new quarterback, new coach, new GM and a brilliant mix of young talent and experience veteran leaders.
A talented San Diego squad and a murderous schedule are likely to be Kansas City’s most fierce competition in their quest for the AFC West title.
Although the Chargers have dominated the division with a 15-3 record over the last three years, two of the three losses have come against the Chiefs. Expect the Chiefs/Chargers battles in Week 7 and Week 12 to have a great impact on the outcome of the AFC West.
San Diego Chargers
2008 W/L Record (Division): 8-8 (5-1)
Key Additions: LB/DE Larry English, LB Kevin Burnett
Key Losses: OG Mike Goff, DE Igor Olshansky
San Diego has had a relatively quiet offseason, as the team’s greatest additions will come in the return of injured starters Nick Hardwick and Shawne Merriman.
Offensive guard Mike Goff signed with Kansas City after five years in San Diego. His starting spot will be filled by either Kynan Forney, Atlanta’s seventh round draft pick in 2001, or Louis Vasquez, San Diego’s third round pick in April’s draft.
The Chargers’ first-round pick, Larry English, is transitioning from the defensive end position (which he played in college) to outside linebacker. His presence creates a logjam at the outside linebacker position, which already includes Shaun Phillips and Shawne Merriman.
San Diego’s biggest weakness is their pass defense, which ranked No. 31 in the NFL in 2008. General Manager A.J. Smith has failed to address this deficiency in the offseason, though the pass defense should be aided somewhat by the pass-rushing presence of Shawne Merriman.
The Chargers recent dominance of the AFC West is supported by division titles in each of the last three seasons. During that time, they have owned the rest of the division to the tune of a 15-3 record. However, their win total has declined each of the last three years, from 14 in 2006, to 11 in 2007, to eight in 2008.
Ironically, LaDainian Tomlinson’s production has decreased progressively over the past three seasons as well.
After posting a career high 1,815 rushing yards and 31 total touchdowns in 2006, Tomlinson totals dipped in 2007, to the tune of 1,474 yards and 18 touchdowns; which is still outstanding, don’t get me wrong, but is a steep decline nonetheless.
2008 was arguably the worst season of Tomlinson’s career, as he rushed for 1,110 yards and totaled 12 touchdowns, not to mention a paltry 3.8 average yards per carry, while battling a toe injury.
Tomlinson turned 30 on June 23, an age which has signaled a great decline for many running backs in recent memory. If history is any indicator, 2009 figures to be a struggle for L.T., which will translate into disaster for San Diego.
Injuries, egos, and team chemistry issues have prevented the Chargers from reaching the Super Bowl this decade. While their defense is loaded with young talent, the offense could be on the decline as LaDainian Tomlinson’s age begins to work against him.
San Diego is widely regarded as the best team on paper in the AFC West. For them to live up to those expectations, they’ll have to overcome a tough schedule and the same obstacles that have haunted them in the team’s recent past.
2008 W/L Record (Division): 8-8 (3-3)
Key Additions: S Brian Dawkins, CB Andre’ Goodman, RB LaMont Jordan, QB Kyle Orton, RB Knowshon Moreno, DE/LB Robert Ayers, CB Alphonso Smith, LB Andra Davis
Key Losses: CB Dre’ Bly, QB Jay Cutler
The Denver Broncos have been busy this offseason. Aside from the unexpected trade of Jay Cutler, the Mike Shanahan firing, and the Josh McDainels hiring, Denver has acquired key pieces through trades, free agency, and the draft to improve upon a disappointing eight-win season.
Despite having one of the league’s best cornerbacks in Champ Bailey, Denver’s defense finished 2008 next to last among 32 teams with just six interceptions.
In an effort to improve upon this, the Broncos signed cornerback Andre’ Goodman, who started all 16 games for the Dolphins in 2008, and led the team with five interceptions and a career-high 19 pass deflections. He will replace Dre’ Bly, who was released, as the starting right side cornerback.
Backing up Goodman will be the rookie from Wake Forest, Alphonso Smith., who they selected No. 37 overall after trading their first round pick in 2010 to Seattle in exchange for the rights to draft him.
Also new to the secondary is 35-year-old Brian Dawkins, who the Broncos signed for five years with $7.2 million in guarantees. The aging safety has tallied just two interceptions and 12 defended passes in the last two seasons.
In an effort to improve their No. 27 ranked rushing defense, the Broncos selected defensive end Robert Ayers with the No. 18 pick overall in April’s draft.
This pick, which was one of the picks Denver acquired in the Jay Cutler trade, was considered a reach by many, as Ayers remains a raw talent after failing to start in each of his first three years at Tennessee.
Denver also added linebacker Andra Davis, who spent the first seven years of his career with Cleveland. He is likely to start at one of the outside linebacker positions in Denver’s 3-4 defense.
Perhaps the most overlooked addition to Denver’s defense is coordinator Mike Nolan, who faces the challenge of fixing a unit which ranked No. 29 in total defense in 2008, allowing 374 yards per game.
As Baltimore’s Defensive Coordinator from 2002 to 2004, Nolan’s defenses ranked No. 22, No. 3, and No. 6 in the league. In 2000, Nolan coordinated the New York Jets defense that ranked No. 10 in total defense.
On offense, the Broncos could struggle to repeat their 2008 success. Kyle Orton will quarterback an offense that ranked No. 2 in the league last year, averaging 395 yards per game.
In 33 career games with Chicago, Orton posted a dismal 55.3 completion percentage, a mediocre 30/27 TD/INT ratio, and a lousy 71.1 QB Rating. Maybe the gritty Bears defense could save him, but this 2009 Denver unit can’t.
Denver’s receiving core will become much less valuable should the Broncos grant Brandon Marshall’s wish to be traded. Without the 2008 Pro Bowler, Denver would be left with second-year player Eddie Royal to lead their group of pass-catchers.
Jabar Gaffney, who has never topped 700 receiving yards or five touchdowns in a season, and the 33-year-old Brandon Stokley would round out Orton’s options through the air.
While former mainstays on the offensive line such as Tom Nalen and Matt Lepsis are gone, the Broncos are expected to return all five starters from 2008.
Denver’s No. 12 overall pick in April’s draft, running back Knowshon Moreno, will battle former 1,000-yard rusher LaMont Jordan and the 30-year-old Correll Buckhalter for the starting position. While it’s expected that Moreno will play a large role in Denver’s offense, Jordan and Buckhalter are likely to contribute as well.
Broncos’ GM Brian Xanders has been extremely busy this offseason, fulfilling traded demands and signing aging free-agents. While the offense may not be as explosive as the 2008 version, the defense should be much improved, providing the Broncos with a much more balanced attack.
Denver faces an easy schedule through the first three games, before being forced to endure an incredibly difficult schedule starting in Week Four. Expect the 2009 Broncos to have a much different look than last season’s team, though it may take a few more changes before they find themselves in position to make a playoff run.
2008 W/L Record (Division): 5-11 (2-4)
Key Additions: FB Lorenzo Neal, WR Darrius Heyward-Bey, S Michael Mitchell, C Samson Satele, OT Khalif Barnes, QB Jeff Garcia
Key Losses: S Gibril Wilson, C Jake Grove
Oddly enough, last season could actually be considered a success for Oakland. The Raiders’ five wins in 2008 hasn’t been topped since their Super Bowl XXXVII appearance during the 2002 season, when they won 11 games during the regular season.
Despite this apparent step in the right direction, Oakland’s offseason has been filled with questionable moves.
In February, the Raiders released safety Gibril Wilson, just one season after signing him to a six-year $39 million contract.
In April’s draft, Al Davis shocked the football world, selecting wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey with the No. 7 overall pick, instead of Michael Crabtree.
Davis didn’t disappoint in the second round either, drafting safety Michael Mitchell, a player who was generally believed to be a seventh round pick.
In free agency, the Raiders added players such as fullback Lorenzo Neal, offensive tackle Khalif Barnes, and quarterback Jeff Garcia.
Lorenzo Neal is considered one of the best fullbacks in league history. He once had a streak of 221 consecutive games played, and has served as the lead blocker for a 1,000-yard rusher in 11 straight seasons. His presence will help pave the way to success for Darren McFadden, Michael Bush and Justin Fargas.
The signing of Khalif Barnes wasn’t exactly earth-shattering. While it’s important to keep JaMarcus Russell’s blind side protected, the Raiders already have Mario Henderson in place at left tackle. However, the two are expected to battle for the starting job in training camp.
The acquisition of Jeff Garcia is a head-scratcher. At 39 years of age, Garcia is out to prove he’s still got something left in the tank. Oakland, however, has no plans of starting him in favor of the 24-year-old Russell.
What’s most unsettling about the Raiders’ offseason is their lack of effort to improve upon a rush defense that finished No. 31 last season, allowing 159 yards per game.
One could argue that Heyward-Bey will help improve the Raiders’ No. 32-ranked passing offense from 2008, even though Michael Crabtree would have been the better pick. Beyond that, Oakland also failed to add help to the young and inexperienced offense.
One of the few areas in which the Raiders had success in 2008, their rushing offense, is the one they improved the most, with the signing of the aforementioned Lorenzo Neal.
Oakland’s pass defense was strong in 2008 as well, ranking in the top ten. Two-time Pro-Bowler Nnamdi Asomugha will continue to shut down opposing teams’ No. 1 receiver. The loss of Gibril Wilson, however, will prevent the Raiders from replicating the success they had with their pass defense last season.
Every year, I hear the Raiders’ youth and talent is sure to break out and push for a playoff berth, and every year I laugh.
2009 will be no different.
The running game will be good, the passing game will be bad, while the defense won’t be good enough to keep them in games. While the Raiders finished 2008 strong (by their own standards), Al Davis failed to do enough this offseason to put his team in position to be successful in 2009. Because of this, the Raiders will struggle to improve on last season’s five wins.
As you can see, the AFC West figures to take on a much different look in 2009.
The Chiefs should be vastly improved, the Chargers will look much of the same, and the Broncos won’t be nearly as explosive. The Raiders, on the other hand, are stuck in reverse as long as Al Davis is calling the shots.
Because a tough schedule now may look much easier come September, projections in June are probably useless, but I’m going to give it a shot anyway.
1. Kansas City Chiefs (8-8)
2. San Diego Chargers (8-8)
3. Denver Broncos (6-10)
4. Oakland Raiders (5-11)
My prediction is that Kansas City and San Diego will split their season match ups, each team winning at home. Both teams will win four games in the division, and will tie in common wins with six, and conference wins, with seven. The fifth tiebreaker is how AFC West will be decided, with the Chiefs winning the strength of victory battle.
The beauty of it is, however, that none of us have a clue what the 2009 season has in store. The unpredictability of the NFL is why it’s so beloved.
The truth is, I’ll be shocked if any of my predictions end up being spot on.
In a league where 16-0 can mean missing the playoffs in the following season, and 1-15 can turn into a playoff berth the next year, I’d be shocked if anyone could correctly predict the outcome of anything that will happen in 2009’s version of the AFC West.