There’s a light at the end of the tunnel, but it’s a long, dark tunnel.
Preseason records hardly provide a Nostradamus like prediction of a team’s potential success in the regular season. However, the performance of a team in preseason contests, regardless of final scores, reveals a lot about that team’s talent as well as its character.
Finding the positives in a winless preseason is a little like looking for a needle in a haystack. It’s not easy to find, but by golly you hope it’s actually there. For the Kansas City Chiefs the most positive thing appears to be that there’s room for growth.
To call a 17-9 loss a disappointing team performance is an understatement and there are a number of reasons the Chiefs were unable to get into the end zone in their final preseason matchup with the St. Louis Rams.
The miscues, shortcoming, and weaknesses of this team are pretty obvious to anyone glancing at the box score. Quarterback Tyler Thigpen throws as many completions as he does interceptions (two).
A touchdown is called back due to a holding penalty. No Chief’s quarterback completes more than 50 percent of his passes. Kansas City converts only 3 of 16, third down conversions and the list continues.
This game was not the outing head coach Todd Haley was looking for in his first game since assuming the play calling duties as offensive coordinator after the release of Chan Gailey.
Now let’s sift through that haystack.
Running backs Larry Johnson and Dantrell Savage both tallied gaudy amounts of yards on the ground on limited carries. However, this is largely attributed to each breaking a long run. Johnson hit an open hole for 41 yards, and Savage broke a number of tackles before breaking free down the sideline for 70.
If we remove these runs from their stats, Savage averages 1 yard per carry with LJ averaging 3.4. With this analysis it is Jackie Battle who had the best day among the three backs. Battle’s 28 yards on eight carries comes out to 3.5 yards per carry. Not excellent, but the best of the three.
A counterpoint is that any 2,000 yard rushing season was sprinkled with long runs and NFL teams covet breakaway speed and stick to the run game in hopes of having such runs. So Savage and Johnson are not to be discredited, but the inconsistency is concerning.
The most encouraging thing about the yards racked up in the run game are the key blocks that helped to break them. Haley has taken a very stiff-necked approach with his insistence that wide receivers be active in blocking.
It is often true that good blocking on the outside is what creates long runs. Mark Bradley laid a vicious block on Savage's tear. Also encouraging was the interior blocking of fullback Mike Cox who sealed the hole for Johnson on his rumble.
Defensively there is much to be optimistic about. The Chiefs' run game, even with the long runs removed, still looks better than the Rams' 2.4 yards per rush average. The effectiveness of the 3-4 defense must be noted. It must also be noted that Ram’s star running back Steven Jackson did not have a single carry.
In addition to keeping the Ram run game in check, the Chief’s defense totaled 3 sacks. Not bad for a team that set an NFL single-season record for fewest sacks in a season with 10 in all of the 2008 season.
Former first round pick and converted defensive end Tamba Hali recorded his first sack in his new position as a 3-4 outside linebacker. Preseason standout middle linebacker Corey Mays continued to make an argument to take the field as one of the Chief’s two starting middle linebackers recording a sack of his own.
Finally, it’s hard times for a team when the kicking game is pointed to as a positive. Rookie kicker Ryan Succop rebounded from a one for three performance against the Seattle Seahawks to go three for three in scoring all nine on Kansas City’s points versus the Rams.
What does any of this mean?
Haley must stay committed to the run game. This team does not have the down-the-field talent to summon the passing game for monster performances.
The 3-4 defense should create some nice pressure on the quarterback and fill holes in the run game well. However, teams will be much less vanilla in their play calling come regular season. Over aggressiveness was the downfall of former defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham’s game planning.
For years, the Denver Broncos beat the Chiefs on play action bootlegs, and by tailbacks exploiting cutback lanes. With the profusion of blitzes common to the 3-4 there is some concern that players may not adjust when they need to react and not simply execute.
Lastly, the team will need its kicker as Kansas City has struggle in the red zone. The Chiefs will continue to phase in large bodies like Ashley Lelie as an end zone target, but the offensive line is losing the battle in the trenches when it matters the most. With a chance to beat the Houston Texans, Kansas City was handed a full set of downs at the Houston one-yard line and were unable to get the touchdown for the win.
So while a total turnaround from a 2-14 season ala the Miami Dolphins improvement from 1-15 to 11-5 with a playoff appearance is unlikely there are rays of hope for the loyal fan to eye.