Chief Predictions 2011September 10th, 2011 by Lee Eldridge
Tomorrow the Chiefs begin their quest for a second consecutive AFC West title as they face off against the Buffalo Bills in Arrowhead Stadium. There seems to be two streams of thought about the Chiefs in 2011:
1. The Chiefs could be better, but since their schedule is tougher, they are likely to finish below 10-6 and miss the playoffs.
2. There’s a history of teams that make a big leap forward one year then slipping back the next year. The Chiefs will finish below 10-6. Possibly 7-9. Some are predicting 6-10.
On paper the schedule certainly appears tougher, especially a stretch late in the season as the Chiefs must play New England, Pittsburgh, Chicago, New York Jets and Green Bay over a five week span. However, seasons seldom unfold the way the pundits expect. For instance, in week five the Chiefs travel to Indianapolis to face the Colts. Most of us probably put this game in the loss column for the Chiefs when the schedule was released. But now that Peyton Manning has had his second neck surgery and the Colts have pulled Kerry Collins out of retirement, this game is back in play.
Six Reasons the Chiefs Are Better
1. The secondary will be better. Last year the Chiefs started two rookie safeties in Eric Berry and Kendrick Lewis. They also used rookie Javier Arenas as their nickel cornerback. They were good last year, and all three should be better this year. Eric Berry might be great. This young secondary could become one of the best in the NFL.
2. Last year the Chiefs struggled in short yardage and goal line situations running the ball. This year the Chiefs have brought in running back Le’Ron McClain. As a fullback he is a better blocker than what the Chiefs had last year. And as a running back he’s the big powerful presence that the Chiefs were missing. Converting a few more of those third-and-ones will sustain drives and improve the offense.
3. The pass rush will be better. Tamba Hali was a stud last year, and Wallace Gilberry did his part to throw in a few sacks. This year the Chiefs will be adding Cameron Sheffield and rookie Justin Houston into the mix. The Chiefs were very excited about Sheffield last year until he was hurt in the preseason and put on injured reserve. Both have shown flashes this preseason, in particular Houston who should take the starting spot away from Andy Studebaker before the season is done. Houston looks like a freak. Matter of fact, and I hate to write it, he reminds me a bit of Derrick Thomas.
4. The passing game will be better. Last year the Chiefs put Matt Cassel on a very short leash in the passing game. By mid-season, Cassel had become one of the more efficient quarterbacks in the league. He threw for 3,116 yards and had an amazing TD-to-INT ratio of 27-7. With the development of Dwayne Bowe, a new stable of wide receivers and another year of experience, I expect the Chiefs offense to be much more balanced this year. I don’t expect the Chiefs to be #1 in rushing, but I do expect them to be much better than #30 in passing. Last year the Chiefs were #12 in total offense despite their passing game. This year with better offensive balance they should crack the top ten. My prediction is that Cassel will throw for more than 3,500 yards, but he probably cannot duplicate his TD-to-INT ratio. Predicting 26 TDs and 12 INTs. Anything better than 2-to-1 is good enough.
5. The defensive line is improving. I am in the minority on this one, but I like how the defensive line is coming together. Glenn Dorsey has gotten better every year. Kelly Gregg is an upgrade over Ron Edwards at nose tackle. Wallace Gilberry brings the heat. Amon Gordon could be this year’s Shawn Smith. Rookie Allen Bailey, nicknamed “The Freak”, adds much needed depth and athletic ability to the line. And the Chiefs think they have their nose tackle of the future in rookie Jerrell Powe. (Great article on Powe in the Star recently. Read it here.)
6. Consistency and coaching. Even with the loss of offensive coordinator Charlie Weis, the Chiefs have put together a solid coaching staff. Romeo Crennel is in his second year as defensive coordinator. I love the addition of Jim Zorn to help the quarterbacks. And head coach Todd Haley showed significant progress in his ability to lead the team from year one to year two.
Four Reason for Concern
1. The offensive line. Last year the offensive line was receiving a lot of praise for the Chiefs #1 rushing attack. I credit Jamaal Charles much more than I do the line. Second year guard Jon Asamoah replaces the veteran Brian Waters. In the long run this is the right move. Waters is at the end of his career, and is not the player he once was. But Asamoah is not Brian Waters yet. Center Casey Wiegmann is old, small and has never stood up well against big, powerful nose tackles. Rookie Rodney Hudson is the heir apparent in the middle, which could come sooner rather than later. Branden Albert is serviceable at left tackle, but has not become the player the Chiefs had hoped for. And right tackle Barry Richardson struggled mightily during the preseason. If tackle Jared Gaither is healthy and can play at right tackle, that would help a lot.
2. The injury to tight end Tony Moeaki will be tough to overcome. Moeaki is a matchup problem for opposing defenses, and figured to play a significant role in the offense. Without him, the Chiefs do not have a pass catching threat at tight end.
3. The jury is still out on defensive tackle Tyson Jackson. Many have already written him off as a bust. My hope is that he makes the same strides forward from year two to year three that Glenn Dorsey made last year. I’m rooting for him, but I think this could go either way.
4. The Chiefs defense must improve. Last year the Chiefs were ranked #14 against the run, #17 against the pass, and #14 in total yards allowed per game. With improvement from the secondary and an improved pass rush, I expect the pass defense to be better. But will their run defense be better? I don’t know.
Predictions for the AFC West
This is really a two horse race for the AFC West. I would be incredibly surprised if either the Oakland Raiders or Denver Broncos surpassed six or seven wins. That leaves KC and San Diego to fight it out for the AFC West title. Who is the coach in San Diego? Norv Turner. One of the worst coaches in the NFL in my opinion. Despite having one of the most talented rosters in the league, the Chargers have grossly underachieved in two of their last three seasons. In 2008 the team finished 8-8, and amazingly won the division. And last year finished 9-7. People keep talking about the Chiefs schedule, but the Chargers have basically the same schedule. They face all of the same opponents but two. The Chiefs face division winners Indianapolis (without Peyton Manning) and Pittsburgh. The Chargers face second place finishers Jacksonville (who I expect to be better without David Garrard) and Baltimore (a very good team who smashed us in the playoffs).
Now the wildcard is not likely to come out of the AFC West, so the Chiefs must win the division to make the playoffs. So here’s my prediction:
Kansas City Chiefs: 9-7
San Diego Chargers: 8-8
Oakland Raiders: 7-9
Denver Broncos: 5-11
You might call me a homer, but just as a reminder, I did not pick the Chiefs last year. And if the Chargers had a better head coach, I would probably pick them again this year. The Chiefs roster is improving, but the Chargers still have more talent, especially at the quarterback position.
A Final Thought
So when does a team take that final step from being a good team to an elite team? Are the Chiefs ready to make that step? It’s easy to predict that the teams who were good one year will be good the next. But we know from history that about half of the teams who made the playoffs in 2010 are unlikely to make the playoffs in 2011.
You’ve heard the cliche for years — defense wins championships. And I still believe this to be true. The Chiefs were a decent defense last year. Middle of the pack. But to make a run, they must evolve into a top ten defense. My thought has always been that you need three stars on defense to be great. And then you must surround them with the right supporting cast. When the Chiefs had those great defenses in the ’90s, they had four impact players in Derrick Thomas, Neil Smith, Dale Carter and James Hasty. And they surrounded them with an excellent supporting cast.
Last year Tamba Hali was a star, but the only one on the defense. Brandon Flowers is a very good cornerback, though not sure he’ll ever be great. Eric Berry looks like he could become a star at safety. If Derrick Johnson could just hold on to a few of those interceptions, he could be a game changer in the middle. And Justin Houston looks like he could become an impact player opposite Hali. If this defense comes together, the Chiefs have a chance to become great.