I realize that the second half of the Chiefs' season doesn't officially start until next week, but given the bye week, it really feels like the second half of the season started on Monday. Doesn't it?
I know the idea that the Chiefs are now 0-0 starting today is cliché and may seem like a worthless statistic, but it's actually a pretty crucial measure in a rebuild. Before the season started, there were many that said they would be okay with a 4-12 record as long as the team looked like it was improving throughout the year and as long as the bulk of those wins came in the second half of the season. Hopefully that second half momentum would carry through to 2010.
Because to me, the second half of the season in a rebuilding year is a pivot point. The first half of the season revolves around testing and learning. Lather. Rinse. Repeat. You throw a lot of young guys into the fire and some hop out of the fire, while many of them smolder. You give players time to buy into a new offensive and defensive philosophy, to buy into a new coaching staff and a new culture. In the case of the Chiefs, you have to coach players to play in entirely different schemes. Not just the 3-4. It's a completely new blocking scheme. It's a completely new offense.
The second half of the season should represent a point where players either get it or they don't. You can't dangle the same excuse that players are still learning. Todd Haley gets that. He was pretty out of character in his last press conference. I was expecting him to rant and rave about what a lousy performance his team put in against the Chargers. They certainly deserved the criticism. Instead, Haley focused on the positives. Haley was obviously more excited that his players were starting to "get it," even if his team got routed in that effort. As a motivational tool, it gives the players a fresh start. When the playoffs are out of reach, it's very easy to lose motivation, especially when the first half of the season was so frustrating. If the Chiefs play solid football for the rest of the season, they'll celebrate their improvement and that will carry over week after week.
Another reason the Chiefs' second half should technically start this week is that there is also a major pivot in terms of schedule strength. Their remaining schedule is significantly weaker than it was in the first half. They got the entire NFC East out of the way and they've already taken on one of the AFC North's behemoths. In the second half, the Chiefs get Jacksonville, Buffalo, Oakland, and Cleveland. While none of those games are shoo-ins, they are winnable games. Contrast that with the first half of the season, when the Chiefs only really had two (Oakland and Washington).
Don't get your hopes up. If the Chiefs win 4 games or more in the second half of the season, that would be pretty remarkable. Rather than obsess over wins/losses, here are two things you can look out for: 1) are the Chiefs improving as a team? 2) are the Chiefs getting a lot of improvement from their foundational guys or from their stopgaps? Here are some things to watch for in the second half of the season:
- Can they get 3 to 4 wins? If the Chiefs win 3 to 4 more games, that will be a huge accomplishment for a Chiefs' team that is currently on pace to match their pathetic 2-14 record from last season.
- Watch Branden Albert's progress. I haven't given up on Albert. People forget that he's learning to play at a completely different weight in a completely different blocking scheme. I wouldn't pay too much attention to the rest of the line. Remember, we're focusing on improvement that can carry over to next season. I hope that Mike Goff improves his pass protection only because it helps Cassel develop as a pocket quarterback, but who really cares about how that impacts the Chiefs in the long-term? Goff and Niswanger aren't a part of the answer after this season, and I'm not entirely sure if O'Callaghan does either.
- We need to resign ourselves to the fact that Matt Cassel will probably never have great protection this season. It is what it is. You'd still like to see him improve his accuracy on intermediate routes. I personally believe he has improved markedly at getting rid of the ball faster, but he'll need to get better at that too. That means picking up blitzes. All of those things.
- Consistency on the Defensive Line. Forget about tackles and sacks. When you watch Glenn Dorsey and especially Tyson Jackson, hopefully you'll see some fundamental improvements in each of these guys. Jackson, as expected, is horribly inconsistent as a 5-technique Defensive End, but with Vrabel helping Jackson to understand the position, you hope he'll start to get it. Once Jackson and Dorsey both start to consistently get it, you're going to see some major improvements in both the run defense and our pass rush.
- The running game is an interesting situation, because it feels like they might have one piece, but it's unclear whether they have the full puzzle. Jamaal Charles has the upside to be a nice complementary back. And that back is probably not Kolby Smith, nor is it any other back on this roster. Consider the primary back in KC to be a stopgap and pay close attention to Charles. Charles has flashed potential, but he hasn't shown it with any consistency. The Chiefs will hopefully use the rest of the season to see how high that ceiling actually is.
- Unless Dajuan Morgan kicks some serious butt, none of the Chiefs' safeties have played well enough to justify keeping their job in 2010. That includes Page, as sad as that it is to say.
- This might turn a few heads, but I think Dwayne Bowe has a lot to prove over the course of the season if he wants to be this team's go-to receiver threat. With his inconsistency, his knack for dropping key passes on key third downs, and his knack for disappearing in stretches, one has to call into question whether he has any future as the Chiefs' primary target. He would undoubtedly make an outstanding #2 receiver. I can't help but wonder if much of his previous success was due to the presence of Tony Gonzalez. However, no matter which way you slice it, the Chiefs will need wide receiver help at some point. After all, Chris Chambers isn't going to be any kind of a long-term solution.
Mike Vrabel. Yeah, that sounds weird, because he's clearly not in the Chiefs' long-term plans. But one of the key foundational elements to the Chiefs' defense is the progression of Tyson Jackson. If Jackson does his job, you never notice it, but you might see Vrabel get progressively better as the season goes along. So on the one hand, you can pay attention to Tyson Jackson and see how he progresses; on the other hand, if that's too boring for you, then watch Vrabel instead and see if he's getting absorbed by blockers.
- The offensive line is what it is. I just don't see any long-term options on the line outside of Albert. The starters aren't very good and the backups don't have any real upside. You hope Waters can milk out a few more productive years. You hope Albert continues to improve. The rest of the line, you just hope that they can become as "not horrible" as they can possibly be. That's a sad reality that we have to face.
The Chiefs need to start fresh and forget about how frustrating the first half of 2009 was. You can't walk in to the second half of the season with the expectation that the Chiefs will somehow, magically pull a playoff season out of their back pocket. However, if the Chiefs see some improvement in the above areas and steal a few wins along the way, that's a very good thing for the team.