How important is your best player?

November 29th, 2011 by Lee Eldridge

So who’s to blame for the Chiefs season? Todd Haley? Scott Pioli? Matt Cassel? Clark Hunt? There’s a lot of fan anger in Kansas City as the Chiefs have stumbled to a 4-7 record. And a lot of finger pointing by fans and those in the media. Carl Peterson and Marty Schottenheimer took a struggling franchise and turned them into a winner. But they were never able to get over the hump. First the fans blamed Schottenheimer. He left. Then the fans blamed Peterson. And Gunther Cunningham. And Elvis Grbac. And Mike Solari. And Herm Edwards. And Brodie Croyle. The list is long. Today it’s some combination of Haley / Pioli / Cassel / Hunt.

But as usual, it’s rarely that simple. I have a few takes on what’s happened to the Chiefs this year, but today I’m going to focus on just one of them. How important is your best player?

Tom Brady and Peyton ManningIt’s easy to get tunnel vision when looking at your team. Let’s step outside of Kansas City for a moment. For years the discussion in the NFL has been: who is the best quarterback in the league, Peyton Manning or Tom Brady? Over the last ten seasons, Manning and Brady have represented the AFC in the Super Bowl six times with four wins between them. They’re leaders. They put up great stats. And they do nothing but win big games.

But beyond these two quarterbacks, most have considered Indianapolis and New England to be among the best franchises in the league. Bill Polian has built the Colts into perennial winners and one of the most dominant teams in the NFL. From 1999-2010, the Colts have a regular season record of 138-54.

And in New England, Bill Belichick has done much the same. With four Super Bowl appearances and three wins, Belichick is widely considered the best coach in football. From 2001-2010, the Patriots have a regular season record of 121-39, which includes 2007 when the team went 16-0. The Patriots are the only team other than the Dolphins to finish a regular season undefeated.

Manning and Brady have not only been consistent winners, they’ve remained remarkably durable. Schottenheimer used to say that a player’s best ability was availability. And when you’re talking about an elite quarterback, nothing could be more true. But what happens when you take away a team’s best player?

Peyton ManningIn 2008 we got a glimpse of what the Patriots look like without Tom Brady. The Chiefs knocked Brady out for the season in their first game. In came their backup Matt Cassel. A kid who shouldn’t even have been in the league. Cassel was a backup quarterback at USC, never starting a game or playing meaningful minutes for the Trojans. How did he do? The Patriots finished the season 11-5, and Cassel played very well.

And now in 2011, we’re getting a look at the Colts without Peyton Manning. The Colts are 0-11, and could quite possibly finish 0-16. They’re that bad. Quite a turnaround from a team that won the AFC South last year and finished 10-6.

What’s the lesson to be learned? New England surrounded their backup quarterback with enough talent to be successful. Indianapolis did not. If anything, this has only reinforced what an incredible quarterback Peyton Manning has been.

Now, back to Kansas City. The Chiefs lost their best player, Jamaal Charles, early in the season. And while Charles is not a quarterback, he was the engine that drove the offense. Before the season began, I had this to say:

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.

I strongly believe that the loss of Jamaal Charles, combined with a less than average offensive line, has completely derailed the Chiefs’ season. Yes, there are other factors as well. But the Chiefs have shown they cannot consistently run the ball behind this offensive line without Charles. And Matt Cassel has been under constant pressure all year. He’s had no time to find his receivers. The running game has struggled. The passing game has struggled. And the Chiefs have found it very difficult to score any points. As Len Dawson likes to say, it starts up front with the big guys.

Kansas City fans are ready to run Cassel out of town. But surround him with the right players and he can be productive as he’s proven in 2008 with the Patriots (11-5 record) and 2010 with the Chiefs (10-6 record). Cassel is not Manning. He cannot lift the team on his shoulders. He needs a strong supporting cast, and without Charles running the ball, the Chiefs don’t have the cast to be productive on offense.

It’s amazing what the loss of one player can do. Just look at Indianapolis.

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