It's interesting that whenever fans talk about improvement for a bad team like the Chiefs, they always talk about how the team needs to drastically change to improve. They create a doomsday scenario where the only way the Chiefs can be competitive in 2010 is to add 1 Nose Tackle, 2 Inside LBs, 2 Outside LBs, 2 Safeties, 1 Nickel Back, at least 1 Guard, 1 Right Tackle, 1 Center, 1-2 Wide Receivers, 1 Fullback, 1 Power Back and maybe 1 QB. If the Chiefs don't make those 15 moves, the Chiefs are doomed to face another lousy season
Not only is that view overly pessimistic, it's also unrealistic. Even great teams like the 16-0 Patriots of the past and the Saints and Colts of today have strong teams with a few holes here and there. How about the 2009 Packers, a team that is playing extremely well despite an abysmal offensive line? How about the 2008 Arizona Cardinals, a team that made the Super Bowl with a very flawed defense? I would argue that the Chiefs could have had at least an average season if a few small things were done a little bit differently. There were a few losses where the Chiefs were flat-out embarrassed, but there were other games where the difference between a win and a loss might have been a dropped pass, a poor early-game coaching decision, or below average quarterback play early in the game.
For as bad as the Chiefs played in 2009, they won 4 games and could have easily won up to 9 had they beaten Oakland, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Buffalo, and Dallas--five losses that they could have legitimately won. That's over a .500 season. Not bad for a miserable team. So it occurs to me that while it would be amazing if the Chiefs added 10 pro bowl calibre players, there's reason to believe that marginal improvement in certain areas might be just enough to make this team competitive enough for an 8-8 season.
So this post is going to avoid the obvious suggestion that loading this team with star-calibre players will make this team better. Duh. That viewpoint is especially doomed if a new CBA isn't passed and quality second-contract free agents are off the market. I'm obviously not advocating that the Chiefs do nothing. I'm obviously not saying that a .500 season is good enough. And yes, I realize that a .500 season after a do-nothing season is a best-case scenario. Still, I am trying to suggest that this team is not far away from being average and I want to start talking about how they can improve on some of those game-changing little things.
Let's talk about why the Chiefs should improve in 2010, even without making big moves:
- Strength of Schedule: The good news is from a strength of schedule standpoint, the Chiefs can't get a much tougher schedule than the one they got in 2009. The NFC East continues to be the toughest division in football and the AFC North is tough too, even if not as tough as many originally predicted. Looking at the 2010 list of opponents, the Chiefs will face a very tough NFC South and a very easy NFC West with Cleveland and Buffalo being their off-games. Nice. The AFC West should be easier with the Broncos losing forward momentum toward the end of the season and the Raiders... still being the Raiders. The Strength of Schedule percentage-wise is basically the same, but let's put it this way. 2009 AFC North > 2010 NFC West (by a mile). 2009 NFC East > 2010 AFC South. Buffalo = Buffalo. 2009 Jaguars > 2010 Browns. Across the board, the schedule in 2009 is tougher than 2010. From a winnability standpoint, the Chiefs will square off against eight sub .500 teams in 2010. The Chiefs were grossly outmatched by the best teams on the schedule, but they fared well against average to below-average teams for the most part. More winnable games = better chances to win.
- Better Scouting: It's not a given that the Chiefs will scout better in 2010, but there's a lot of good reason to believe that they could. Scott Pioli conducted the 2009 draft with borrowed scouts. That doesn't mean that the scouting network assembled by Bill Kuharich and Chuck Cook was lousy; however, it's hard to imagine they were on the same page with Pioli especially given that they only had a few short months to get any kind of alignment. Scott Pioli hired Phil Emery from the Falcons and several new area scouts to handle the Chiefs' college scouting. They've had a full year to get on the same page and to scout specifically based on what Pioli and Haley want. It's hard to imagine that won't make them much sharper in their evaluations. Given that I was pretty unsatisfied with the 2009 draft, I would think that there's nowhere to go but up. How much this actually makes a difference remains to be seen. However, the Chiefs' talent at some positions is so bad that even a marginally contributing rookie would outplay the current veteran starter. Logically, the more rookie upgrades we get at key positions, the better this team will be. Small improvement = one more impact player to help you win close games.
- Better Sleepers: See how I transitioned into the next point? I got some criticism in my last post for suggesting that the Chiefs didn't draft well in 2009. Maybe it is too soon to tell, but I think most would still agree that the back-end of the draft was pretty ho-hum. Of course, that's excluding Ryan Succop, but drafting Kickers isn't nearly as scientific as drafting the other guys. There are many that believe that credit for later round successes belongs to the scouts. Unfortunately for the Chiefs, they traded away two of those late round picks for Jake O'Connell, Ikechuku Ndukwe, and Andy Alleman (two trades they might want back), so the back-end picks will be more limited this season. However, I expect improved scouting to improve the calibre of fourth/fifth rounders and undrafted players they bring in.
- Focus on Depth: Depth is arguably the most underrated quality for a team. In areas like the Defensive Line, depth gives your starters a breather and keeps them fresh for later in the game. At RB, it can add a new wrinkle to your offense. At all positions, it keeps your team from falling sharply when key players get injured. I think losing Glenn Dorsey for the Cleveland game was more devastating than people realize and a very large part of why Jerome Harrison had a career day against the Chiefs. A lot of players we label as bad starters would actually make solid backups (Mike Brown, John McGraw, Rudy Niswanger, etc...). If this team brings in some better starters and some of our current starters become backups, then when they lose a player for any extended period of time, they should expect to suck a little bit less. Arguably, that could be the small difference that turns one of those close losses into a win.
- Focus on Continuity: I would hope that Todd Haley learned his lesson that he has to do a better job of letting his players gel together. When he plays musical chairs with the receivers, that throws off the timing between the Quarterback and Receivers. Same with the Offensive Line. The offensive line is starting to finally show some signs of gelling, and you would hope that Cassel can improve if he can work with his receivers for a full offseason.
- Improvement from Young Players: Let me first address Matt Cassel, even though he's technically not considered "young." At this point, he is what he is. I have significant doubts as to whether he can ever be a franchise Quarterback and personally believe his ceiling is lower than some optimists suggest, but I do think he can improve. I do think we eventually need a franchise quarterback and we have yet to see if Cassel is that guy, but again, we're focusing on only small improvements. And with a better offensive line, more reps with receivers, better playcalling, and a dedicated quarterbacks coach, it's hard to imagine Cassel won't see at least small improvements. At Defensive Line, you have the core draft class reaching the peak of their learning curve. Brandon Flowers and Jamaal Charles are almost there, and I think we can expect continued improvement from Branden Albert, Glenn Dorsey, and Brad Cottam. I also hope that Tyson Jackson will see the same kind of turnaround in his sophomore season that Dorsey saw, which will go a really long way to shoring up the Chiefs' run defense. It's hard to imagine that any of these players will get worse and easy to imagine how each of them could get better. Even marginal improvement helps the Chiefs make plays and, more importantly, prevent costly mistakes that have costed them in close games.
- Improvement from a Young Coach: I know this is more an excuse than anything, but I continue to wonder if Haley's bizarre game management in 2009 is the product of not knowing any better or if there's some other underlying reason. There are several reasons to believe Haley could improve in 2010. First, Haley is a young coach learning the game and you'd hope and expect he learns from his mistakes. Second, Haley is much too young to be handling the kind of workload he gets. If you surround him with two or three more assistant coaches, those guys should not only provide some checks and balances when Haley goes off the cuff, but also keep him just a little less tired and therefore mentally agile on game day. Finally, I can't help but wonder if Haley makes the same kind of aggressive decisions if he trusts his team a little bit more. When it's 4th and short, it's tough to make the decision to punt when you feel pretty confident that the other team will score on your defense regardless of whether the other team starts at the 15 yard line or the 50. If Haley starts to trust this defense, I wonder if we'll see less reckless decisions to go for it on 4th down. This is another area where one or two improved decisions a game could have been the difference between a win or a loss.
Clearly, I'm not advocating that the Chiefs do nothing this offseason. The Chiefs' embarrassing performances against strong teams like the Chargers and the Eagles should illustrate how far away the Chiefs really are from becoming a team that can compete for the Super Bowl. That's fine. I think everyone knew that the Chiefs had to pull a miracle to become anything close to a Super Bowl calibre team in 2009. What the organization, the players, and especially the fans needed was more wins just to build the confidence that the franchise is at least heading in the right direction, and I would argue that the Chiefs weren't that far away from a 6-8 win season in 2009 and I don't see why they couldn't pull that off in 2010, regardless of the kind of offseason they have.
Because it occurs to me that there are two things the Chiefs need to do to get to the Super Bowl. They need to get the big things done (e.g. free agency, getting the coaching staff right, etc...), but they also need to start getting the little things right. And sometimes those little things come from natural changes and a few strokes of luck. So even though the Chiefs are probably 2-3 years away from being strongly competitive, hopefully that's something Chiefs' fans can look forward to this offseason.