There is no way around it. The Kansas City Chiefs are going to have to get much better next NFL season just to come close to their six-game improvement in 2010.
Not only are the expectations of the fans and media going to be higher as a direct result of how the Chiefs performed throughout much of this past season, but as a reward for finishing 10-6 and winning the AFC West, they get to take their game to a higher level and play against the big boys in 2011. Kansas City’s schedule next NFL season is considerably more difficult than the opponents they faced in the season just ended.
The way the Chiefs performed in their final two games against AFC West division-rival Oakland and the Baltimore Ravens in the playoffs wild-card round last weekend, losing both games at home by a combined score of 61-17, there is a lot to be concerned about looking ahead to next fall.
Head coach Todd Haley has high expectations for the Chiefs as well, but he also recognizes, probably better than anyone, that his team has a ways to go to be able to compete consistently with the top teams in the NFL.
“There’s a lot of work to be done,” the second-year Kansas City coach said Tuesday in his season-ending press conference. “As I’ve said multiple times, you can’t fill all the holes. You’ve got to continue to do all the things we’ve done up to this point (and) bring in competition in as many spots as possible, because competition is the key in my opinion.
“Good competition is the key to players pushing themselves to the maximum and to developing our team,” he said. “If we just keep doing that, we’ll keep getting better.”
The Chiefs did an excellent job of that in the offseason a year ago, starting with the addition of two veteran NFL coordinators with plenty of big-game experience in Charlie Weiss and Romeo Crennel. Kansas City general manager Scott Pioli and Haley also brought in former Chief defensive legend and NFL Hall-of-Famer Emmitt Thomas to help guide and instruct a very young Chiefs secondary.
If you ask me, bringing in Weiss and Crennel to lead Kansas City’s offensive and defensive units, respectively, was the best offseason decision the Chiefs could have made, and the year-over-year improvement in the team on both sides of the ball is self-evident. Now Haley and Co. is faced with the challenging decision this offseason of how to replace Weiss, who has left the Chiefs to take over the lead offensive role at the University of Florida.
The competition on the field that Haley talks about got a giant positive jolt this season with one of the best draft classes in the 51-year history of the Chiefs’ franchise. Of the seven players taken by Kansas City in the 2010 NFL draft, five of the first-year players saw plenty of playing time and made significant contributions to the team’s success this season.
Starting safety Eric Berry, the Chiefs No. 1 draft pick, had 92 tackles in the regular season, the most ever by a KC rookie safety, and his four interceptions led the team. Berry started all 17 games for the Chiefs this season. Dexter McCluster, the team’s No. 3 pick prior to this season, led all NFL rookies in punt returns (minimum of 10 attempts) with a 15.5-yard average and averaged 12.9 yards per touch in rushing, receiving, kickoff and punt returns.
Cornerback Javier Arenas, from 2010 NCAA national champion Alabama, led all NFL rookie defensive backs with three sacks this past season, and tight-end Tony Moeaki, out of Iowa, ranked second among all NFL rookie tight ends in receptions (47) and receiving yards (556). Moeaki broke future Hall-of-Famer Tony Gonzalez’s Chiefs’ rookie reception record for a tight end (37) set in 1997.
Right behind Berry in interceptions was another rookie safety, Kendrick Lewis, who picked off three passes in his first season to tie for third place among all NFL rookies playing the safety position.
Probably at no other time in the Chiefs’ history has the team had such a productive rookie class, which is a strong testament to GM Pioli’s superb NFL front-office reputation and player personnel judgment.
The Chiefs will undergo a complete evaluation of their 61-man roster (including eight players on injured reserve) this offseason. Among the major player decisions will be what to do with 25 unsigned players whose contract expired at the end of the 2010 season. The unsigned players include center Casey Wiegmann and fellow offensive-line starter Barry Richardson. On the defensive side, leading pass rushers Tamba Hali and Wallace Gilberry, veteran linebacker Mike Vrabel and cornerback Brandon Carr are without contracts for 2011. This list also includes backup quarterback Brodie Croiyle a former third-round pick.
It’s pretty obvious that the Chiefs still have a lot of holes to fill and they are going to need to build better depth at key skill positions. They will again be looking at free agents with matching skills and experience as well as this spring’s NFL draft, in which Kansas City has the 21st overall pick.
And it goes without saying that they’re going to have to have equally strong, if not better production out of the 2010 draft class in their sophomore season, which history proves can be a bit problematic.
The biggest issue, though, looking ahead to next season, is the incredibly difficult schedule that looms for the Chiefs. There’s going to be very little margin for error, which doesn’t exactly bode well for the AFC West champs as the team stands right now.
In addition to the games in the division, where Kansas City was 2-4 this season and was outscored 154-90, including losing it last three AFC West games by a combined score of 111-29, the Chiefs will face six playoff teams from the 2010 season (Green Bay and Pittsburgh at New Arrowhead and away games with AFC East-champion New England, AFC South-champion Indianapolis, NFC Central front-runner Chicago and the New York Jets, runner-up this year in the AFC East) with a combined record of 68-28.
Rounding out the Chiefs’ 2011 NFL schedule are home games with Buffalo (4-12), Miami (6-10) and Minnesota (6-10) and at Detroit (6-10). These are not your typical second-tier teams and won’t be easy matchups for the Chiefs, yet they probably represent the most winnable games on the Kansas City gauntlet of games next season.
I’m afraid just getting better is not going to get it done for the Chiefs come next fall. Haley’s gang is going to have to go beyond better to good, even real good, if they expect to return to the playoffs at this time next year.
Kansas City Sports Examiner’s NFL playoff predictions:
AFC divisional round
New York Jets 21 @ NEW ENGLAND 31
Baltimore 17 @ PITTSBURGH 21
NFC divisional round
Seattle 13 @ CHICAGO 27
Green Bay [email protected] ATLANTA 24
Pittsburgh 17 @ NEW ENGLAND 24
Chicago 20 @ ATLANTA 28
Super Bowl XLV (Dallas)
NEW ENGLAND 27, Atlanta 20
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