For fans making the trip down I-70 to see the Kansas City Chiefs this season, they will have to go no further than the parking lot before they notice some of the dramatic changes the Chiefs have made in anticipation of the 2009 season.
Owner Clark Hunt and Jackson County taxpayers are financing a $375 million face lift of Arrowhead Stadium, one of the loudest stadiums in the NFL and home to the Chiefs since 1972.
And while Hunt and the rest of Kansas City are planning to make Arrowhead Stadium the class of the league, new General Manager Scott Pioli and Head Coach Todd Haley have embarked on a similar renovation project to turn the team on the field back into a winner.
Pioli and Haley have already made significant changes to what was the youngest roster in the league in 2008. Each of the team’s acquisitions, along with a key subtraction, has provided us with a good idea of what we can expect from this Chiefs team in 2009.
The biggest acquisition made by Pioli this off-season, in his short tenure as General Manager, was trading a second round pick for quarterback Matt Cassel. Cassel, who almost lost his backup job in New England last season to Matt Gutierrez, stepped into his first starting gig since high school when Chiefs safety Bernard Pollard knocked Tom Brady out in the season opener.
With Brady lost for the season, Cassel proved week after week that he could efficiently and effectively run the Patriots offense, throwing for 3,693 yards and 21 TDs. Cassel’s one blip on the radar came in a late November loss to the eventual Super Bowl Champion Steelers in Foxboro.
In that game, Cassel threw two interceptions and lost two fumbles to a Pittsburgh defense that harassed him all day and sacked him five times.
What does adding Cassel mean to the offense?
With Cassel at quarterback, Coach Todd Haley will ask him to do something that quarterbacks Tyler Thigpen and Brodie Croyle couldn’t do for the Chiefs in 2008: stand in the pocket and run an effective short to intermediate passing game without turning the ball over.
Unlike Thigpen, Cassel isn’t going to pull the ball down and break off a big play with his feet, and Haley’s offense won’t ask him to. Rather, he will be asked to make decisions quickly and get the ball into the hands of his receivers on crossing patterns, quick hitches, and swing passes.
An accurate passer with surprising poise under pressure for a player with only 15 NFL starts, Cassel will hit his receivers in stride and enable them to make big plays after the catch. Most importantly, he won’t turn the ball over at inopportune times like the Chiefs quarterbacks did almost weekly in 2008.
The Wide Receivers and Tight Ends
All of us knew the Chiefs offense would be drastically different the moment we heard Tony Gonzalez had been traded for a 2010 second round pick to the Atlanta Falcons.
The best pass catcher to ever play for the Chiefs, and arguably the best tight end in NFL history, Gonzalez will now be catching passes from another promising young quarterback in Matt Ryan.
What does Gonzalez’s absence mean to the new Chiefs offense?
The new Chiefs offense will focus more on throws to the wide receivers and backs, relegating the tight ends to blocking duty. In Arizona last season, Haley’s offense was a wide receiver’s dream as it produced three 1,000 yard receivers.
Newly acquired Bobby Engram and holdover Mark Bradley will need to prove they can stay healthy if they want to reap the rewards of a more accurate quarterback and a new offense.
The player who should benefit the most from Haley and a new offense is wide receiver Dwayne Bowe.
Second only to Gonzalez in catches, yards, and touchdowns in 2008, Bowe is entering his all-important third year in the league and will be the main man in the passing game.
Prior to arriving in Arizona, Haley served as the receivers coach for Keyshawn Johnson, Marty Booker, and Terry Glenn in each of their most productive seasons.
Under Haley’s tutelage this season, Bowe should be primed to have a breakout year, far surpassing anything he’s done in his first two seasons.
The Chiefs will attempt to move away from the 4-3 Cover 2 scheme that former coach Herm Edwards was so fond of, and move to a 3-4 defense this season under new Defensive Coordinator Clancy Pendergast.
The success of the transition however, will be contingent on many players moving to new positions in 2009.
Players expected to change positions include former first-round picks Glenn Dorsey and Tamba Hali. Dorsey will attempt to move from tackle to end, while Hali will be looking to drop about 20 pounds to aid in his transition from end to outside linebacker.
First round draft pick Tyson Jackson should step in on day one at end, while third round pick Alex Magee will likely see time at the other end position behind Dorsey.
Magee, who played his first three years at Purdue at tackle, will also move inside at times, particularly when the defense reverts back to a 4-3 alignment from time to time.
New linebackers Zach Thomas and Mike Vrabel, who both bring previous 3-4 experience to the defense. Most importantly, each provides leadership to a unit that was in desperate need of it last season.
Will a new scheme result in greater production from a unit that was at or near the bottom in virtually every defensive category in 2008?
The Chiefs are counting on Jackson to provide a pass-rush from the end position that was non-existent last season after Jared Allen was traded to Minnesota.
Additionally, the new 3-4 scheme should allow linebackers, including the athletic Derrick Johnson, to rush the passer more often.
Johnson, arguably the most talented player on this defense, hasn’t been asked to rush the passer very often since arriving as a first round pick out of Texas in 2005. He will do wherever Pendergast asks of him, and is chomping at the bit to wreak havoc on the opposing team’s quarterbacks this season.
The rush defense, which allowed a dreadful five yards per carry last year, should be better up front with Jackson and Dorsey playing at each of the ends in the new scheme.
However, the run defense will or will not improve only if some combination of nose tackles Ron Edwards, Tank Tyler, and occasionally Magee can step up and plug the middle.
If the tackles can get the job done, the linebackers should be free to fly to the ball and keep the opposing ground game in check. If they can’t, this team will likely be plagued again by the 20-plus yard runs that the defense allowed the last three years under Herm Edwards.
In the end, the Chiefs are hoping that the changes made in the front office and on the field will outshine the renovations being made at Arrowhead Stadium this off-season.
If they don’t, Chiefs fans will be spending more time on the extra-wide concourses exploring the new gourmet food options rather than cheering for their team from their seats.