|Romeo Crennel better hope Dontari Poe delivers more than other high Chiefs' D-line picks. (Getty Images)|
ST. JOSEPH, Mo. -- The 2011 season began slipping away from the Kansas City Chiefs almost as soon as it began. Injuries wiped out key starters for the season, quarterback Matt Cassel regressed without mentor Charlie Weis around, they endured yet more change on the coaching staff and they looked nothing like the 2010 outfit that soared to a playoff berth.
So which Chiefs team is the real one?
Was 2010 a fluke, or was 2011 -- and losing Eric Berry, Jamaal Charles and Tony Moeaki -- the fluke? Which was the anomaly? Or are they merely a so-so team caught somewhere between those two extremes? In what might be the most intriguing division in football -- it's difficult to make the case for a clear-cut favorite in the AFC West -- we will soon find out if this team has stabilized, or if another failed campaign could lead to even more sweeping change with former coach Todd Haley long gone.
The early returns from camp have been largely positive, although I am never one to make too much of the first preseason game, and the players seem to be grasping new coordinator Brian Daboll's offense.
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There is certainly reason for hope, but you can't blame Chiefs fans, long removed from their heyday, for keeping up their guard, either.
• Be patient. The focus of this camp is on nursing back their young stars who suffered season-ending injuries in 2011. They don't want anyone doing too much, too soon. They will fight to hold some players back and added depth in reserve at the positions many of them play (Kevin Boss at tight end, Peyton Hillis at running back and Abram Elam at safety, for example). The Chiefs can't afford anything like the rash of injuries that marred last September, and their hope is that with a normal offseason this year, as opposed to players being absent during the lockout leading up to the 2011 season, they will avoid the injury hex. "This year we had an offseason program and the guys were integrated into it at a pace," head coach Romeo Crennel said. "So now they're around football and they're with the strength coach and the conditioning is so much better this year than it was last year."
• Learn the offense. The constant change at offensive coordinator, and play caller, has gotten old, dating back to Chan Gailey being fired just before the start of the 2009 season. Perhaps Daboll will spell that revolving door, but it means more change for Cassel and some young pieces on offense. That usually means a learning curve and some bumps in the road. Daboll was already getting the "rock star treatment" around town following a 27-point outburst in the preseason opener, according to the Kansas City Star, a sign of just how desperate it has become here. "I think we really took a step in the right direction in the first preseason game," Cassel said. This is an important teaching time and getting Cassel into situations where he is not asked to do too much along the way would help a lot.
It's an entirely different way to run the offense for Cassel, a new operating system if you will. "It is complete different from what it was last year, without a doubt," Cassel said. "Coach Daboll does a good job and I'm excited to work with him. He's been very supportive. It's been a great relationship. He's a young, energetic guy who gets it."
• Division of labor. Top receiver Dwayne Bowe remains a training camp no-show, yet to sign his franchise tender. Though he will surely be back by Week 1, his considerable reps have to be split up elsewhere until he reports. No one knows exactly when he will come back -- and when he does he too will be learning a new offense -- but in the meantime that creates reps for youngsters at the position. Jon Baldwin, who had a tumultuous rookie season, gets to spend the preseason as the top target. They would like to see seventh-round pick Junior Hemmingway step up some, but he's battling injuries, and with Bowe possibly in his last year with the team, developing alternative options could be key.
Bowe's teammates aren't dwelling on his absence, but they know that he is missing critical installations of the offense. "Do I wish Dwayne was here, absolutely," Cassel said, "because I think he has a great opportunity and we have a great opportunity to do something pretty great this season with this team. And getting this work in now would benefit everybody; not only him but the team. But we've got guys competing in there and it's not that we don't want him here, but these guys are going out and competing and I'm comfortable with who we have here in camp."
Nose tackle: Some thought first-round pick Dontari Poe might step right into this spot, but, um, not so fast. Poe is projecting to play situationally at most for now, and has a long way to go to be ready to fill this role. Crennel has talked about rookies taking three-quarters of their rookie season to be able to learn and adapt to the two-gap responsibilities in his scheme, and he's behind Jerrell Powe, a 2011 sixth-round pick, and journeyman Anthony Toribio for now, and likely for a while. Toribio has been impressive in the first few weeks of camp and the opening game, making plays in the backfield, and it's his job to lose right now. Looks like the Week 1 starter.
Backup quarterback: The depth chart continues to list Brady Quinn as the second-string quarterback, but depth charts don't mean that much, particularly this time of year. There is some strong internal support for Ricky Stanzi, and both players will continue to get reps with the second unit. Quinn has really looked bad at times and in the end I expect youth to win out with Stanzi having more upside.
Inside linebacker: There is some nominal competition here in that Brandon Siler flashed some potential before tearing his Achilles last year. But it's hard to see him unseating Jovan Belcher next to Derrick Johnson at this point in the middle of this defense. Siler is big on special teams and can make an impact there while rounding back into form. Siler isn't sensational but fits well in the run game and is solid enough as a two-down linebacker.
Somebody to Watch
Defensive end Tyson Jackson was the third overall pick in 2009, but -- as has often been the case with defensive linemen the Chiefs pick high -- he has yet to truly blossom. After restructuring his contract in the offseason, this could be a defining season for him, and if he's going to continue to be a big earner in the NFL, he is going to have to start being more disruptive in the backfield. The Chiefs are seeing signs of life from him this camp.
"He's a good, solid run defender," Crennel said, "and we can see he's beginning to make the transformation from run defender to transitioning to pass rush when they decide to throw the ball. So we think this year we'll see some of that occurring on the field."
• CB Brandon Flowers is now over two weeks into his absence with a heel injury. And though he has tried to come back a few times it isn't happening for him yet. That's the primary concern thus far. No one expects him to play Saturday night against the Rams. He wasn't even on the field early in the week, and at this point just getting him ready for September is the objective.
• Linebacker Cameron Sheffield is "not there yet," Crennel said in regards to his nagging groin injury.
• Hemmingway, as noted previously, was just starting to do more movement activities as he fights through a groin injury, but it seems he is going to need more time.
The Last Word
This has the look of a team right around .500 to me. It's hard to expect everyone to come back from injury and get right back to their best. It's also another year of transition on the offensive side of the ball. Getting through the first six weeks, before the bye, in decent shape will be a primary goal. They face Atlanta, New Orleans, San Diego and Baltimore in that span, as well as what could be two of the more improved teams in the league -- Buffalo and Tampa.
I have a feeling the defense gets pretty dialed in right away, but the struggle to score points, to get Bowe quickly up to speed, to get Cassel turned around, could go well into the season. And if Charles is not that home-run hitter they need right away, I'm not sure how well equipped they will be to provide explosive plays on offense and quickly move down the field.